Hans Schabus

Barbican—The Curve

The Curve gallery in the Barbican—one of London’s major performing-arts centers, located in a landmark Brutalist housing complex built between 1965 and 1976 on a thirty-five-acre site destroyed by bombing in World War II—is notorious for its awkward ninety-yard-long semi-circular shape, which curves around the back of the stage of the center’s main concert hall as a sound buffer. Hans Schabus, an artist perhaps best known for having surprised visitors at the 2005 Venice Biennale by radically transforming the Austrian pavilion into a large-scale replica of a mountain peak, was an inspired choice to deal with such a challenging spatial layout.

Schabus discovered that the height and length of the main crescent-shaped wall of the gallery are slightly greater than those of the interior of a Boeing 747. For the main work shown here, the installation Next Time I’m Here, I’ll Be There (all works 2008), he sourced 461 chairs of different styles from offices, storage areas, and back rooms of the Barbican, accumulated there since it opened in 1982, and configured them to simulate a simplified seating plan of a jumbo jet, but at a ninety-degree angle to the floor. This display would already be disorienting enough, but it is all the more so through the contrast with the other works in the show, all of which hang conventionally, placed at intervals along the walls of the room. The monumentality of the airplane, whose form negotiates seating capacity and class separation, safety and comfort, serves as a structural device for this project. Further conceptual underpinning of the installation as a form of sociohistorical study is provided by a pamphlet that examines the history, role, and impact of chairs on everyday life. Though often overlooked, they are objects on which many kinds of social control and hierarchy have been and continue to be inscribed; the seating grades and special privileges that distinguish business from economy class in air travel define just one example.

The notion of movement is a recurrent trope in Schabus’s practice; many of his works are based on journeys by land, water, or air. In this project, the idea of traveling is obviously symbolized by the airplane, but it mainly manifests immaterially, through twelve “sound spots” that evoke the transitory, invisible traffic of workers and visitors elsewhere in the Barbican complex. Recorded in back rooms and passageways, the reverberating sounds are mainly of doors opening and closing and elevators in operation; the resulting abstract noises, emitted by speakers placed along the wall opposite the main installation, seem to concentrate the entire building into one gallery.

Recombining in unlikely ways works that are interdependent with their surrounding space, itself treated as a sculptural form, Schabus’s intervention intelligently redefines the Curve not only as a new physical experience but also as a psychologically charged and yet still neutral place. At the same time, his system of inquiry, which proceeds by the compilation of evidence such as maps, found images, and his own photographs, reveals the exhibition space “naked,” stripped of its skin to expose an invisible anatomy with a history of its own. Also included in the exhibition were three large collages. One of them, Reisbrett Nr. 102 (Barbican-Riesenrad) (Drawing Board Nr. 102 [Barbican–Ferris Wheel]), attempts to formally correlate the tail of a Boeing jet with the plans of the concert hall and the Curve. Schabus’s multidirectional excavations of these spaces show him to be not just a site-responsive artist but one able to forge intellectual alliances with fields such as sociology, architecture, and design in order to define art as a form of critical intrusion, monitoring the places that he wants viewers to better comprehend.

Diana Baldon