Petar Barišić: WHITE – site specific sculpture installation

Petar Barišić: WHITE – site specific sculpture installation

EXIBITION DESCRIPTION

Exhibition title: Petar Barišić: WHITE – site specific sculpture installation
Duration: 9 Sep 2008 – 12 Oct 2008

WHAT IS BEHIND THAT CURTAIN? It was a large room. Full of people. All kinds. And they have all arrived at the same building at more or less the same time. And they were all free. And they were all asking themselves the same question: What is behind that curtain? Laurie Anderson

IMG_0449.JPG4v webIn Writing Degree Zero, Barthes claims that writing “is the moral of the form”. For me, this statement by a highly influential semiologist made half a century ago comes to mind inevitably as important to a reading of the sculptures and spatial installations of Petar Barišić, the more so that in many of Barišić’s pieces the concept of writing is explicitly present as referent. In another place Barthes says that writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where the subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing. Having buried the author, the modern scriptor no longer believes, according to the pathetic view of his predecessors, that his hand is too slow for his thought or passion, and that accordingly he has to emphasise this delay and indefinitely polish the form. On the contrary, the hand cut off from any voice, borne by the pure gesture of inscription (and not expression) traces a field without origin—or which, at least, has no other origin than language itself, language which ceaselessly calls into question all origins. I cite this for a simple reason: the performative of Barišić’s pieces is manifested precisely by the calling into question of all origins; concretely, not just the origin of forms in which individual special configurations that he produces are objectified, but also the origins of the concept of sculpture and ultimately of the very concept of space. And so, being disinclined to the standard classification of his works both early and recent according to their formal features, on the basis of which it might be possible to categorise the way they belong to certain trends and tendencies in modern art for which the disciplines of art history and criticism have worked out a precise nomenclature, I would identify as particularly significant in Barišić’s work the bronze sculpture of 1989 called Cosmic Glove. For it is highly apparent that Cosmic Glove is a paradoxical form and that as the subject of interest in Barišić’s thirty-year-long work as a sculptor I identify precisely as the paradox of form, if we prefer it the paradox of the category of sculpture or more precisely the phenomenon of the impossible object. The sculpture Cosmic Glove, furthermore, is a representation of the phantasmatic object the referent of which slips along the blurred border of the areas of the real and the imaginary. In language, as symbolic system inseparable from the concept of writing, which is after all the lasting subject of interest in Barišić’s work, there is the syntagm of the inside-out glove. The performative effect of this syntagm is manifested in the relativisation, indeed in the mining of binary oppositions on which language is founded, and hence our idea about reality, produced by language. The inside-out glove blurs the border between the factuality of full and empty, positive and negative, hollow and fill, and ultimately of substance and non-substance, of what both is and cannot be seen. And so I shall invert the question. The Cosmic Glove, as Mladenka Šolman has precisely put it, “is a liminal work from which we measure the new time of Barišić’s sculpture. The formal reduction and clarity of arrangement of this work set the artist off in the direction of sculpture-cum-construction, to a more rational and integral language.” Mladen Lučić too underlines the significant change in Barišić’s work during the nineties, saying that “the exhibitions of Kazimir Malevich and the Ukrainian avant-garde in the Museum of Contemporary Art in Zagreb in 1990 had an important role in the future deliberations and uncertainties of this artist, and he rapidly resorted to a certain reductionism and elementariness in his original creativity.” Finding the reason for Barišić’s inclination to Constructivist thinking in the fact of the onset of the Homeland War, and claiming that “it was necessary to respond appropriately to the new situation with a condensed, sharp and direct language, where there was no room any more for spiritual and formal get-outs” Lučić identified the bronze sculpture In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde of 1991 as being paradigmatic. In the procedure of the conceptualisation of Barišić’s work with the concept of modern art, in conjunction with the fuzzy border that is supposed to separate modernism from post-modernism, this statement of Lučić’s gives ground for thought at several levels. Above all it is a rebuttal of the apolitical formalism, produced with the rhetoric of Greenberg, imported into Europe as a kind of credo of High Modernism after the war, in an obscure alliance between the State Department and the New York