Nonought: a reflection on Robert Barry
When I came home I expected a surprise and there was no surprise for me, so of course, I was surprised.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Culture and Value, c. 1944
The first paragraph on Robert Barry on Wikipedia will let you know that for him, “nothing seems to me the most potent thing in the world.” (1) Considering this isn’t a tongue-in-cheek comment, what does it tell us about this showing of his work in São Paulo?
The belief in the potency of “nothing” can be construed by contextualizing the purposes of so-called Conceptual Art, whereby the idea, the philosophical infrastructure of an artwork is determinant not only to its meaning, but to its very materiality. Thus, relying on the potency of nothing, or including it in the thinking that leads to a work of art, leads to something in which, for instance, traditional mediums, like painting or sculpture, might be put to the test in a “dematerialization” process, a total shift in emphasis from morphological, strictly formal issues to radical considerations on its function in society, on how art operates in terms of questioning its own linguistic foundations and how it can exist precisely on the edge of a near “inexistence.”
Let us consider the items at the beginning of a 50-minute sequence from his audio piece Otherwise (1981): here it is; nonsense; inevitable; deny; sometimes; touching; endless; understand... In between those items are completely anxiety-free intervals, long seconds where one clearly hears the noise of vinyl. The items come up individually and seem to introduce a sequence, but the connection between the parts is analogous to the order of the inner components in a piece by Carl André or Donald Judd – “one thing after another,” or even the noema “what you see is what you see” –, which is critical and metalinguistic in essence. Nothing in the sentence emerges as a standalone organism, a famous verse like Carlos Drummond de Andrade’s “In the middle of the road there was a stone,” where perplexity regarding the utter commonplace is underpinned by a structure of complete representation, where signs are in queue and active instead of absent things. On the contrary, the more specific context of components in these propositions by Barry – including in terms of a medium virtually devoid of thickness, at times transparent –, the exhibition’s physical conditions are what provides a kind of aliquot for a bigger meaning. The title itself here indicates “another way,” an alternative, a certain obstinacy that drives the whole work, “focuses on escaping the previously known physical limits of the art object in order to express the unknown or unperceived.” (2)
The “word,” ubiquitous in these propositions, is in a different position than that of the literary syntagma, a narrative, hierarchized place that’s closer to the paradigm of poetry. And even here, it has its reason of being other than its literal translation, almost as if it were questioning the very arbitrariness of the conventions that ensure its signification process, because it operates “contiguously” with the real, like a mark or index which, instead of “representing” something, presents it by adding it to the actuality of the audience.
All of that also takes place through a wide array of randomness: chance, as one can tell from footage of the artist setting up one of his exhibits, plays as big a role as “nothing,” allowing for the floating of expressions which, in the sequence in which they are arranged or uttered, underlie undefinitions, ruptures, contradictions, surprisingly ephemeral or strangely incomplete statements, in the sense that they don’t meet expectations in the automatism of reading, thereby forcing us to re-approach said reading in various ways, from back to front, through mirroring and inferences, relying not only on the eyes that peruse, but on the body that approaches a word or sentence.
“Private thoughts transmitted telepathically by the artist during the exhibition.” Something of this sort might otherwise attract and involve us in the realm of slogans. But what it does is enable an experience which fractures and modifies the expectation of immediate absorption, as the semantic field that forms around it becomes imprinted by an objectuality which consumes itself or wanes in the ultimately completely abstract character of the whole. The fact is that the operation of telepathically transmitting private thoughts in the exhibition is, deep down, the most essential one concerning the activity of the contemporary artist. The mention of telepathy, apart from the comical overtones, sums up a métier charged with a savoir faire which hovers beyond – or short of – manuality, of the more virtuous gestures one can imprint through matter, and enters the terrain of utopias, nearer the territory of psychography where an extinct author is presentified, no longer by the magical or mystical, but by himself, considering the most intrinsic conditions to its creation.
Rafael Vogt Maia Rosa
(1) Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, New York, Praeger, 1973, p. 40.
(2) Goldstein and Rorimer, Museum of Conceptual Art catalog, Reconsidering the Object of Art: 1965 to 1975, ISBN 0-262-57111-0.