Judith Barry

“No one talks about those things beyond . . . beyond speech/those things beyond thinking and reason,/beyond writing and language.” These lines from a poem written by Judith Barry encapsulate her recent exhibition. In previous installations, Barry gave the spectator a pivotal role in determining the various parameters of the exhibition space. Whether Barry is investigating issues related to architecture, cinema, or gender politics, the most important element in her work is often space itself, which takes on both a visual and a verbal dimension: How, the work asks, does the viewer navigate conflicting areas of signification?

This exhibition proposed a shift from the self-contained world of the installation to a group of five unique yet interrelated sculptures. The overall title of the show, “Au bout des lèvres” (On the tip of the tongue), refers to the way in which Barry uses language and narrative as a means of representing the gap between what is spoken and what is left unsaid. When we say something is on the tip of our tongue, it has not yet, of course, been transformed from thought into speech, and these sculptures, each of which embodies some form of movement, attempted to represent the intermediate stages of language. For Barry, however, the relationship between language and the visual is one that is doomed to remain incomplete: the former can never fully represent the latter.

In the center of the gallery was an oblong object consisting of coils of red hair made from plastic thread. This assemblage spun slowly in half-turns. Looking into its core, one could see a video image of a nymphlike woman trapped in a maelstrom of hair. At various points the woman seemed to emerge from the hair, as her distance from the spectator constantly shifted. The video space was a doubling of the space of the sculpture itself, creating a kind of endless mise en abîme.

Another work consisted of a mummy-like figure wrapped in white fabric, through which a concealed projector cast the image of a woman disrobing, visible only from a particular point in the gallery. This sculpture emphasized the problematics of the spectator’s shifting position, changing in color and appearance as the viewer moved toward or away from it. A third piece was composed of a series of plastic folds that were blown by a machine into flapping waves, onto which a poem, which figured in two of the other works in the show as well, was projected; the readability of the verses depended on the position of the winglike flaps.

Perhaps the clearest example of Barry’s perceptive combination of language and object was the piece that incorporated an imitation 18th-century writing box made out of antique Chinese fabric, leather, and wood. This box was balanced on top of a spring, rather like a jack-in-the-box. The fragility of the materials and the instability of the structure were offset by a series of videos which could be viewed by raising the cover of the box. The accompanying voice-over was a mixture of prose and poetry, in which the subject was the body—the body mediated through language, careening along an uneven trajectory: “Some days I feel through it, through you. . . . It is for this body, for your body now that we have invented pain, the pain that will teach beyond obedience to pleasure. . . .” The visual images—an angry man encased in tubes, a two-headed, masked figure, an 18th-century dandy, among others—were also difficult to pin down. A modern-day Pandora’s box, this piece let loose an endless stream of ruminations on the corporeal, on our uneasy place in this world, and on the difficulty of describing it.

Michael Tarantino