I now assume everybody goes to Leeds Beckett University to study Samuel Beckett. I had no premonition of this as I, with two artist friends sat down in a lecture theatre there to hear Phyllida Barlow, sculptor, in discussion with Louisa Buck, art critic. The event was the first of its kind in the newly minted Yorkshire Sculpture International. Why Beckett? Well, my dear Estragon, let’s wait here, and see if Godot arrives. Then it’ll be clear what the answers are. In the meantime, let’s perform that old classic of nihilistic wit and existential anxiety, Waiting For Barlow.
The real star of Waiting For Godot is of course the tree. Every performance features a lank, sad and depleted excuse for life, with a slender trunk and perhaps one distended twig protruding like a calcified cow’s tail frozen in a fly swat above the ‘action.’ If the tree had any dialogue it would only say one thing: ‘nothing to see here move along’ which is of course what Estragon and Vladimir seem incapable of doing. The tree provides no shelter but it seems like a good place to stop. All around the landscape is bare, barren. The tree is symbolic of our will to live against the odds which in Godot seem incalculable.
In Waiting for Barlow, the tree has grown into something fat and shape shifting. It appears sometimes quite deliberately to fill the entire space, sometimes it is not alone, but appears with other erections in a phallic forest. Sometimes it is transmuted into forms which defy description, that is, like the ever absent Godot they are bereft of subject, and only have some inchoate content drawn from their unrecognisable forms.
I could go on in this vein, but the event was a discussion and so far I have only drawn some thoughts out of the images that were projected above the talking heads. It was a curious illustrated talk inasmuch as the discussion and the images were not in synch and only occasionally did we have commentary that related to a certain piece or other. This was a little irritating. But maybe that’s what post-modernism is, it’s what today’s breed of provocateurs do. Anyway it’s a minor point. It may even have been deliberate, since the sculptures in the slide show, all made from transient materials that could easily disintegrate were, we were told a ‘restless medium’ that could dissolve like time itself, yet leave a residue of experience, in Barlow’s words. It leaves behind something. Ambiguity. There’s Godot again (except he never came, and may only have existed in Vladimir and Estragon’s imagination).
Barlow admitted that she didn’t really know (at least all the time) when something was finished. She is more interested in a precarious relationship – whatever emerges is whatever becomes embedded in the making. To make matters worse, the works are actually made by her assistants, possibly under the guidance of Adam, her studio manager. For her assistants, ‘it is work, not art.’ In which case I was wondering how they were rewarded. I didn’t want to ask such a vulgar question so bluntly, but when the audience were invited to ask questions, I wanted to know how she regarded her ‘assistants.’ She did after all say that she could leave them to it and then be surprised by what they had made. She also described them as ‘collaborators’ and their names were of course mentioned in the credits (if not with equal billing). I wonder these days about how much work is put into ‘their’ stuff by artists who get into the big time, since clearly if they tried to do it on their own, some of this big stuff would never get made. That would be a blessing, thinking Koons, thinking Hirst.
I can announce that I – with my fellow artist collaborators – made our very own ‘Barlow’ - Bags Of Banter - (illustrated below; photo credit Simon Thackray) when we got to the pub afterwards. By the time it was finished it lacked all content. It could be seen now as expressing that precarious state of non-being from which a sense of memory and loss emerges out of the residue of experience. If you thought these were simply empty crisp and peanut packets you’d be wrong – or right, depending upon who you are – or more precisely how you are defined (i.e. ‘pub cleaner’). Our own experiential residues are only dissolved when we realise we’ve run out of beer.