PRINT October 1990


AMONG THE SELF-PORTRAITS at the Munch-museet in Oslo there is one showing the aged Norwegian artist standing in a room between a faceless clock and a bed. Behind Munch’s back we see his studio full of paintings.1 The atmosphere is almost desperate, dense with angst, but completely without self-pity. It is an image charged with symbolic tension. Time is running out, only sleep and death await.

Per Barclay’s work shares something of this unease. His sculptural installations often resemble artificial landscapes, strange, deserted places belonging to some unknown culture. Materially they are heterogeneous—of wood, iron, glass, stone, motor oil, water. Structurally they are polycentric, fractured, and paradoxical. Their subjectivity is destabilized rather than expressively personal. Instead of steaming heat, there is salient coolness. Yet they remind me of Munch.

For Munch is “the painter of tensions”2 par excellence. And tensions—at practically every level—are decidedly a major characteristic of Barclay’s work. By “tensions” I do not mean only stark materials and structural contrasts (there are plenty of those, too); I also mean a duality, an ambivalence, of an emotional, intellectual, and existential kind. Add to this a symbolic incongruence and a disrupted stylistic continuity, and the oxymoronic character of Barclay’s work becomes perfectly evident.3

At this year’s Venice Biennale Barclay’s installation in the Nordic Pavilion consisted of two rectangular glass basins—one inside the other—placed on the floor. Both basins were full to the brim with water, the inner gently overflowing, the outer prevented from running onto the floor by a closed hydraulic circuit. A few yards away, also on the floor, Barclay had placed a quadripart iron-beam structure filled with used motor oil. At one end of the central beam, reflected in the black oil, was a roughly conical lava stone, precariously balancing on its “head.” Not a clock, but moving water; not a bed, but fossilized organic waste. And, in the middle, a literally petrified “figure.” It may seem an overinterpretation, but looking at this work, the echo of Munch’s agonizing self-portrait (which, like Barclay’s, is equally an image of our human condition) kept resounding in my mind.

It is, of course, too limited to read Barclay, who was born in Oslo in 1955, only against his Nordic background, especially since he left Norway at the age of 24 for Italy, where he still lives and works.4 What may perhaps safely be termed Nordic in his sensibility is its obsession with nature, its symbolism, and its emphasis on existential issues (if these things can be said to be typically Nordic). But, at the same time, it must be added that Barclay’s esthetic has been definitively shaped within a much broader European context.

While American contemporary art addresses issues of mediation, the image world, the media overdose, consumerism, commodification, and the degradation of meaning, authenticity, and value following in their wake, European artists tend to keep a distance from mass culture. Instead of the conflation of art and life that has characterized American art practice since the Pop era, European art, although it accepts both non-subjectivity and repetition, is reluctant to contribute to the final dissolution of art as a historical category. Simply put, in Europe art still aspires to be art, and not another thing. There, art is still hierarchical and ontological rather than “nihilist” or “anthropological.” It attempts to resist amnesia by being “an instrument of memory” and by seeing “historicity” and “facticity” in its objects.5 It still dreams of a privileged access to the real, of a real beyond the pseudoreality of simulacra and simulation. In all of these senses, Per Barclay is a European artist.6

But he is also an Italian artist. And this means that he, like most others in the younger Italian generation, has had to orient himself in relation to the two beacons on the contemporary Italian art scene: arte povera and the trans-avantgarde, theorized by Germano Celant and Achille Bonito Oliva respectively. And although there is no doubt that Barclay is much closer in his esthetic to arte povera, he was, in fact, “discovered” by Oliva, who in 1985 included him in “Nuove trame dell’arte” (New themes in art), his first show without the transavantgarde artists.7

From the start, arte povera has been characterized by an effort to discover what is already there8 rather than to add more or less “lofty” ideas to the world. As we shall see, this immanent ambition (or rather a variant thereof) is also an important ingredient in Barclay’s work. His partiality for unusual, simple, impure, or even repugnant materials is another aspect of his arte povera inheritance.9 This, however, does not mean that Barclay’s relation to arte povera is straightforward. Given his position as an intercultural “outsider,” his relation to artists like Jannis Kounellis, Michelangelo Pistoletto, and Gilberto Zorio should, I think, be interpreted in intertextual rather than in genealogical terms: it is more a question of sharing an intellectual horizon than a question of causal influence.

