Phyllida Barlow, demo, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Annik Wetter.

Phyllida Barlow, demo, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Annik Wetter.

Phyllida Barlow

Phyllida Barlow, demo, 2016, mixed media, dimensions variable. Photo: Annik Wetter.

Phyllida Barlow’s 2014 Tate Britain Commission dock inevitably evoked the history of the Port of London. With its motley sacks and tangles of cranes, the piece recalled the waterfront as it appeared before the arrival of the shipping container redefined global trade in terms of anonymous, neatly stackable metric boxes that could just as easily contain weapons as toys. A carnival of open sculptural forms, dock was a raucous response to the stern Neoclassicism of the Duveen Galleries, and was well received by press and public alike.

Barlow’s successor installation, demo, 2016, had a slightly more melancholy effect. Wandering into it felt akin to entering a forest after a flood—the floor was scoured clear, but at the high-water mark the branches held aloft what looked like nonsensical, oversize pieces of furniture—stranded rafts, twists of fabric, a grand piano or two. The resemblance between the two exhibitions was not coincidental, because demo included repurposed elements from dock. But the relocation brought a change in mood—a step back, an increase in reflective distance. All the material suspended above our heads seemed too heavy; the rotund forms in Barlow’s drowned world made the timber legs on which they were perched look precarious and spindly; the most reassuring thing about this frozen machine was that the catastrophe seemed already to have happened. However one read the work, these heaped-up things implied a history, a history beyond individual control, one experienced as a natural force beyond human scale, akin to a flood or a tide.

Barlow’s sculptural language, as has often been noted, evokes such figures as Eva Hesse, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Morris’s Untitled (Threadwaste) or Giovanni Anselmo’s Torsion (both 1968). Her early work was defined by a rejection of the movement that had gathered around the students of Anthony Caro, with their predilection for welding and clean abstraction. Evolving against the ideological backdrop of Thatcherism, her work in the 1980s was already both massive in scale and anti-monumental in intent, as it is now. She made large, short-lived sculptures out of industrial leftovers and presented them in public spaces or abandoned industrial sites; for the most part, they disappeared with only the occasional photograph as a record. Indeed, until about a decade ago, Barlow was better known as an influential teacher than for her own work. Her near outsider status, the ambivalent privilege of being an artist’s artist, was revoked in 2010, when she was signed by Hauser & Wirth in the wake of a show at London’s Serpentine Galleries. She is representing Britain at this year’s Venice Biennale. It’s not that Barlow’s work has changed. Rather, the market has caught up to her. The very fact that her works were previously too big, too transient, and too unwieldy to attract collectors has now become part of her appeal, and the resistance to commodification that defined her work has, paradoxically, drawn institutions to her.

So much for the backstory. Upstairs at the kunsthalle, in a room that was too warm, Barlow had installed a kind of stage that visitors could stand on in order to look through holes drilled into the cinder-block walls. It was possible to glimpse, on the other side, a sculpture improvised, in part, from building materials scavenged from the restoration of the kunsthalle currently in progress. Unlike the works downstairs, these were made of real industrial waste, and the assemblages blended indistinguishably into the genuine building works around the perimeter walls. Some workers, irritated either by the art or by the incidental surveillance imposed on them, occasionally added bits of their own profane trash to the sculptures. Cool air blew in through the holes.

––Adam Jasper