Stark beauty and minimalism: Rosa Barba, Carl Andre and JMW Turner at Turner Contemporary

By Richard Moss | 04 February 2013

Exhibition review: Rosa  Barba: Subject to Constant Change; Turner's Perspective and Carl Andre: Mass and Matter, Turner Contemporary, Margate, until May 6 2013

a film still showing a steel tower construction and walkway
Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society (2013). 35mm film still© Rosa Barba
Margate and its faded beauty, desolation and decay is a powerful draw for any artist interested a sense of place. And so it proves here for Italian artist Rosa Barba, whose hypnotic and playful forays into celluloid, words and installation play across the galleries of the town’s glistening contemporary art space.

Barba’s Subject to Constant Change begins with the distinctive whiff and heat of whirring projectors - and a large illuminated scroll of Arthur Rimbaud’s famous “I have been subject to mild hallucinations…” essay, which throws mildly psychedelic shadows onto the walls.

Nearby a typewriter powered by a projector makes random letters that spool onto the floor. In a corner flickering arcs of 35 mm film create graceful pendulums within a trio of illuminated sculptures.

It’s playful art that seems just as concerned with the mechanics and aesthetics of words and film projectors as it is with any notion relating to cinematic narrative. 

But this is just the warm up for a Barba’s centrepiece, the film Subconscious Society, which is a bleak but beautiful piece reminiscent of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky – if he had been let loose in Manchester and Kent.

To the throb of an industrial soundtrack it flits between the now familiar scenes of Margate’s collapsed piers and rusted rollercoasters, and aerial shots taken above Sheppy and Herne Bay where silted estuaries, salt marshes and dunes appear like lunar landscapes.

The immersive film also contrasts interior studies of the abandoned Albert Hall in Manchester with lingering panoramas of the slow churn of the sea against the rusting legs of derelict Sea Fortresses. Steel machinery, pulleys and winches float serenely against the distant shores of Sheerness beach. 

As the movie ends, another celluloid machine, this time scrolling words across a wall, flickers into life as a disembodied voice floats across the gallery like a muffled platform announcement. Darkness then returns us to the film and more encrusted steel forts, coastlines devoid of life and an abandoned boat marooned in the silt of a never ending beach.

The loose narrative seems to be about change rather than nostalgia and how things and objects have new meanings over time. The few people who appear silently in the film seem to be reflecting on former lives. 

After this absorption the white space, stillness and light that surrounds Carl Andre’s sculptures offers a pleasing counterpoint.

Andre - he of the famous Tate Bricks - is a minimalist and a contemporary of Dan Flavin, Donald Judd and Sol De Witt. According to his quote emblazoned high across the gallery, his work “has no more idea than a tree or a rock, or a mountain or an ocean.”

With that in mind these simple sculptures are no more or less than they appear. Neatly assembled blocks of wood and carefully arranged steel tiles across the floor.

A corner floor sculpture appears like a granite kitchen floor. There’s a neat arrangement of rusted electrical copper strips and another floor sculpture of steel sheets, approximately the size of a cricket pitch, that we are invited to carefully walk upon. 

It may be minimal, but the textures of the materials - the rusting plates, the blued steel and the rough grains of the wood - make for quietly absorbing viewing.

We are also invited to dip (more experience) his concrete poetry in typed volumes containing arrangements of words that echo the formal minimalism of his sculptures.

Andre, who is now retired, cited the industrial surroundings of his childhood in America, ancient burial sites and the Neolithic monuments of England as his inspiration. And for all its formality there is something about this work that recalls the mystery of stone circles.

These two exhibitions make a strangely successful pairing, but the works by JMW Turner linking them are both surprising and inspirational.

A selection of drawings, chosen by Barba, investigates the science of perspective. They include Turner’s drawings of spherical trigonometry, diagrammatical illustrations of harmonic perspective, lecture diagrams for the real and apparent diameters of spheres and reflections in a transparent globe.

More like graphic remnants of Constructivism than diagrams drawn by the father of the British Romantic landscape, they make perfect sense here in this balanced show of bleak and minimal beauty.

  • Open 10am-6pm (closed Monday, open Bank Holidays). Admission free. Follow the gallery on Twitter @TCMargate.

More pictures:

a photo of a projector spooling celluloid onto the floor
Rosa Barba, Space-Length Thought, 2012, 16mm film, projector, typewriter, installation view: Kunsthaus Zürich, 2012© Rosa Barba
an aerail film still of a coastal estuary
Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society, 2013 film still 35mm© Rosa Barba
a photo of a dilapidated pier
Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society, 2013 film still 35mm© Rosa Barba
a film still showing steel fortresses on stilts in the sea
Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society (2013). 35mm film still© Rosa Barba
a photo of a series of wooden blocks arranged in an arrowhead formation
Carl Andre, Phalanx (1981)© Carl Andre. DACS, London/VAGA, New York 2012
a photo of a chequerbaord of steel tiles on a floor
Weathering Piece (1970)© stichting kröller-müller museum
a drawing showing spheres in a drawing about perspective
JMW Turner, Spheres at Different Distances from the Eye, Lecture Diagram 11 (circa 1810)© Tate, London 2011
a drawing showing triangles within a circle
JMW Turner, from II. Various Perspective Diagrams, Lecture Diagram: Colour Circle No.1 (circa 1824-8)© Tate, London 2011
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