Moreover, the rethinking of representation that has been the main art-world issue during the ’80s has complicated both the idea of a counteruniverse so prominent at the end of the ’60s and the search for what is already there. If, as Nietzsche said, there is “no true world,” and everything therefore is “a perspectival appearance whose origin lies in us,”10 then not only art but reality itself must be regarded as an artifact, a constructum. The real may not be dead, but it must be rethought. And it is within the context of such a rethinking that Barclay’s work is best approached. He talks about his installations as “real places,”11 but at the same time he is fully aware of their symbolic dimensions.12 They are obviously artificial, yet they are a kind of landscape.

The real is not absolute, but a matter of degree. Instead of amplifying the processes of simulation and simulacra, and thereby boosting irreality, Barclay attempts to get out of this implosive short circuit by creating sites that aspire to manifest a maximum degree of immanence. His places are mundane in the strongest etymological sense: their utter concreteness and sometimes disgusting materiality (the smell of motor oil, for example) place them ontologically on a par with the integral verity of things.

Barclay does not represent space, he “spatializes,” makes his objects partake of reality by putting a fractured, paradoxical space into play. You could say with Stéphane Mallarmé that in these installations “nothing takes place but the place itself.”13 And this place is situated not in one coherent time but in multiple forms of it: the geological time of materials like lava, the real time of trickling water, the symbolic, cyclic time of a closed hydraulic circuit. These temporalities form part of their being. Their being is itself zeitlich (temporal, in Heidegger’s term).

Barclay’s relation to the exhibition space is thus discursive and dialogical. He neither appropriates the space nor treats it as a “conditioning element.”14 Instead, he considers it as a sort of “frame” from which to draw stimuli. When exhibiting in a place with a rich history, like Rome, Naples, or Athens, he lets himself become involved with its atmosphere, giving it a “sort of personal interpretation.”15 In 1989, for example, Barclay transformed the Studio Scalise in Naples into a kind of object, while the objects themselves—glass basins filled with water—literally became parts of the room. The water was itself a further spatial referent, making allusions to the legendary blue bay outside.

Barclay’s choice of materials—be it water or motor oil, iron or stone—is always exact, and he has an acute sense for creating a maximum tension between them. On occasion these tensions are playful. In an untitled piece shown at the Galleria Giorgio Persano in Turin in 1990, the marble, seeming to fly off the wall, has been made to look light, almost ethereal, a witty conceit deriving from the contrast between what viewers know of the stone’s properties and what they actually perceive. Most of the time, however, the operative tensions within Barclay’s work are far less innocent. While resolutely eschewing such traditional oppositions as symbolism/ realism, artificial/natural, or language/matter, he purposively generates an entire spectrum of others—active/passive, solid/liquid, static/dynamic, hollow/massive, slow/rapid, light/heavy, transparent/opaque, strong/ fragile, matte/glossy—that, in his hands, become resonant, even ominous.

This feeling of precariousness, of imminent threat, (which also dominates in Munch’s paintings) has several dimensions. The first, of course, is psychological. You could say that Barclay’s procedure is the reversal of that of Gordon Matta-Clark, who converted a place into a state of mind. Barclay, on the contrary, converts a state of mind into a place; a place that conjures up “that sort of anxiety each of us perceives”16 in our daily life. Another dimension is ontological. “Angst,” writes George Steiner in his book on Heidegger, “is one of the primary instruments through which the ontic character and context of everyday existence. . . is rendered naked.”17 Angst brings us face to face with Dasein (existence, being). Its connection with impending doom has to do with “the nearness and time-governing presentness of death.”18 Such anxieties and fears are conveyed in quite literal terms: Barclay’s iron basins filled with used motor oil are held upright by only a thin steel wire. A heavy construction of galvanized iron hangs dangerously close to a field of blown-glass spheres scattered on the floor. Two weighty Cretan amphorae (also containing motor oil) seem to graze the surface of the water filling the fragile glass basins below them.

Then the threat takes on existential overtones. Bar-clay’s production of antagonisms, his dialectic of extremes, often allows symbols of life and birth—especially water—to coexist with symbols of death and extinction, most prominently lava stone and motor oil. The tension between these extremes is never resolved. It is maintained by means of a radical écriture fragmentaire (fragmentary writing, in Maurice Blanchot’s term) and an intense play between conflicting elements. Apollonian formalism—a strict iron-beam structure—is opposed to Dionysian formlessness—motor oil, water, and irregular slabs of marble. This fragmentary play effectively blocks the desire to read a coherent meaning or unitary message into Barclay’s works. They remain paradoxical and oxymoronic.

