At the Venice Biennale, Britain is represented by Phyllida Barlow whose career began in the late 1960s, a period documented by Lucy Lippard in her study Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (1973) but that wasn’t aimed to survive as a series of objects and paintings. Some of those paintings have been recently exhibited in 2012 (at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds) and in 2014 (at Hauser & Wirth, London).
Although she paints, Barlow sees herself as a sculptor and as such her concerns are with space and the relationship between the object and the viewer. ‘Folly’ is the name of her exhibition at the jewel-box neo-classical british pavilion. Again as in other pavilions such as the Dutch or the Israeli, artworks produce meaning only in relation with the specificity of the site, that is, of the pavilion’s building. Of course, ‘Folly’ as a title brings about ideas of post-Palladian English neo-classicism.
Her sculptures are a concoction of low-cost, light-industrial materials: in effect, the contents of a builder’s skip. Bubblewrap, tape, netting, scrim, polystyrene, timber, cement, bonding plaster (the list is apparently infinite) are detached from their usual functions. Such materials are hardly impermanent – as the vast garbage patch drawn into the North Pacific Subtropical Gyre makes clear – but as sculptural media they are very fragile. The steel armatures required for the massive scale of her newer pieces are a recent development. The overall aim has been to work quickly and provisionally, in order to make non-representational, self-reliant installations that animate their environments. In the past, smaller works have been placed on unexpected plinths (for Barlow, the plinth has never quite left sculpture) – a street grit bin, a lamppost, an ironing board, a piano or, destructively, the bottom of the Thames.
Going thorough the show makes us immediaty think of the sort of separation between knowledge and perception that we find experiencing Richar serra’s works. In his own words: ‘to roll to bend to crumple to split to remove to open to spill to lift’ but most of all, disorientate. Barlow has never liked the careful craftedness of British sculpture and, from the start, she looked abroad – not only to Serra but to arte povera and to Robert Smithson’s Asphalt Rundown (1969).
Having said this, there is something dull about this show. It is as if once you see one big piece by Phyllida you saw them all. It is a kind of work that is susceptible of comparisons and allusions but at the end of the day it doesn’t convince. Another artist that she made me think about was Charles Ray and the way his sculpture are embedded in the building and space around it. And Ray is a very good benchmark against to compare Barlow for what he does without including the building into the work ends up being unavoidable in the latter’s ‘Folly’. This show convinced me that she is a bore. J A T