Museum of Modern Art. The rhetoric of High Modernism with its neutralism and its requirements for purity of form and of every individual artistic medium was to become in Croatia, during the 1950s, a support for those trends in art that, turning their backs on the social-realist needs at the level of recognisable forms, drew upon the heritage of the historical avant-gardes, and primarily on the heritage of Constructivism of Soviet origins. For decades this discourse worked successfully not only in the processes of artistic production, but above all at the level of the critical reception that with the “apolitical” rhetoric of “abstract form” guaranteed this production social legitimacy. Barišić’s sculpture In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde draws upon the heritage of Soviet constructivism at a morphological level only. In terms though of structure, syntax and performance it refutes all the principles on which the work of the Ukrainian avant-garde Constructivists was founded. The performative structure In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde speaks out in the relationship between its material appearance and its own referent as indicated in the title. This is the relation of the inside out glove. The Soviet Constructivists, as we know, insisted on replacing the form-creating principle of composition by the construction principle. But Barišić’s sculpture is paradigmatically composition. And then, the Constructivists thought of themselves as engineers of ambiences appropriate to human dignity. This dignity could have been accomplished only through a revolution in perception, and hence one insisted on the perceptibility not only of space as organic and dialectical fact, but of industrial materials, from which individual spatial constructions were made. This choice of materials was intended to make visible the essential difference from the function the of art that preceded theirs, and that, in their way of looking at the state of affairs, offered instead of factuality and genuineness merely illusion. The honour done to the Ukrainian avant-garde by Barišić was produced with a classic sculptural form done with the most classical and most expensive sculptural material, bronze. In this way the sculpture In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde is a monument. Sculpture working as monument, which, by definition, requiring historical memory, tells of the importance of the place in which it is placed. It is worth wondering why the artist would want to erect a monument to the Ukrainian avant-garde in Zagreb in 1991. 

Petar Barišić Bijelo završna faza 057 webIn the procedure of the conceptualisation of Barišić’s work with the concept of modern art, in conjunction with the fuzzy border that is supposed to separate modernism from post-modernism, this statement of Lučić’s gives ground for thought at several levels. Above all it is a rebuttal of the apolitical formalism, produced with the rhetoric of Greenberg, imported into Europe as a kind of credo of High Modernism after the war, in an obscure alliance between the State Department and the New York Museum of Modern Art. The rhetoric of High Modernism with its neutralism and its requirements for purity of form and of every individual artistic medium was to become in Croatia, during the 1950s, a support for those trends in art that, turning their backs on the social-realist needs at the level of recognisable forms, drew upon the heritage of the historical avant-gardes, and primarily on the heritage of Constructivism of Soviet origins. For decades this discourse worked successfully not only in the processes of artistic production, but above all at the level of the critical reception that with the “apolitical” rhetoric of “abstract form” guaranteed this production social legitimacy. Barišić’s sculpture In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde draws upon the heritage of Soviet constructivism at a morphological level only. In terms though of structure, syntax and performance it refutes all the principles on which the work of the Ukrainian avant-garde Constructivists was founded. The performative structure In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde speaks out in the relationship between its material appearance and its own referent as indicated in the title. This is the relation of the inside out glove. The Soviet Constructivists, as we know, insisted on replacing the form-creating principle of composition by the construction principle. But Barišić’s sculpture is paradigmatically composition. And then, the Constructivists thought of themselves as engineers of ambiences appropriate to human dignity. This dignity could have been accomplished only through a revolution in perception, and hence one insisted on the perceptibility not only of space as organic and dialectical fact, but of industrial materials, from which individual spatial constructions were made. This choice of materials was intended to make visible the essential difference from the function the of art that preceded theirs, and that, in their way of looking at the state of affairs, offered instead of factuality and genuineness merely illusion. 

