New York

Judith Barry

Nicole Klagsbrun

A large mirrored cube wrapped with four large rear-projection screens may not be the most common of objects, but it is, nevertheless, familiar as a seductive apparatus of display of the sort whose mega-imagery and platinum-colored surfaces denote an epitome of entertainment and authority. Whether in a sports bar, in a museum exhibition, or in corporate headquarters, such structures immediately impose a top-of-the-line presence before which the viewer is expected to submit with complete absorption. Judith Barry’s IMAGINATION, Dead Imagine, 1991, hardly offers such ready fulfillment, for the larger-than-life image on the quadriplex screens is difficult to reconcile with pleasurable submission. What we see is a woman’s head, presented in frontal, back, and profile views. She looks straight into the camera’s eye, as though she were hypnotized. while drenching waves of effluvia resembling piss, shit, blood, and rapacious larvae pour down on her face in successive assaults without eliciting so much as a hint of expressive reaction. Again and again, defilement is followed by ablution: the excremental materials appear out of nowhere and then mercurially peel off, like masks, restoring her cleansed face to us. The odd impression created is that the vile stuff never really touches her and, even odder, that “she” and “her body” are not one and the same.

Barry’s longstanding interest in the ideology of architectural space, as the determining factor in subject formation and relations, and, consequently, in its impact upon behavioral modes of consumption. prompts us to ask what place, what space, what subject she defines in IMAGINATION, Dead Imagine. Borrowing her title from a monologue of the same name by Samuel Beckett, drawing her scatological imagery from Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror,” 1980, building the architecture of her cinematic cube after the “impossible room” in J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition, 1970, Barry sutures together a narrative fragment that dwells at the far reaches of desire. Each of the textural sources she indexes concerns a subject caught in the process of constructing and deconstructing its own identity. At the zero-degree core of the struggle to comply fully with the condition of being “I myself,” is the corporeal body and its aura of agony. Beckett’s “body,” as a subject re-creating itself in place of itself, produces a violent surge to exceed itself, and a defiant contraction from the inevitable gaping void that erupts, from loss to loss, as the body falls away. Kristeva’s subject, too, lives at the borderline where “‘I’ abject myself by the same motion by which ‘I’ claim to establish myself.” Like Beckett’s “I,” who stretches to touch the surrounding walls of a white rotunda space, or Kristeva’s “I,” who is observed by them “in the process of becoming an other at the expense of my own death,” Barry’s subject “I,” under constant surveillance, is sandwiched somewhere in between the evanescent border of television screens and the terminal void that reverberates within.

Barry’s installation, a tour de force of isolation and dis-/reembodiment, problematizes spectatorship. The esthetic pleasure of the sleek cube—whether we read it as a form of social architecture, media entertainment, or advanced art and the disgusting ordeal it displays simultaneously invoke and revoke participatory experience. But we might well ask exactly how we, who take in this spectacle and project ourselves into another’s death, fit into this scene, for without a doubt, Barry’s metaphoric projection installation is a “first-person” panopticon. Here the subject, in the process of formation and de-formation, occupies the role both of the overseer (the spectator, the “I myself”) and of the other under scrutiny (the spectacle, the abjected self). Its “she” is the place where “I” am not, and yet “she” is abjected into my world—her hypnotic trance is my fascination. She does not assimilate; she signifies the other side of the border, the remote yet imaginatively inhabited space; bridging inside and outside is the camera’s eye. Through it, “I” erase borders, “I” penetrate space, “I” enter her. The camera’s eye, the cinematic image, the reflective spaces of urban architecture, the elsewhere beyond the present that is their collective promise, in Kristeva’s words, “beckon to me and end up engulfing me.” But to what place? What space? There is, after all, nothing behind the screen, behind the representation, behind the moving image. which I pass into and out of via simple scopic attraction to a glittering surface or seductive form. Beckett’s words filter back in: “No trace anywhere of life, you say, pah, no difficulty there, imagination not dead yet, yes, dead, good; imagination dead imagine.”

Jan Avgikos