A Letter from Venice – Part Two: Phyllida Barlow’s ‘Folly’

Phyllida Barlow’s work has been seen throughout the UK recently — at the Hepworth as part of the inaugural sculpture prize, and filling Tate Britain’s Duveen Gallery and Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket. Her work is on show until late November in the British Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Much of the work on display in Venice speaks of migration, ethnicity, and post-colonialism — I’ll cover this in other posts — but Barlow has produced a work that is concerned with traditional sculptural concerns: space, weight, scale, and so on.

The British Pavilion is a classical space with steps learning up to an entrance with a pediment, that gives on to a large space flanked symmetrically by smaller spaces. A narrower space occupies the back of the building, accessed through corner rooms. It’s all rather formal and would be familiar to any student of Palladio or the British Country House. Into this polite set of rooms Barlow has placed large shaggy structures and free-standing piles of various kind. There’s even a neat rack of coloured sheets of paper. It’s a visceral collection that forces the viewer to peek behind, look up at, squeeze past, and so on. The objects force a reappraisal of the space, each other, and of the visitor’s body. There’s generally something ‘over size’ about Barlow’s work and it’s the case here. The sculptures (though that seems too polite or formal a word for these things), boss the space.

The individual elements have titles that are reassuringly descriptive: baubles, coilcolumn, bunting, rack, awnings, slashedcolumn, which reinforces their physicality. These aren’t romantic or wistful things, or even worse, props for an idea or a performance that you’ve missed, but elemental propositions that belong here.

The indexical nature of the collection is reinforced by the different ways that things are made. Lengths of painted wood are bundled together to support for a large box that suddenly looks like it’s spilling its contents, while another tower is coiled from red cloth-covered tubes. The internal rhythms of these neighbours feed off and make sense of one another. Barlow’s work has a painterly quality that comes from the scuffed and scumbled application of pigment to her objects’ surfaces, though the substrate is often coloured too, even if that colour is grey. There is precious little in the way of painting in Venice this time round, so perhaps I’m overstating this element, but it does contribute to the robustness of the collection. For all the boldness and confidence there’s subtlety and nuance too and even humour. One piece includes a balcony faced by three ‘chairs’, as if waiting for Juliet to turn up. There’s also a piece called pianostack/anvil, implying that Wile E. Coyote might be lurking somewhere.

The whole piece is called Folly which is explained in the accompanying literature as an English word that has ‘several meanings. It can refer to a solely decorative architectural feature whilst also conveying a a jovial foolishness’. It’s a perfect title as, like the work, it cuts both ways and describes a tension inherent in the practice.

Furthermore, it struck me as I walked through Venice that Barlow’s work is perfect for the city. Both are a little absurd and ad hoc — improvised on site — and a bit shabby but grand and ambitious too. Amongst the serious and sombre political statements elsewhere in the Biennale the British Pavilion is — for once — an unapologetic home for art that is happy in its skin; a happiness bound up in curiosity for its own sake.

Image Credit: Bryan Eccleshall.


Also published on Medium.

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