Barisic centralna skulptura web The honour done to the Ukrainian avant-garde by Barišić was produced with a classic sculptural form done with the most classical and most expensive sculptural material, bronze. In this way the sculpture In Honour of the Ukrainian Avant-garde is a monument. Sculpture working as monument, which, by definition, requiring historical memory, tells of the importance of the place in which it is placed. It is worth wondering why the artist would want to erect a monument to the Ukrainian avant-garde in Zagreb in 1991. He did this two years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, symbolic act marking the fact that the celebrated Iron Curtain had at last been torn, that a new age had arrived, a period in which, among other things, the revolutionary edge of the Soviet artistic experiment would at last be integrated into the global culture industry. It would become a sign voided of signification. It is in this phenomenon of the sign exhausted of significance that I see the reason for which Barišić produced his monument to what had made an intransigent demand for construction in the form of composition reminiscent of emblem, in a material more durable than memory. However, at the same time as the bronze sculpture, Barišić did a sculpture more or less identical in composition and form out of raw wood. This sculpture is no monument, even less is it a sketch for the bronze. It is another thing. A letter that in spite of the object searches for the sense of a sign that has been emptied of its signification. A year later, in 1992, Barišić did two bronze sculptures in smaller formats that I would consider crucial for responding to his later and formally very different works created at the end of the nineties and in the first decade of the 21st century. These are the sculptures Guardian of the Phoenician Mystery and The Art of Archery. The forms that he uses in them belong to the Constructivist iconography of the historical avant-gardes. However, they here literally function as an optical illusion, paradoxically, as a trompe l’oeil, principle that Constructivism and the entire rhetoric of Modernist purism rejected in contempt. What blows up the sense of the scene produced with the discourse of the discipline of art history – let us call it here the system of abstract forms, is the narrative titles of these sculptures, which carry the process of the construction of the meaning of a sculpture as plastic sign off into some other directions. I shall recall that in Elements of Semiology Barthes states that objects, images and gestures can signify, and abundantly do so, but never on their own, for every semiological system is intertwined with language. The visual substance, for example, endorses its own meanings by combining with the linguistic message in such a way that at least part of the iconic message is in a structural relationship of development or replacement of the language system. It is this structural relationship of the linguistic and the iconic message that turns Barišić’s sculptures away from the Constructivist imperative of rationalisation towards the area of the unconscious, to an area that was the basic subject of interest of another historical avant-garde project of the 20th century, of Surrealism. Hal Foster claims that Anglo-American formalism thinks Surrealism a deviant movement in art: inappropriately visual and impertinently literary, relatively careless of the imperative of form and on the whole indifferent to the rules of genre, a paradoxical avant-garde obsessed with infantile states and old-fashioned completely non-modernist forms. This very deviancy might have made Surrealism an attractive item for neo-avant-garde artists, who disputed this hegemonic model three decades before: as impensé of a Cubocentric history of art, Surrealism could display the ideological restrictions of this narration. But this was not the case. Since a backing for this formalist model of Modernism was found in the autonomy of modern art as separate form of social practice and since it was based on visual experience, its antagonist, the neo-avant-garde form of modernism, put forward two movements, Dada and Constructivism, which seem to be the most thoroughly at odds with this visual autonomy. These movements, like Dada, endeavoured to break up the distinct and separate institution of art in an anarchic attack on its formal conventions; or like Constructivism tried to transform them in line with the materialist praxes of the revolutionary society. In this ferment, Surrealism was lost again. The neo-avant-gardes who rebutted the formalist approach of the fifties and sixties also thought it rotten: from the point of view of technique it was kitsch; from that of philosophy subjective, and hypocritically elitist. This reflection of Foster’s on the relation of High Modernism and Surrealism strikes me as being particularly important in comprehending the social and cultural context in which Barišić’s sculpture made its debut in Croatia in the early eighties. For the Croatian mainstream in art was formed in the period from the fifties to the early nineties, referring precisely to the phenomena that in art history classifications and periodisations are called the neo-avant-gardes. It was in this discursive setting, where reminiscences of the Surrealist relativisation of the concept of reality were undesirable, that Barišić’s early sculptures done in raw wood were created, the reviews seeing them in the terms of “organic structure”, greeting his later “reductionist” procedures in the sense of a qualitative advance that brought the artist’s oeuvre closer to international High Modernism. I would now go back to the Guardian of the Phoenician Mystery, the title of which, and the spatial disposition of the non-representational forms taken from the Cubo-Constructivist repertoire, activated a metonymic chain through which the signified of this plastic sign was to become literally that Barthesean field with no source. In its composition, the sculpture has associations with the body of the Sphinx. The Sphinx, as we know, set a riddle to be answered. The unriddling, or the failure to unriddle, as cultural history teaches us, has fatal consequences. Both Oedipus and the Sphinx are the losers. The Phoenician mystery could be a script. It is known that the systems of signs that we call modern scripts derived from Phoenician writing; however, the Phoenician script is an adapted proto-Canaanite script that was created under the influence of Egyptian hieroglyphs. Where, then, is the source? At the foundations of the Egyptian writing system there are logograms or ideograms, graphic signs that represent a certain concept. Barišić’s Guardian of the Phoenician Mystery is objectified in a form like an ideogram. Which of the possible concepts does it represent?

