By Elena K. Cruz
Phyllida Barlow’s cul-de-sac, at the Royal Academy of Arts to 23 June, turns the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries into both a playground and a church. She balances joy with wisdom and nature with human interpretation. Most impressively, she keeps her sculptures balanced themselves.
Her plywood, cement and spray paint structures stand in teetering positions, stretching metres above the human form. They consume the onlookers. They invite the viewers to weave among their bases. People’s necks crane as they attempt to make sense of the sight. The art and the audience dance together, so the gallery comes alive.
Barlow makes art not only out of sculpture but also from a space and its people. She says space itself is a protagonist: the air becomes a form to play with instead of to simply fill. When people interact with a place or object, the stagnant becomes alive in a way a sculpture cannot impact it alone.
“My hope would be that the work and the audience are both in a choreographic relationship,” Barlow says as she stands near the base of untitled: lintelshadow. The intersecting lines of her plaid shirt match the intersecting wood of the piece. She makes fun of her art while discussing it academically. Around Barlow, the pieces personify the artist.
I, too, become part of the installation when I walked through the gallery doors. I gasp as my eye first traces untitled: lintelshadow, which stands at the opening like a surreal hallway. Grey cement sits just under the gallery’s arched, churchlike ceiling and atop five asymmetrical sticks of plywood. Each piece of wood is less than 15 cm thick. The pieces are haphazardly bolted together. The whole piece is spray painted with multicolored polka dots. I tepidly forced myself to walk under it.
By the time I reach the end of the gallery, though, I feel childlike confidence and faith in the artist. Barlow develops an air of safety by overlaying her humour with precise attention to detail.
Cul-de-sac works as an exhibition because of Barlow’s thoughtful astuteness. She echoes the ceiling tiles in the patterns of the sculptures below. She uses the light from the windows as paint, making dark sculptures shimmer. She constructs fake shadows out of concrete, which play with the concepts of weight and light and man vs nature. The shadows then point to the next room and lead the viewer onward. Although the sculptures are large, Barlow does not lose sight of detail.
When I reach the last sculpture in the exhibition, I strut under it with ease. Untitled: blockonstilts stretches above the height of five people and combines flimsy plywood with cement. It’s a sister to the opening piece, untitled: lintelshadow. However, the wood legs of untitled: blockonstilts crisscross even more chaotically as they hold up enormous blocks with thin limbs. It’s dripping in paint. It’s exciting. It’s chaos, but it’s well-planned chaos.
Even the journey around the galleries follows a purposeful path. Viewers enter and exit the exhibition from the same door, moving in a cul-de-sac style. They peak at untitled: blockonstitlts and then reverse directions to head out. From this vantage point, viewers see Barlow’s cement shadows before the vertical structures. They face darkness, but this darkness is still jolly like a jungle gym after dark. The show doesn’t even finish once outside the doors. Two pieces sit in the hallway and stairwell, and they offer soft welcomes and goodbyes as people enter and leave Barlow’s exhibition.
Barlow’s unique take on sculpture expands from 1950s and 1960s Modernism, but she mixes in fragility with the movement’s formalism. This, too, provides a break from the structure so often seen in solid buildings.
“I’m much more interested in the absurdity of the whole medium of sculpture and what it is, the idea of making objects in a world that is crammed with objects,” Barlow says. “And then my love of the dysfunctional object, you know, that these aren’t rational objects that fit into daily life. They’re irrational, and no amount of explaining them is going to simplify that.”
In the cavernous spaces of the Gabrielle Jungels-Winkler Galleries, Barlow builds layers of life and death. She resurrects crumbling objects to build an exhibition, and she creates life by inviting people to dance with her art. The gallery breathes as people inhale, often from awe by the sheer sizes of the structures. Barlow plays with the idea of nature and man’s control of it. Humorously, she makes people remember their smallness in the universe, but only after viewing human-made constructions.