New York

Judith Barry

In most accounts of the myth of Narcissus little attention is given to the significance of Echo: she is, as it were, expelled in a breath. Condemned first by Hera (for interrupting the goddess’ spying) to repeat only the last phrase of another’s speech, she is condemned a second time by desire and Narcissus’ indifference to fade away to a distant sound—no longer a voice, even, but a listener and recorder.

Echo, however, represents more than the absence of body or speech; she appears as an effect of a transference, as a persistent mnemonic residue. Her repetition, moreover, questions the conventions of narrativity, a recurrent preoccupation in the work of Judith Barry. Echo, 1986, Barry’s newest installation, utilizes the mass media and corporate display devices of playback—audio- and videotape, film and slide projection—to reveal some of the more sinister undertones of power. A free-hanging double-sided screen reflects images of a scale that encourage an illusion of accessibility, and yet our silhouettes, as they interrupt the projection, emphasize our distance from the source of real experience.

Echo’s structuring models are those of architecture and cinema; both incorporate and elide the presence of the powerless, and both conventionally attempt to reinforce those effects by narrative (en)closure. It is this closure, insisted upon by the master legitimating narratives of power, that Barry as storyteller, works to subvert. On each side of the screen, two alternating slides containing two film-loop inserts reproduce an endless cycle of multiple scenes, repeating yet never the same, that the eye cannot grasp as a singular coherence.

Barry reproduces the story of Narcissus and Echo in terms of the business executive (the architect of power) and corporate architecture. On one side of the screen, “nature,” entombed in a glass atrium, becomes the transferred site of the “feminine”; invisible and inhabited by the “masculine” by day “she” emerges in her transparent difference by night. Narcissus is recorded as he contemplates the pool, the divers, the mirror, the male group; he is held, captivated, in a baroque infinity chamber of the self-same.

On the other side of the screen a twilight view of the 1939 World’s Fair globe and the mausoleum barrenness of the sky lobby in AT&T’s “Chippendale” building present a ghoulish reflection of a corporate world drained of real substance. The executive is now trapped within his own constructions with the shrouded remains of his creations and the anxiety of a relentless temporality Echo is glimpsed out there, in nature; but she is also here, constantly pervading our space, in the chthonic undertow of partially remembered refrains.

We may perhaps tell the story again. Barry radically addresses the position of women artists and esthetic production in a culture where creative flowering usually arises from a male birth (Narcissus’ “copulation” with his own reflection); but it can do so only across the transferred or incorporated body of the feminine. Echo willfully persists, however, as the mother’s—Hera’s—receiver and transmitter, a perpetual reminder of a body that remains elusively unaccountable.

Jean Fisher