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Phyllida Barlow ‘Gig’ at Hauser and Wirth Somerset

September 11, 2014

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Like Alice in Wonderland, Phyllida Barlow’s installations fill the spaces of the new galleries at Hauser and Wirth Somerset, but unlike Alice, Barlow has no desire to use a magic potion to reduce their size. She wants their heads to touch the ceiling, she wants to take them beyond human scale. Her sculptures have taken possession of these interconnecting areas so that we as humans have to negotiate the space remaining to us. Barlow’s work is often concerned with the negotiation of physical things in an urban environment. Here, in this rural context, it is not the object which is trapped, it is the space which is left fighting for breath, hardly able to move. She confronts the assumption that one should be able to wander at will in the countryside. Her premise is that the Arcadian idyll no longer exists and that the land is now an exclusion zone, humanized and proscribed. Farming is more factory than the great outdoors. The romantic ideal of landscape, observed from a distance in all its majestic beauty, a silent black and white photograph of an experience, has perished. It is a figment that comforts those suffering the toxic fumes of the big city. This Somerset location has elicited a response that highlights the ambiguities of how we live our lives and the awkwardness of the gap between what the reality is and what is in our imagination.

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Gig. 2014

Hauser and Wirth Somerset is a stunning conversion of former farm buildings into a gallery complex which is sympathetic to its rural location. But with this spectacular opening show these galleries, play second fiddle to Phyllida Barlow. On entering the first room you are assaulted by a cacophonous riot of joyous colour and texture: giant pompoms in all those celebratory fabrics in glorious gorgeous hues. Weaving through these hanging objects, which impede your progress, prepares you in a funny way for what is to come. It is akin to the summer blindness of coming indoors out of bright sunlight.

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untitled: grinder. 2014

By the time you move into the Workshop Gallery your spatial awareness has been tampered with you are more prepared to skirt around the edge of a work constructed, ceiling-height from studio detritus and plywood. Next, entering the Pigsty we come to Untitled: grinder. It is both voluptuous and aggressive, its seductive curves draw you in and then you become aware of its spikiness, its voracious appetite for nastiness. This encapsulates the countryside’s beauty and the beast dual personality. The Main Gallery contains the least available space as huge rough-hewn planks launch themselves upwards, guarding their enclosure, excluding intruders as successfully as any razor-wire fence. Despite their massive scale, a scale gifted them by the size of the space – it is all about relativity – these sculptures, these installations, deny any sense of monumentality. They are impermanent and will have to be dismantled at the end of the show.

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untitled: postscorral. 2014

In translating the negotiation of objects in an environment into sculpture, which has to be negotiated in the same way, Barlow creates a situation where her work cannot be marginalised, it is impossible to slip past without engaging with it. It confronts you, as determinedly as someone who stands directly in your path and will not step aside to let you pass. Not for her a celebration of the minimalist white cube, its pristine surfaces adorned with polite work constrained by frames. In a magnificent way Phyllida Barlow has temporarily upstaged these new galleries and their white walls will have to await their moment in the sun! However if this challenging exhibition is a measure of Hauser and Wirth Somerset’s intended programming it will be a superb addition to the cultural landscape of the South West.

© Fiona Robinson 2014

Article first published in [EVOLVER] 83, September / October 2014

Phyllida Barlow ‘Gig’ at Hauser and Wirth Somerset Until 2 November 2014.

Header Image: untitled: holder, 2014

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