Finally, this threat also functions as a metaphor for a genuine ecological concern: the threat to our life situation at large. But Barclay is no “eco-guru,” and he shuns all forms of didactics. This summer Barclay created three “luoghi reali” (real places), in Italy, Greece, and Norway, as part of a photographic project for Artforum (see tktk). In each of these so-called “Oil Rooms,” a site of impressive architectural or natural beauty and historical resonance was filled inches deep with motor oil. He showed us a living space—the pink and gold opulence of the 18th-century Palazzo Barolo in Turin, the austere simplicity of the Church of the Holy Virgin in Spetsai, the warm rusticity of an old boat house in Oksefjord — invaded by a stinking fluid and therefore rendered uninhabitable. Last year in Breda, Holland, Barclay created a more literal version of these “real places,” flooding the interior of a room in a factory, Lokaal 01, with motor oil, making the space totally inaccessible to the viewer, who could only peer through a door. As usual in Barclay’s work there is in both the photographic pieces and the installation itself a striking contrast between the enveloping presentness of the room and the exclusion of the viewer, between the beauty of the dark, reflecting surface and its unpleasant smell, between the reality of the physical environment and its mirrorlike reflections in the motor oil, between the occluded inside and the natural environment outside. (Needless to say, gestures like these take on extra significance in an oil-producing country like Norway and in light of the present oil crisis in the Middle East.)

Barclay’s “symbolic realism”19 may, given its ontic character, remind us of the Romantic longing for immediacy. But there is an important difference: Barclay knows that the “falling” of the spatialized object into a representational mode is an unavoidable aspect of its being-in-the-world, which is grounded in language. With him, nature (the place, the landscape) is artificial not simply because it “is something that we absorb over TV,”20 but, more important, because nature (the real) is not regarded as a gigantic field of data ready to be mirrored or mimicked, but as a constructum, a “work of art,” that must continually be created and recreated. It is on this ontogenetic, “demiurgic” level that Barclay’s realism finds itself. And it is from this level that his art derives its symbolic strength.

Lars O. Ericsson is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Stockholm and an art critic for Dagens Nyheter in Stockholm. He contributes regularly to Artforum.



1. Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait. Between the Clock and the Bed, 1940/1942, Munchmuseet, Oslo. Interestingly enough, Jasper Johns has noticed the coincidence between the quilting on the bed in Munch’s painting and his own cross-hatchings. Between ’81 and ’83 Johns made two paintings with the same title as Munch’s. Cf. Richard Francis, Jasper Johns, New York: Abbeville Press, 1984, p. 100.

2. Per Barclay, in an interview with Cecilia Casorati, Contemporanea 3 no. 5, May 1990,p. 89.

3. I am indebted here to Bruce W. Ferguson, who, in an interesting catalogue text, “Paradoxical Images,” for the 1989 exhibition “Abstraction in Question” (which appeared at the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, and the Center for the Fine Arts, Miami) has pointed out the connection between post-Modernism and oxymoronic structures.

4. Barclay studied design and photographic techniques in Florence. At present he lives in Turin.

5. I think Germano Celant’s analysis of the relation between American and European art in his catalogue text, “Subject in Short Circuit,” for “Implosion—a Postmodern Perspective,” Stockholm: Moderna Museet, 1987, is very much to the point. Like Celant, I regard the relation as complementary, not antagonistic.

6. In answer to my direct question, Barclay said that he looks upon his work as existing entirely within a European context.

7. Among other participants in this show, which was at the Castello Colonna, Genaz zano, in 1985, were Volker Tannert, Mike Bidlo, Herbert Brandt, Keith Haring, Domenico Bianchi, and Kenny Scharf.

8. See Celant, “Reflections of Lava” and “Continuum,” in Pistoletto: Division and Multiplication of the Mirror (catalogue), New York: P.S. I Museum, 1988, pp. 16–29, 31 and passim.

9. We need only think of Jannis Kounellis’ use of coal and butane gas, Pistoletto’s use of rags, or Mario Merz’s use of twigs and wax.

10. Friedrich Nietzsche, quoted in Allan Megill, Prophets of Extremity: Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985, p. 34.

11. Barclay, interview with Casorati, p. 89.

12. In the interview with Casorati, Barclay says: “My works are real places from which, naturally, the symbology has not been completely banished.”

13. Quoted by Sven-Olov Wallenstein, in Hype Magazine 3–4, 1989–90, p. 74.

14. Barclay, interview with Casorati, p. 89.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. George Steiner, Martin Heidegger, New York: Viking, 1978, p. 92.

18. Ibid., p. 78.

19. This term, of course, is also oxymoronic.

20. Jeffrey Deitch, Flash Art XXIII no. 153, Summer 1990, p. 168. Deitch recently curated an exhibition called “Artificial Nature” at the Deste Foundation in Athens.