P_Barisic otvorenje webI might ask the same question in the case of the sculpture The Art of Archery. The metonymic chain set up by the identity of the title of Barišić’s sculpture and the translation of a book by German philosopher Eugen Herrigel [Zen and the Art of Archery in English], extends here to a cultural context very different from that connoted in the Guardian of the Phoenician Mystery. Zen would be in binary opposition to the tradition of Western civilisation among the emblems of which lies High Modernism. Herrigel, however, writes: “The archer ceases to be aware of himself as someone absorbed with hitting the centre of the target facing him. This state of unconsciousness is possible to achieve only when someone who is perfecting his technical skills can completely empty and get rid of himself. He then becomes at one with the perfection of his technical skill, although in this he becomes something of a totally different kind, something unattainable to any kind of progressive study of art.” This text takes me back again to Barthes’ reflection on writing as a neutral, composite, oblique space from which the subject has slipped out, a negative in which all identities are lost, including the very identity of the writing body. I know that there is a close relationship between calligraphy and Zen. Barišić practised his calligraphic idiolect in the Object-Reliefs that came into being some ten years after The Art of Archery, at the same time as Spatial Curtains and Contrivances, which are also calligraphy, that is, a script devoid of its base, the investigation of an infinite field without a source. In the Objectives-Reliefs I can recognise ideograms devoid of referents. Their spatial extensiveness that is ostensibly repetitive after all is not that – for the sequence and the rhythm of repetition does not exist – shows something that takes the thinking through of the plastic object not only regardless of the classic sculpture composition terms, the avant-garde principles of construction, but also of the LeWitt-style invention of rationalising structure. The white Objects-Reliefs are produced in the form of ideograms made of slender wooden laths closed in a shallow wooden box that wants the front and thus opens up the possibility for its contents to be touched, paradoxically – a sign devoid of materiality. In the progressive multiplication, transformations of the field of the sign occur. It is possible to speak here of a modular principle; not however of the structure, but of the texture, the self-generating text that denies every form. In one place Barthes recalls that etymologically text is textile, fabric. Barišić’s Spatial Curtains and Contrivances are created according to the same principle, a principle totally opposite to LeWitt’s Variations of Incomplete Open Cubes, to which they are superficially similar. For LeWitt’s open cubes will, during the mental process, be completed, they are logical, ideational or if you like abstract, possible objects. The cubes with the modulations of which Barišić builds the Spatial Curtains and the Contrivances are a closed system of opaque, permutating ideograms that in their geometrical progression with their multiplying perspectives will never synthesise the sign of a logically fathomable meaning. Like Escher’s Cubes with Magic Ribs, Barišić’s module too is an impossible object. The white cube, that leads me to the concept of the white script so dear to post-structuralism. The script that inevitably raises the issue of the morality of form. If I say that Barišić, with the monumental, site-specific installation conceived for erectin in the interior of the Art Pavilion in Zagreb takes issue with the concept of the white cube, then I shall aver again that his materialising script is investigating the field without a source. At one pole I will place O’Doherty’s anthology-piece writing Inside the White Cube, at the other Duchamp’s also classic cage filled with white dice and called Why Not Sneeze, Rose Sélavy?, wishing to state that polarisation is impossible. In the referential field of O’Doherty’s text, Duchamp’s contraption and Barišić’s white cube, which has grown, like Alice, to enormous dimensions inside the fabric of the Art Pavilion, I can recognise as the subject of interest the concept of the cage. The cage, the bars of which are created with discursive practices, among them the practice that we