Milan

Rosa Barba, Near the Small Magellanic Cloud, 2018, laser-cut felt, spotlight, 98 3⁄8 × 70 7⁄8". Photo: Filippo Armellin.

Rosa Barba, Near the Small Magellanic Cloud, 2018, laser-cut felt, spotlight, 98 3⁄8 × 70 7⁄8". Photo: Filippo Armellin.

Rosa Barba

Vistamarestudio

Rosa Barba, Near the Small Magellanic Cloud, 2018, laser-cut felt, spotlight, 98 3⁄8 × 70 7⁄8". Photo: Filippo Armellin.

In the fledgling gallery Vistamarestudio, Rosa Barba presented “Pensiero Spaziolungo” (Longspace Idea), a constellation of works that seemed heterogeneous at first glance but that all interrogated the conceptual and material elements of language and cinema by way of astronomy. In dialogue with the work of the American astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt (1868–1921), Barba employed neon, video, glass, canvas, felt, projectors, filmstrips, and screens, addressing themes that, while not new in her practice, here attained an intimacy that is perhaps without equal in her most recent production.

The vibrant heart of the show, Drawn by the Pulse, 2018, was a silent 35-mm-film installation, created in collaboration with the Harvard College Observatory, which made available to Barba thousands of original photographic plates from the early twentieth century. Studying such plates on a daily basis, Leavitt analyzed the luminosity of stars. Patiently observing and carrying out calculations on the type of star known as a Cepheid variable, she discovered a method for determining how distant these stars are from the earth, paving the way for later astronomers to confirm the existence of other galaxies in the universe.

Superimposing her practice as a filmmaker on Leavitt’s as an astronomer, Barba knitted together and gave new life to Leavitt’s work. Each frame of Barba’s film represents one of the original photographs. Images of shimmering constellations flash by, one after another, while the stars’ luminosities pulse rhythmically inside of the flickering of the projection itself. Time is punctuated by the sound of the projector, which itself functions as part of a kinetic sculpture, as does the illuminated loop box within which the movement—at once orderly and intricate— of the filmstrip is visible. All of this is complemented by the thread of emotion that viewers experience during the passage of the photographic sheets marked by Leavitt’s notes and calculations.

Barba’s homage to this brilliant astronomer continued with Near the Small Magellanic Cloud, 2018, for which the artist excised from a piece of white felt the text of a page from Leavitt’s first scientific publication, dated 1908. A spotlight illuminated the felt, which hung from the ceiling, causing the words to appear, white on black, on the wall behind the fabric. Pensiero Spaziolungo, 2017, which lent its title to the show, consisted of white neon writing on the floor. The text would have been easily legible could one have seen it from higher up. Installed in a space with low, barrel-vaulted ceilings, it became an enigma. In fact, the writing spelled out the work’s title. But was it a message for us, or for the inhabitants of other galaxies?

Along with several other more recent pieces, one of Barba’s best-known works, Somnium (Dream), 2011, was shown for the first time in Italy. Communicating through a lunar and mysterious aesthetic in keeping with the novel written in 1608 by the astronomer Johannes Kepler from which it takes its title, this eighteen-minute film (transferred to video) documents the environmental damage caused by the construction of a new international cargo port in Rotterdam. Here, Barba’s film had a boomerang effect. Seeing this work in the last room of the gallery, one was inevitably struck by the quotation from Giordano Bruno with which the piece ends: “There exist no absolute up and down; there exist no absolute positions in space; the position of a body is relative to that of other bodies. Everywhere there is incessant relative change in position throughout the universe, and the observer is always at the center of things.” These words resounded like a mantra in viewers’ heads as they made their way back past all the other works in the show in reverse order, as if seeing a sequence of traces, all different, of a single thought that challenged the truth of subjective experience, mentally and physically.

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.