Throwing Away the Maps

By Phyllida Barlow

Phyllida Barlow in her Los Angeles exhibition. Photo: Elon Schoenholz

  • Apr 15, 2022

In the latter half of the 20th century, sculpture stepped off the pedestal. Art began moving into its surrounding environment, engaging the viewer’s space in new ways, developing into land art, performance, and installation. The questions raised of site and environment—and the role of the viewer in navigating these new terrains—have been at the heart of British artist Phyllida Barlow’s sculptural practice throughout her five-decade-long career.

On the occasion of ‘glimpse,’ Barlow’s exhibition now on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, ‘Ursula’ revisits ‘Throwing Away the Maps,’ a lecture the artist gave in 2004 during ‘The Treason of Images: Teaching Modern Art,’ a conference at Tate Modern, London. In this talk, excerpted from Hauser & Wirth Publishers’ ‘Phyllida Barlow: Collected Lectures, Writings, and Interviews,’ Barlow delves into a deep discussion of installation art. As the book’s editor Sara Harrison writes, Barlow ‘examines the role of the viewer, the idea of watching rather than looking, the creation of a spectator, and theatricality.’ The lecture—set in dialogue with images of Barlow’s recent works, alongside those by other artists—offers an enduring framework through which to consider a wide variety of installation art.

‘glimpse’ features new large-scale works assembled on site © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Zak Kelley

Barlow’s exhibition at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 2022 © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Zak Kelley

The title of my talk is ‘Throwing Away the Maps.’ I’ll be showing some slides. They’re actually not necessarily works that I particularly like, but they’re trying to be samples or illustrations of the comments I am making. I am beginning with two descriptions, and this is the first description:

The street is crowded with Christmas shoppers. It is difficult to get to the large wooden doors cutting across the path of so many people. They are heavy double doors that are practically flush with the street. The struggle to open them is self-conscious and the shoppers glance at what is happening as if it is a break-in. Once inside, the world is turned upside down. Despite the heavily wood-paneled walls remaining intact, the space is in the process of being dismantled, screens and boards are stacked and leant whilst large pieces of cumbersome office furniture provide storage spaces for disparate things including rolls of carpet, broken chairs, piles of telephone directories, tipped-over paint cans, scrumpled-up paper, everything jammed together. The place is in turmoil. The lighting is dimmed but brightened by the flickering of videos projected on to the top of a high wall in such a way that one video overlaps the next and it is initially difficult to decipher them. They are showing some kind of nightmarish children’s party where the dress code is huge Spitting-Image-style heads of notorious political leaders. Who are they? Margaret Thatcher, George Bush, Ronald Reagan, the Queen. And the games being played stray into eroticism. It seems dangerous. Something is going wrong, but what? And who is going to help prevent catastrophe? The whole vista is chaotic, compounded by a balcony overlooking the space on which are standing a small group of people all gazing, fixedly, at the scene in front of them and below them. They are like spectators watching a disaster. But having negotiated this initial carnage, there are other spaces to investigate, up and down cramped staircases, offices complete with secretaries and further stashes of furniture are revealed. Deep in the basement a video reveals some kind of obscene struggle between an aging male protagonist and a younger female. A bucket of glutinous, shit-like substance is clumsily tipped from a perilously built structure, whilst he awkwardly reveals his bare arse in all its glory, no detail spared. This excruciating drama is unrelenting and drags on and on. The fake excrement is spreading everywhere and the past, whatever that might be, does not seem to have any means of being resolved. In the space in which the video is being projected, a crowd has gathered to watch, and there is a tense hush. There is an atmosphere of dread mingled with repressed humor. The dark underground location is extremely cramped and hot. There is the odd muffled snigger as the abject male bum heaves in and out of view and the ministrations of the younger female seem of no avail. The surrogate shit-pouring apparatus is erratic and the two protagonists have trouble controlling it. They are smeared and spattered with the stuff. It has been going on for fifteen minutes and there seems to be no end. Time to go. Back into the packed street of busy shoppers. And now each reality, the ceaseless flow of shoppers and the tumultuous scenes behind the heavy wooden doors, seem to reciprocate each other, but obliviously so.