call art criticism or history. At the dawn of High Modernism, in 1921, Duchamp cast the glove into the face of retinocentric reception with a white sugar cube, replacing it with identical if not the same marble. In 1976, Brian O’Doherty, theorist and artist, published a text in which he claimed that the gallery was constructed according to laws as rigorous as those for the construction of the churches of the Middle Ages. The external world may not penetrate the gallery, its walls are white, windows closed, and the ceiling has become a source of light. Here is the perfection of the modernist transposition of the perception of life to formal values. O’Doherty calls this condition one of the terminal ailments of modernism. Post-modernist critical discourses, so-called, in their reflections on the terminal illnesses of modernism made use of Lyotard’s term of language games, a term that I would personally understand as a statement of the impossibility of polarisations and the terror of binarisms, statement of the implausibility of the rhetoric of pogress, and demand for the legitimacy of re(tro)gression. It is possible in Barišić’s script that seeks sources to discern via retrogressive perception the traces that through the impassibility of the points sticking out of the Spatial Curtains, from the gigantic white cubes, via the spatial modulators, the guardians of Phoenician and Croatian mysteries, lead to moving creatures imprisoned in the interior of tree trunks from which during the eighties his so-called organic sculptures were created. For before it became a unit of a grid, the lath was a live being, a tree. Or so I understand Mondrian’s theosophic lesson. The texture of the gigantic white cubes, the skeleton into which Barišić takes the public of the Art Pavilion, writes out a statement concerning the imprisonment of the living being in its own history, which, if one is to believe Foucault, is nothing but the being itself enmeshed in the semantic net that connects it with the world. And so it was necessary literally to underlight, to direct the gaze towards what is below the level of the angle of vision and outside the horizon, towards the white and opaque membrane that hides the view into the abyss. The Matrix? So it was necessary ultimately to protect the walls meant for exhibition with meaning-depleted signs, through objectification, to cancel the objectness of the script. And for the end, or perhaps it should be the beginning, I shall say that the tower that Barišić has placed, like some impossible lighthouse, in the substantive centre of the building of the Art Pavilion, in its spatial focus, the space below the dome, once again takes me back to a reflection of the term of the historical avant-garde, and hence on the very concepts of both history and reality. The metonymic chain takes me on the one hand to the gigantic model of Tatlin’s Monument to the 3rd International – paradigm of construction and Constructivism, model of an impossible building to be monument to a utopia, and at the same time the seat of the organisation that has both created and destroyed this utopia, and on the other hand to the Merzbau of Schwitters, impassioned activity, I shall borrow the Bogdanović term futile mastery, in his own home. Schwitters started the construction in a studio located in the ground floor of his house, gradually transforming all aspects of the traditional cubic space into an ultimately distorted multi-perspectival spatial structure into which he built wooden painted reliefs, and filled the spaces created, the grottos, with diverse objects, even the locks of hair or socks of his friends, the artists of the avant-garde. The syllable Merz from the title Merzbau is actually a syllable of the word Komerz, a syllable the builder took over from a torn advert found on the road from the Hanover Komerzbank. Schwitters’ Merzbau at all levels rejects the idea of a space of radical rationalisation, characteristic, for example, of the avant-garde Bauhaus. Merzbau provides a space of total inefficiency, of literal dysfunction, and entirely rejects the subordination of the subject’s spatial experience to rationality, transparency and instrumentalisation. Merzbau was created during the dystopia of Weimar, Barišić’s dystopian script in the context of transitional Croatia. In the span of eighty years, there have been no formal analogies.   Leonida Kovač, curator