Phyllida Barlow

14 July 2014

Phyllida Barlow: dock, 2014
Tate Britain Commission 2014
31 March – 19 October 2014
by john ros

LONDON — Phyllida Barlow’s (b. 1944, Newcastle upon Tyne, England), dock, 2014 was my first experience to the massive hall of Tate Britain. It likely would have caught my curiosity, regardless of what was in it due to its majesty. Tall, bright, regal — the hall spokes off to various galleries containing the massive collection of British art from 1500 to the present day. It is an impressive space and experience, similar in breadth to the turbine hall at the Tate Modern, but so much different in its finesse and subtlety. I can imagine the space amusing artwork in it — dwarfing it with ease — thus making the use of it as an art-viewing venue that much more difficult.

Barlow is not intimidated, rather, she takes the space head-on, but not in an obvious, masturbatory way, rather, she matches the spaces subtitles, which is difficult given the scale and materials she employed. The hall is divided in three as you walk along, creating separate experiences as in a blink, a mere pause, as almost every vantage point gives you a view of what you just left behind and what is to come. Entering the space we are immediately confronted with a massive infrastructure of square wood columns and 2 x 4″ diagonal braces. The structure acts as shelter as well as support for five giant hovering rectangular masses. These dangle from thick orange strapping. They feel like rubble, or remnants from a lost city. The structures appear to be concrete, but upon further investigation one realizes they are foam, expandable foam, wood, among other various construction materials. If one could imagine, they almost seem light to carry, but the weight can be felt in the tension of the strapping. We are invited to walk throughout and underneath. We are humbled by its mass, and weight. Though the weight could lean toward scary, the space surprisingly does not feel too precarious.


As we venture from out of the shelter, we notice this giant totem. A huge column made of cardboard and various colorful tapes. Is something being covered up? Protected? This structure mimics the marble columns throughout the space, but humbles them as it reaches far beyond the reach of any stone-carved existing structure. Again, the lightness of material plays with the objects sheer mass and solidity. Simple and refined, this totem stands as a portal of sorts, a relic and gateway to another time. It is magnificent.

As we enter Barlow’s second space we are greeted with an immense wall of painted panels interconnected and collaged to an intricate wood structure. Different from the infrastructure we just left behind, this one appears to have grown in the space, rather than having been erected. It is made up of smaller pieces of wood — Painted, assembled, pieced together, the infrastructure forms a hollow mass — weighty yet light. The supported painted collage seems haphazardly pieced together, yet it’s craftsmanship is not the point of this piece. (Unless the seeming lack of precision remarks on it being quite precise). This giant painting looms over you. It’s red and pink tones with blurred outlines takes us back to the painting studio. This piece, more than any, seems to go directly to the roots of Barlow’s career as an educator. You can smell the painting studio, hear the easels being carefully configured, sense the silence of the still life or the sigh of the model resting from a 30 minute pose — the reminiscence is thick yet does not necessarily dominate the conversation.


The massive painting sits on a point on the floor. This impossible pressure point at once feels like absolute pressure, as if moving one inch would collapse the whole structure, as well as somehow has the feeling of inversion — as if the painting is holding the the floor up at its point. We may have to look at this structure upside down in order for this to become even a possibility, but the exacting pressure point allows us to imagine — if only for a second. This oddly humble structure of sheer mass emits the frenetic energy it seems to have been born from. The pulse of the teacher and the excitement of the student is definitely felt here.

One immediately takes this energy into Barlow’s final and most ambitious room. Four separate pieces reside here, the first and final, erected, the middle two grown.

We are met with another giant infrastructure of wood reaching high above us. Much different in feel from the first structure of deconstructed elements, this piece seems to carry evolving organic masses. They are still pulsing with life. They seem to be a remnant from a failed science experiment or a growth of rapidly mutating cells. It’s pulse is quieted by the inverted popsicle structures hanging from the helix-form. The continued mix of humble materials with the recurrence of pink lighten the imagery from cancerous growth to playful experiment. Like a child playing in the backyard with mud, twigs and leaves, Barlow is able to keep this structure light in its investigation which allows it to function openly within the context of the room.

The final piece, similarly erected, holds a giant cylinder. This time metal is clearly visible — I think the first time the material is noticeable, revealing a bit more structure to the possibly precarious monuments. The cylinder hovers in silence. The still gallery denies its movement, but we can image how this giant mobile may come to life.

The middle of the gallery is booked ended with two structures that seems to morph out of the walls and floor of the building. The most precarious-looking of the space, the one to the right seems to be hovering, just, in the slightest moment before it is about to collapse. The piece on the left seems to reflect this fatal demise, having just collapsed, materials cascading forward and about. These static structures seems like waves on the shore. They are moving, inhaling… they are alive, relating back to the science experiment commencing behind us. These two pieces reveals such restraint on Barlow’s part as every single piece seems to have been placed perfectly (as if literally grown and/or collapsed on its own). These two pieces could have gone very wrong, over-working their usefulness into exhaustive placement and careless decisions, but Barlow remains oddly in control of the chaos. These pieces are a huge success.

The last point seems to be the theme throughout the whole of dock, 2014. Barlow employs a concise and confident control over the chaos within the environment she is creating. Any of these pieces could be overly contrived and tirelessly boring for the viewer, but their activity and action keeps the viewer engaged, resonating throughout the galleries and into each and every viewer. Like experiencing the point at which the painting hits the floor in the second room, as if literally holding up the floor, not the other way around, one must turn themselves upside down to fully appreciate the not-so-subtle, subtleties in dock, 2014. Barlow taught at Slade School of Fine Art for over forty years and influenced many of huge great artists of our time including Martin Creed, Douglas Gordon and Rachel Whiteread.01 She continues that vocation in her art, teaching each and every one of us that art is education, in or out of school. We are all students, we must just be willing to learn something new if we are going to appreciate the subtleties created all around us.

Overall there is a feeling of silent forms and gentile masses — We are invited to peer into them to witness a moment in their lives. But less voyeur, we are explorers to the 7 massive yet humble objects. You are never an ear-shot away from discovering something new. The abandoned materials seem haphazard, but there is nothing haphazard about the work. It is well throughout, discovered, uncovered and revealed. I imagine it is like a game of sorts, moving pieces, like Jenga or giant link-n-logs, but beyond just the fun of those games, these spaces humble you. Their size plays with their identity. We can think of trash heaps or waste dumps, a discussion of waste. Or we can imagine a forest of oddities, strange things and new keepsakes. Whether we play with ideas of waste, or return to a youthful sense of wonderment, we must negotiate the piles for ourselves. The masses become living beings, moving like mobiles, breathing like giant dinosaurs. They are alive because Barlow has given life to them. Her actions (and careful non-actions) have brought us into this world of absolute still action. Like a freeze frame of the very last moment in these lives of these things. The odd thing is that they are still alive. They breath life into the space. Silently. Invisibly. It is this conundrum that Barlow has set forward and released onto us. She has allowed us to become explorers, researchers, scientists, garbage pickers, sorters, hoarders — no matter what point-of-view we take, she has shown us choice. It is up for us to decide what we do with it.

Phyllida Barlow Fifty Years of Drawings
23 May – 26 July 2014, Hauser & Wirth London

Artist Talk: Phyllida Barlow in conversation with Frances Morris
Tate Britain, Clore Auditorium
Tuesday 30 September 2014, 18.30 – 20.00
£10, concessions available



Images provided by John Ros, 2014