PRINT March 2011


Claire Barclay

Claire Barclay, Shadow Spans, 2010, wood, grass, cotton, unfired clay, leather, soil. Installation view, Whitechapel Gallery, London. Henrietta Hale performing Dog Kennel Hill Project’s dance Figure Stuck Stuck, November 2010. Photo: Patrick Lears.

FOR HER SPRAWLING PROJECT Shadow Spans, 2010, currently on view at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, Claire Barclay has responded to the site—a former library that retains many of its original Victorian details—by creating a mise-en-scène that chimes with the building’s faintly Dickensian aura. There are large black sculptures reminiscent of window frames; door-like slabs painted light violet; sheets of cotton printed with a brickwork pattern; brass implements resembling keys, cups, and other household items; mutated top hats; leather “gloves” with only one finger; and terracotta pots. The effect is of a building turned inside out, its ghostly history returning in a jumble of domestic objects and free-floating architectural elements—a scene of entropic disarray that we are asked to contemplate like voyeurs, through those giant windows.

But if Shadow Spans initially addresses us as a pictorial tableau, it quickly explodes that frame, pulling us into a more abstract environment in flux. It is less site specific than context sensitive. The show—which went on view in May and will be up for the unusually long duration of eleven months—will involve a series of performances by three dance teams, each taking Shadow Spans as a starting point. For two weeks in January, the three dancers of the Dog Kennel Hill Project (Ben Ash, Henrietta Hale, and Rachel Lopez de la Nieta) spent all day in the exhibition, inhabiting the space with Barclay and Whitechapel visitors. Not so much responding to Barclay’s work as operating in parallel to it, the dancers developed particular movement patterns in the course of these interactions, which they incorporated into evening performances. The following two teams—dancer Matthias Sperling and choreographer Siobhan Davies, dancer Zenaida Yanowsky and choreographer Will Tuckett—will take different approaches to Barclay’s work. The dance series highlights the fact that Barclay’s is an immersive model of spectatorship, one that might be thought of in terms of choreography—an orchestrated dynamism that allows her to keep mutually exclusive characteristics in flux. Function and dysfunction, contemplation and action, precision and looseness, co-exist in constant tension.

Initially, I had reservations about the dancers, thinking their presence might be attributable to the well-known phenomenon of adding “programming” to an exhibition purely for the sake of garnering attention and attendance. But this intervention, conceived by curator Kirsty Ogg, who worked closely with Barclay in the selection of the teams, is smarter and more nuanced than that. The ways in which the dancers and Barclay test what it means to inhabit space together add something to both practices. Dance, of course, can be highly abstract, and Ogg’s deployment of dance pushes notions of abstraction to the forefront of critical considerations of Shadow Spans. If Barclay’s sculptural forms imply mundane things (doors, frames) but never settle into realistic representation of them, their abstracted contours become further estranged from any kind of legible signification when they are made to interact with the dancers’ bodies. Barclay’s works are pulled into a process, a performative register, that upends any good gestalt, any stable reading of her shapes—conferring on them the status of a kind of anti-form.

The curatorial precedent that inevitably comes to mind is Lucy Lippard’s legendary 1966 exhibition “Eccentric Abstraction” at the Fischbach Gallery in New York. Work by Louise Bourgeois, Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, and Keith Sonnier, among others, opened up hitherto-unexplored areas in the realms of materials and form. According to Lippard, eccentric abstraction—dispensing with figuration and nostalgia and privileging the sensuous and imaginative—thrives on incongruity, There is, of course, another relevant curatorial precedent here as well: Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss’s 1996 exhibition at the Centre Pompidou in Paris, “L’Informe: mode d’emploi” (Formless: A User’s Guide). Developing her ideas without recourse to Bois and Krauss’s later theorization of the informe, Lippard nevertheless established an early frame in which process and performance, as well as notions of the base and abject (the sexual or bodily, the entropic), were summoned to abolish the false binary of form and content. And certainly Barclay’s exhibition lends itself to being read through both curatorial lenses—perhaps even extending and investigating the seeming contradictions they put into play.

In fact, the same might be said of the Whitechapel’s recent programming in its entirety. Issues related to those broached by Barclay were elucidated, in radically different yet related ways, in Walid Raad’s fall retrospective, “Miraculous Beginnings,” which enfolded his oblique and at times obscure perspective on documentary materials into abstraction’s “expanded field,” as well as in the roughly contemporaneous group show “Subversive Abstraction,” which presented a defiantly abject abstraction with work by, among others, Lynda Benglis and Rosemarie Trockel. Beyond the shallow lifestyle uses of geometric abstraction, and rather than sticking to the beaten track and creating a solitary thematic exhibition on contemporary abstraction, Whitechapel is exploring the subject over time and in depth—a curatorial approach that should be deployed more often. Here, the result has been a productive thinking through of the contemporary adaptations and possibilities of abstraction.

Maria Lind is a curator and writer and the Director of Tensta Konsthall, Stockholm.