Anna Barriball: Not A Jar

Anna Barriball, Silver Sunrise / Sunset with Fluorescent Orange III, 2014. Ink, paper, acrylic paint, acrylic spray paint on board. Image courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery

Anna Barriball, Silver Sunrise / Sunset with Fluorescent Orange III, 2014. Ink, paper, acrylic paint, acrylic spray paint on board. Image courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery

 

If you had walked into the room, you would have seen the charred, darkened husks: windows, doors, a fireplace. It would have seemed oddly silent, punctuated only by a wind you would not have felt. You would have encountered scarred surfaces and rippled textures, giving off illumination only indirectly as they perhaps glinted bluntly in the dull light reflecting off them. It would have been unsettlingly still, but with the held breath of an action completed only moments before you entered, a temporary, just-struck stillness. It might, on second thought, have seemed like the aftermath of an unknown event, one that created a world in the unexpected murky contrasts in photographic negative, an event that turned entrances and exits, and bays for light and air into portals irrefutably cut off. Together, these apertures in reverse would have provided the setting of a transposed room, would have marked the boundaries and traced the outlines of a confined, impossible indoor space. All these openings; but there would have been no way in, or out.

In this room, all we can do is look. We can only see the grayed skins of these objects and exteriors. We might believe Emmanuel Levinas when, writing on appearance and exteriority, he says, “A thing exists in the midst of its wastes. When the kindling wood becomes smoke and ashes the identity of my table disappears. The wastes become indiscernible; the smoke drifts off anywhere. If my thought follows the transformation of things I lose the trace of their identity very quickly―as soon as they quit their container.”[1] This room might be a place where the smoke drifts to, accumulates, settling as a transformative soot. The drawings, videos and objects of Anna Barriball appear sturdy under this layer, confident in their mute absorption. We might, we think, be able to identify them with some certainty. Under sustained attention, though, they begin to sit a little uneasily: Barriball’s room is one that might look the same as any other, encountering us with a set of concrete surfaces and façades; they look like windows, doors, and vents, they have the same proportions, roughly the same placements. But they possess none of the properties of the things they have assumed the shape of. It is a procession of masquerading objects, as if the paper, walls, and videos were attempting to disguise themselves as a house. Barriball’s graphite, ink, or the flash from her camera become the materials which create a mask, a mask which conforms precisely to the contours of the façade they are affecting.

Anna Barriball, Shutters with Fire Red, 2011. Pencil on paper, acrylic spray paint on board, 82.3 x 96.5 cm. Image Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

Anna Barriball, Shutters with Fire Red, 2011. Pencil on paper, acrylic spray paint on board, 82.3 x 96.5 cm. Image Courtesy the artist and Frith Street Gallery.

In this surface world of not-doors and not-windows, they become markers of a space for a hypothetical proposal, where the presence and essence of an object is defined only by its appearance. The outside is the object. For thousands of years, we humans have tried to philosophize and define how it is we know something, how when we see an object we can understand its existence beyond just what we see. Barriball takes that limitation, that outer world, as her starting point for a whole proposed merging of experience and existence. Her room contains another kind of vision, where everything is exactly as it seems: one in which surface is actually being, and seeing is actually knowing. Her soot-coated objects propose an inverse transparency where there is no unknowable distance between subjectivities, they are all readably visible: we might imagine for a moment perfect communication, and immediate understanding. If only we had been able to get into this room in the first place.

The afterimage of that glimpse, though, tints the world as we can see it. It is not just that it marks out, say, windows to stand out as things in themselves. In her leveling of an object’s essence and presence, Barriball changes what a window is: there is nothing to see through to, there is no need to see beyond this. Her surface-beings suggest that it is in appreciating the intricate qualities of these surfaces that constantly surround us that we might capture at least a conception of the directness and clarity for which we constantly fumble. It is, apparently, through a closed door we might find access to this room. What was a wordplay joke suddenly becomes more of a metaphysical question: “When is a door not a door?” The answer in a past world would have been: “When it’s ajar.” But in a room where the meaning of a door is no longer as a threshold for coming and going, and no longer bears the characteristic of opening or granting access, to find when a door is truly more being a door the appropriate question might need to be inversed: “When is a door a door?” And the answer: “When it’s not ajar.”

 

Text originally commissioned by Villa Stuck for the catalogue accompanying Ricochet #7: Anna Barriball, July – October 2013

[1] Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, An Essay on Exteriority, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA, 1969 ), pp. 139–40

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