Phyllida Barlow is one of those artists who came under the spot light after a long career, endless experimentations and efforts. During the last decade her body of work has rapidly emerged and been showcased across the UK, Europe and the USA. As a teacher at the Slade School of Fine Art from where she stopped working in 2009 to focus solely on her own projects, her students included, amongst others, Turner Prize-winners Rachel Whiteread (1993) and Douglas Gordon (1996) as well as Turner Prize nominees Tacita Dean (1998), Steven Pippin (1999) and Angela de la Cruz (2010).
This year Barlow is the ambassador of the annual Tate Britain Commission 2014, supported by Sotheby’s. Since March, Tate’s Duveen Galleries have become the playground of Barlow’s cosmos and their vast size is analogous to the monumental proportions of her most ambitious work to date.
dock 2014 is an amalgamation of a series of sculptural installations. Engaging Arte Povera practices, they are all fabricated with inexpensive and quotidian materials such as cardboard, tape, polystyrene, timber, fabric scraps, plaster and cement.
Impregnated within colossal timber frames, three-dimensional geometric forms are embedded in curious positions. Resembling construction and industrial loci, a giant cylinder at one end and a constellation of balancing rectangular containers at the opposite end of the gallery space, are all confined in a web of timber scaffoldings.
A collapsed bricolage of objects faces an ill standing towering structure that also incorporates a myriad of items. These are flaccidly hanging above our heads and create a domain of desolation, ultimately emphasising an undefined and impending threat, simultaneously juxtaposing the fragility of our own physical hypostasis.
A curious entity comprising a perplexed biomorphic formation sprouting a pair of gigantic oar-shaped objects is suspended from the ceiling before the tribelon of ionic columns and leading the way to the main rotunda area. Here an x-rayed pyramidal matrix of wooden pallets and crates reaches up to the ceiling in an uneven and slapdash fashion, reminiscing a conceivably different adaptation of the Babel Tower; it has been abandoned incomplete, unfulfilling a collective utopian desire.
An enormous gift-wrapped column playfully looks down on the next set of marble ionic columns. Concealing its true identity, Barlow probably manifests the antithesis between the grand and sturdy neoclassical features of the original space and the ephemeral character of modern day materials, implying that size does not necessarily mean strength. It could easily be a hint for a ubiquitous memento mori, pertinent to everyone and everything.
Barlow’s Tate commission is a mature survey of the anatomy on modern industrial topography, where architectural elements are interpreted into their inferiority and temporariness. Known for her large-scale abstract sculptural installations, she dares to amplify and expand everything and introduce an invasive chaos within the given 100-yard gallery space. She certainly does not hesitate to confront us with the detritus of our own presence.
The surreal setting of Barlow’s creations somehow reminded me of the behind the scenes setting for a big production of a theatrical play or film. But above all, it vividly recalls Anselm Kiefer’s Am Anfang (At the Beginning) opera that he created in 2009 to mark the anniversary of the Opéra Bastille in Paris. Kiefer based his theme on human history and simultaneously engaged the notion that debris of history should be envisaged as a beginning and not as an end.
Perhaps Barlow’s unconscious mind handles this very philosophical approach. Her deconstructed post-apocalyptic domain may be the suggestive backdrop for the next chapter, where new beginnings will regenerate from the wreckage; a new generation of civilisation. This is undoubtedly a show of epic scale, a discourse intended to stimulate our understanding for our surrounding environment and register our nebulous existence as the medium of our past, present and future narrative.
Phyllida Barlow, dock 2014, until 19 October, Tate Britain, Millbank, London SW1P 4RG. For more information visit www.tate.org.uk.
1. Phyllida Barlow: dock 2014. J Fernandes, Tate Photography.
2. Phyllida Barlow: dock 2014. J Fernandes, Tate Photography.
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