Collected Lectures, Writings, and Interviews from Hauser & Wirth Publishers

And this is the second description:

It is bitterly cold on a dark day with huge clouds building up, swooping in off the North Sea. Across the expanse of concrete is the vast shed with its gaping entrance, protected by thick rubber flaps hanging from the top some six meters up. Everything is on an enormous scale; human size is miniaturized. But through the thick rubber door flaps, a wonderland is revealed. As far as the eye can see there is a white haze which has attached itself to every available surface. The furthest wall at the far end of the space is at least 150 meters away. And the white is like a blizzard, almost obliterating the fabric of the shed’s structure, making it pictorial, like a white painting which has been stepped into. Throughout the entire space hundreds of separate horizontal structures are placed, all at waist height, supported on steel trestle legs. Lying on them are various lengths of steel arranged haphazardly creating an abstract pattern, which is carried to the furthest point in a fractured array of perspectival edges like an assault of arrows shot towards an advancing army disappearing into a white fog. But in strong contrast to this implied violence is the ever-present softness of the white haze. On closer inspection the white also evidences itself as lumpy swellings on the ends of each of the trestles, rounding off the rigidity of these multiple structures. In fact, these bulbous growths are everywhere: on the floor, at regular intervals like latent stalactites, and on the walls, and now all around the edge of the entire space. And the white is covering other colors: reds, yellows, greens, browns, blues; have all been frosted, chilled with the all-obscuring layer of white. The faint glow of other colors evidences other lives. Something that has been here before that has been incarcerated in permafrost. This is an interior landscape, frozen in time, completely still without a flicker of light. Shockingly, and terrifyingly, it is awoken from its stasis by a sudden and violent sound. It is a metallic roar, three times, and it heralds a flurry of activity, which happens with apparently no human prompting. Hissings and clankings spring into life, numerous arm-like cranes begin to judder high up in the steel rafters of the shed. And other tubes, half-concealed by a veil of white, begin to unwind nearby. Something is going to happen, and it is time to go and get out fast.

Installation view, ‘Paul McCarthy. Piccadilly Circus,’ Hauser & Wirth London, 2002. Photo: Ann-Marie Rounkle

My first description was of Paul McCarthy’s recent exhibition at Hauser & Wirth’s new space on Piccadilly [‘Paul McCarthy: Piccadilly Circus,’ Hauser & Wirth London, 2003]. The building this gallery had acquired was formerly a bank, or some such place, which McCarthy took on as the starting point for what was in fact a highly contrived chaos. A staged state of anarchy in direct contrast to the officially formal status of the building. The exhibition was a study in mannerism, where every action and arrangement was precisely intended. The viewer was manipulated and theatrically drawn into each carefully staged drama. The use McCarthy made of the entire building gave the exhibition a theme-park quality. And like all theme parks, every opportunity is exploited to the maximum to make the visitors, or in this case the viewers, respond. And the response that was initiated was that of spectators. The viewers, like the people on the balcony overlooking McCarthy’s installation, were spectators. And as spectators, they were watching the work perhaps more than looking at it.

Meanwhile my second description was not of an installation nor of an artwork at all. It was a description of the paint shop at the Swan Hunter shipyard at Wallsend on Tyneside which I visited this January. In terms of describing such a place, it could have been an installation in all but what it actually was: a functional place fulfilling functional tasks in as expedient a way as possible. There was no emotional manipulation of the viewer or visitor. All responses were mere interpretations, taking what was purely factual stuff and transforming it into something which it was like, using the simile and the metaphor to raise the pragmatic practicalities of this place and give it an artwork status. Of course, such a remarkable place does not need to have its poetic qualities raised. It is wonderful as it is. And its wonder is brought about by the job of work in hand: the spray-painting of various components required for ship construction. The fact that it reminded me of a snowy landscape is inevitable and if it had been the day that yellow paint was being used it would have no doubt been a very hot, deserty kind of experience.

