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


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.


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.


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.


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.

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