View of “Yto Barrada,” 2015. Photo: Damian Griffiths.

View of “Yto Barrada,” 2015. Photo: Damian Griffiths.

Yto Barrada


View of “Yto Barrada,” 2015. Photo: Damian Griffiths.

What does it mean to be fake? The word immediately conjures negative terms used to describe a state of deception or untruth, an assertion that is inauthentic, unreal, perhaps even a lie. The French equivalent, faux—which also, of course, registers in English—was used repeatedly by Yto Barrada in her exhibition “Faux Guide.” The show was, quite literally, a “fake guide” through actual, probable, and fictional histories of an area of Morocco that lies between the Atlas Mountains and the Sahara Desert—once the floor of an ancient ocean, described by the gallery text as an “El Dorado for fossil discoveries and exploitation.” Numerous objects, artworks, and photographs, some collected and some made by Barrada, formed a display that operated as a travelogue and an anthropologist’s haul.

On the back wall was projected a documentary-style film, Faux départ (False Start), 2015 (shown in alternation with The Tightrope Walker, 2015), depicting the landscape and its light states, focusing on the work of the fossil hunters whose businesses populate this region. A seating area was created in the middle of the gallery using traditional Moroccan pile rugs overlapping in purposeful disorder to form a wonky rainbow of blue, green, red, and yellow. Around the rugs stood plinths and vitrines presenting real and fake fossils, tools, a dinosaur replica in a crate, and a series of sculptures of reconfigured pipes, hoses, and showerheads found in Tangier’s Grand Socco plaza. The plumbing structures are anthropomorphic in form, like performers on a stage about to come alive. Plaster casts of these pipes could also be seen in a wooden vitrine.

On the walls hung many photographs, some of them found, including images of 1930s children’s toys; Untitled (painting educational boards found in Natural History Museum, never opened, Azilal, Morocco), 2013–15, consists of colorful landscapes combining photograph and paint in bright slices resembling a geological map. Each of the four walls was painted a different color on the lower half—blue, green, red, and yellow—as were the display plinths. The use of carefully composed layers of color throughout—via the carpets, paint, objects, and imagery—evoked the dramatic light and landscape of Faux départ, as if the exhibition were a conceptual rendering of the film.

The show was described as Barrada’s “personal museum, with the artist as faux guide” in the press release. Yet Barrada is more than a guide. She is also a gently subversive critic. There is a rich history of artists acting as collectors, ethnographers, and anthropologists: Think of the ethnographic site-specific work of Mark Dion, the psychoanalytical approach to archiving as a collective narrative of Ydessa Hendeles; even Mike Kelley’s esoteric treatment of high and low. Barrada’s display contained elements of these artists’ projects. But the word faux, in combination with the varied, ambiguous layers of culture and history presented, led to broader questions of value in regard to discerning what is real and what is fake. Barrada’s ambiguous, at times humorous blend of the two emphasized that everything—art, artifacts, even animals and human beings—undergoes an alteration of meaning when its context changes. The Tightrope Walker, which depicts men swiftly walking, dancing, and somersaulting across a tightrope, at first felt random, but ultimately seemed to evoke the fine line we all tread between fiction and reality. What we think of as the authentic account of a place or a people via their object histories is a constructed form that may well be faux, depending on who is telling the story.

––Kathy Noble