‘The physical role of the viewer [is] essential to understanding the extent of what was going on. This is perhaps the key to installation and also its most vulnerable demand. There is no one viewing point’—Phyllida Barlow

Detail from ‘glimpse’ at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles © Phyllida Barlow. Photo: Zak Kelley

And this is the competition with which installation has to contend. Therefore it is interesting to attempt to analyze what installation might be in the face of such remarkable competition from the world around, natural and unnatural.

In both my descriptions the physical role of the viewer was essential to understanding the extent of what was going on. This is perhaps the key to installation and also its most vulnerable demand. There is no one viewing point. The viewer becomes a protagonist, walking in amongst the work.

They become like someone who is behind the scenes, watching the performance from the wings, and witnessing the requisite things for the performance close up, warts and all. The action of the viewer references both the sculptural and the pictorial. It is a walking around experience and a looking at experience. The mishmash of possibilities that such viewing offers seems exciting, and it can be. But it can also lend itself to borrowing the spectator style of looking where the gasp of admiration is the highpoint of the experience. This is where installation is so akin to theatricality, that it can be little more than that, a very staged experience, where the viewer’s emotions are milked for all they’re worth and the exchange between what the viewer is being milked for and what is given becomes a kind of emotional blackmail.

The behind-the-scenes experience can also be subtle, the fact that there is no one viewing point prompts the viewer to make choices about how and where to look at the work. This does make the space itself become a physical material in its own right. All aspects of the space become contingent to the installation, making the physicality of the viewer as important as the work itself. I’m thinking of James Turrell’s sky works, and I personally have a lot of problems with Turrell, but I think he is an example of this, where the physical actions of sitting down and looking upwards are as important as the square of sky itself.

Louise Bourgeois, Red Room (Parents), 1994 © The Easton Foundation

Being behind the scenes suggests a viewpoint which is oblique to the conventional viewpoint, where another viewpoint is offered, where a glimpse can be held for longer and something which is usually over in a second can be suspended and protracted. Such is the case with Turrell’s sky works and with Louise Bourgeois’s ‘Red Rooms’ (1994) where the interior space is spied through the chinks and cracks between doors and windows. Such installations alter the viewer’s expectations of how something can be looked at where the role of spectatorship is slowed down and shifts to that of intimate scrutiny.

But what of the role of installation as object? Or rather, what kind of object is an installation? Attached to this question come others: how does an installation function in the art market? How does an installation operate in relationship to documentation? And in relationship to memory?

In 1987 Michael Craig-Martin was the external examiner for the postgraduate sculpture course at the Slade. One particular installation was compelling. A group of metal lockers weeping water on to raw concrete. All who saw it, including Craig-Martin, unanimously agreed the opinion that this was an outstanding work. However, he made the following statement—Michael Craig-Martin did—that any fine-art course which continued, in the then economic and political climate, to encourage installation art was acting irresponsibly. Further discussion did make more sense of this drastic statement in so much that what was meant was that art schools should take on the issue of how young artists, fresh out of art school, could survive economically. The non-economic viability of installation art could be seen as a liability, and young artists could be being led into a no man’s land of hopeless economic prospects if encouraged to pursue this kind of activity.

