Cornelia Parker’s PsychoBarn Plays On Incongruity and Cliche on Met Roof

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Psychoanalysis, barns, Hitchcock, and Hopper: Cornelia Parker’s contemporary art installation Transitional Object (PsychoBarn) is the latest in the Met’s Rooftop commission and, as has been true of other projects in the space, it struggles to achieve the nuance that the artist’s creates in the rest of their work despite its ambitions. As the title suggests, Parker drew on the Americana of the red barn and Hitchcock’s Bates Mansion in the 1960 film Psycho to create this 30-foot-high structure, which also references the lonely homes painted by Edward Hopper.

Edward Hoppe, House by the Railroad, 1925

Edward Hopper, The House by the Railroad, 1925

British artist Cornelia Parker is known for her incredible installations combining science, violence, the force of nature, such as Cold Dark Matter, which froze an explosion into bits of broken matter careening apart from a lit central point. This installation at the Met lacks that kind of dynamism, and replaces scientific overtones with psychoanalysis. Psychoanalysis is often maligned as a fuzzy pseudoscience, Perhaps similarly its hard to put my finger on whether Transitional Object (Psycho Barn) is the real thing. It’s certainly slippery.

Bates home as seen in Psycho, 1960

Bates home as seen in Psycho, 1960

The viewer first has the iconic impression of a seemingly full-sized house perched atop the cavernous terrace of the Met, as incongruous as Dorothy’s house in Oz, yet the intensely solid presence is revealed to be an illusion as the viewer walks across the terrace. The house facade is only that–it is open at the back, displaying sandbags, cavities, and metal supports of its construction. This mimics how Psycho was filmed–using only two facades and one camera angle to create the infamous scenes of the Bates house high on the hill. The artist plays brilliantly with incongruities of scale. Although certainly not small, perched on the Met’s large roof deck the structure appears miniaturized, and the backdrop of skyscrapers behind Central Park increases the dislocations of scale and place.

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Significantly, the artist went to great lengths over the materials for the structure. Rather than the plywood of a stage sets, Psychobarn was built out of recovered historic red barns from the country. The idea of the red barn implies a wholesomeness that contrasts with the horror of the Bates home and the loneliness of Hopper’s houses, adding to the incongruity of scale.

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To me, it recalls Rachel Whiteread’s 1994 House, a concrete cast of a row house in London scheduled for demolition that exhibited the ghostly presence of what was. Whiteread’s House figured as the indexical sign of absence and loss, rather than referring to cinematic illusion as Parker does here, but both are equally unreal. The uncanny affect in both cases are the result of a presence both familiar and strange, particularly in relation to domestic architecture, which often becomes the locus of the uncanny.

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Certainly the structure vacillates between two poles–that of solid and flat, reality and illusion, foreboding and wholesome, large and small. This dynamic equilibrium is a kind of mental construct as the viewer accommodates both aspects at the same time while sharing the terrace with it. Such a stance recalls the full title: Transitional Object (Psychobarn) is first labelled a transitional object. A transitional object is a term from psychoanalysis used for objects that children rely on as they separate from their parents (for example, a security blanket). It suggests that the viewer is in the process of becoming, and the perhaps the horror and comfort of the American psyche write large is visualized here. Yet for all the invoked clichés and allusions to the uncanny, the structure never dominates the large terrace, and its lack of dark depths denies the viewer a psychological entrance point.

Revisiting Imran Qureshi’s Roof Garden Commission: Miniature as Medium

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If you are like me, you might not have realized how closely Imran Qureshi’s installation on this roof of the Met this summer is connected to the tradition of miniature painting in South Asia. Certainly the red splatters remind one more immediately of Jackson Pollock, as well as of bloodstains, even if the suggestion of violence felt somehow unreal when seen over the trees of Central Park. When I saw the Pakistani artist’s more traditionally realized miniature painting below, it clicked into place for me.

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Qureshi’s 2011 miniature on traditional wasli paper, Blessings on the Land of My Love, uses the same splattered motif as the roof garden, only organized around the drainage grate on an interior courtyard. Blessings Upon the Land of My Love was also a 2011 site-specific installation at the Sharjah Biennial 10 that used this red vegetal patterning to take on the architectural structure.  The miniature on paper suggests that Qureshi sees the same vision whether writ small or large, and that moving the miniature off the page and putting it in dialogue with architecture still retains some essence of the miniature. In fact, considering the installation in closer relation to miniature painting allows one to see both how Qureshi employed formal elements of his traditional miniature training, in the Pahari style foliage, and even to connect it with the Mughal practice of employing pictorial artists to decorate their palaces with large wall paintings in addition to illustrating books. In a sense, miniature painting is a medium that the artist works through, rather than resides in.

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William Kentridge’s The Refusal of Time at the Met

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A recent acquisition by the Met, William Kentridge’s five-channel video installation The Refusal of Time is currently on display until late Spring. Like his work in general, I love it and highly recommend you go see it. It is drawing-based, as his work tends to be, intentionally rough to look handmade and refer to the process of making and artist himself. Kentridge makes an appearance as the artist, and orchestrator of this immersive video installation that harnesses both sound and movement to call on all your senses. While he does so, though, he locks you into the chairs screwed to the floor, so that your view is limited, and uses all the walls of the gallery so that it is physically impossible for the viewer to see it all. It becomes a manifestation of time and its refusal to be contained.

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There is a narrative, although despite having sat through it twice I couldn’t outline it for you. It involves, yes, time, but also colonization and South Africa, an implied romance, the proliferation of knowledge and the ambitions of man. Its crescendo and finale is an energetic march of silhouetted characters, who pump instruments, take showers, and dance to the inevitable and unstoppable march of time.

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Perhaps a solid criticism would be that Kentridge has matured into a recognizable style, with reoccurring motifs, and rather than innovate he uses his success to do more lavish versions of the same thing. A friend of mine argued that the essence of his work remains in the early drawings and films. Maybe that is true, but I think one reason people might distrust his work is because it is so enjoyable. There’s a sense that it can’t be “serious” or “good” art if the viewer can just lose themselves in the experience: that to do so is shallow. To my mind, that doesn’t do justify to a work that is slippery, unstable, philosophical, and complex even while it lulls you into pleasurable viewing.

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