‘My idealized notion of installation resides in the sculptural. I understand this as the physical interaction between the space and the things within that space. Paradoxically, the most exciting exploitation of installation in this way is ephemeral, or non-permanent.’—Phyllida Barlow

Richard Wilson, 20:50, 1987 © Richard Wilson. Installation view, ‘Art of Our Time: The Saatchi Collection,’ Royal Scottish Academy, 1987. Photo: Antonia Reeve

Hans Haacke, Standort Merry-Go-Round, 1997 © Hans Haacke / Artists Rights Society, New York / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn. Photo: Roman Mensing, artdoc.de

However there are numerous examples where installation has proved anything but an economic disaster, beginning, for example, with the sale of Richard Wilson’s ‘20:50’ (1987) to Saatchi in 1988. This sale was finalized through a specification being proffered from which the work could be reconstructed. This clearly paved the way for sale by specification, releasing installation art from its economic purgatory and in some ways this has also diminished installation’s position as a radical art form. Having the potential to be economically viable has lessened its opportunities to reside solely in the realm of the ephemeral. No longer can installation art claim to exist in the moment of its showing but once the exhibition or event or happening is over, then so is the installation of the work. And that the only way it could be recalled would be through documentation or the memories of those who had been there to witness it. Rachel Whiteread’s ‘House’ (1993) is such a work amongst many.

My idealized notion of installation resides in the sculptural. I understand this as the physical interaction between the space and the things within that space. Paradoxically, the most exciting exploitation of installation in this way is ephemeral, or non-permanent. Where the physicality of the work is not necessarily built for perpetuity. For me such work embraces time as well as place. And movement, smell, temperature, light, dark. But above all the sentient experience of moving around the work and being there with it. Ephemerality and non-permanence are also political. The politics of temporary ownership does not seem to require commercial success and commodification. I regard Robert Morris’s ‘Steam Works’ (1967–73) as fulfilling all of these qualities, as does Robert Smithson’s ‘Asphalt Rundown’ (1969).

But then there are Jessica Stockholder’s works which are more permanent and resonant with spontaneity. Or Mike Kelley’s installations which hold the viewer in tense anticipation where only a part of a narrative is offered. Similarly so with Robert Gober’s work. Compare his political stance with that of Hans Haacke, whose ‘Standort Merry-Go-Round’ (1997) challenges the convention of how public monuments unquestioningly take permanent ownership of public spaces. And what of Bruce Nauman’s works, the suspended chairs threatening the space beneath them with such authority that no one dares to enter? Such is the poetic and emotive power of these works that the relationship with the viewer and the occupied space is that of the manipulator and the manipulated but where there is a symbiosis between the two and it is interchangeable. The work, the space, and the viewer do both to each other and willfully so. There is a political challenge posited through these works’ use of space, despite their obvious commercial and commodifiable success.

The qualities of time and place and the absolute moment of the work, its moment, are infinitely possible as creative expressions to be encouraged within art schools and very much part of what should be discussed and proposed for critical debate. Installation, as with all the fine-art forms, does not have special treatment when it comes to diagnosing what works or not. Installation is a much-used form within every art school I have worked in and beyond because it does resist certain conventions while sustaining others. It is not radical but it can embrace qualities beyond the status quo of painting and sculpture, letting in those other sentient qualities of sound, smell, movement, temperature. And so much so that I, for one, begin to long for that particular relationship which the status quo of painting and sculpture offers where hybridity is not an issue to be contended with. Issues of the spectator, the spectacular, the behind-the-scenes, the protracted glimpse, the space as material, the ephemeral, the politics of place, the remembered, the sculptural, the sentient, are all as applicable to any artwork which a viewer is prepared to give themselves up to, where they throw themselves into the work without prejudice, whether this be installation or not.

Installation has become ubiquitous, where painters are just as likely to make an installation—as did Chris Ofili for his 2003 Venice Biennale exhibition—as video artists and photographers, as sculptors and filmmakers and performance artists. It has become an orthodoxy just as much as the readymade is as inherited from Marcel Duchamp and industrially produced sculpture as inherited from the likes of Donald Judd and Jeff Koons. In the end, it is best to throw away the maps and go it alone.

Phyllida Barlow: Collected Lectures, Writings, and Interviews’ is available from Hauser & Wirth Publishers.

Phyllida Barlow. glimpse’ is on view at Hauser & Wirth Los Angeles, 17 February – 8 May 2022.

The audio cassettes of this lecture are held by Tate Library, London.