Rosa Barba Enigmatic Whistler 2010

Rosa Barba
Enigmatic Whistler 2010
Installation at Tate. Photo: Tate Photography © Rosa Barba

Rosa Barba Western Round Table 2007-08

Rosa Barba
Western Round Table 2007–8
Installation at Tate. Photo: Tate Photography © Rosa Barbaimage

Cristina Cámara

The only link with survival passed through time… if they were able to conceive or to dream another time, perhaps they would be able to live in it.

More images pour out and mix. A museum, perhaps the museum of his memory.
Chris Marker, La Jetée 1962

Rosa Barba presents a room full of machines; each one is in motion, emitting a beam of light and the sound of its working gears. Their most prominent components are 16 mm projectors, an anachronistic presence, technology from another time. Brought out from the projection room, they are arranged in extraordinary positions, their loops of celluloid pirouetting anarchically. It is difficult to believe these machines work. But they do and, like Jean Tinguely's kinetic sculptures, it is their movement that activates them as art works. They come alive only when the projector starts up, filling the space with sound, light and movement. The elements of cinema are used by Barba as a language.

Barba carefully selects her raw materials, setting both physical and intangible elements to work in the service of her narratives in films, publications, sculptures and installations. From cinema she borrows the properties of light, sound, movement, and time, as well as the associated hardware of the celluloid and the projector. Just as in her films she allows the camera to become part of the narrative, so the projector takes a leading role in her installations and sculptures. In this way she puts the two languages of sculpture and cinema into dialogue.

Her projectors are always arranged so as to provide additional layers of meaning. In Western Round Table 2007–8, two projectors are facing and spot-light one another. The impression of a public debate between the two machines is reinforced by the sounds made by each of them which suggest a conversation. The idea of discussion is further suggested by the title, which refers to a 1949 symposium of leading cultural figures including Marcel Duchamp and Frank Lloyd Wright. In Stating the Real Sublime 2009 a projector is suspended by its own looping reel of celluloid, producing an unsettling effect in its continuous search for balance. Celluloid again escapes from its conventional position and function in Enigmatic Whistler 2010, wrapping itself round a projector, which, against all odds, still manages to emit a beam of light. In these works the celluloid strips deliver only rectangles of light, not the succession of images we might expect from film. The narrative is now to be found elsewhere: in the spotlight, in the alternative route of celluloid, in the shadows cast on the wall. Barba speaks the language of film but creates a new grammar.

Language in the conventional sense is also employed in Barba's work. She takes words, spoken or read, handwritten or typeset, in the title labels or on screen, as raw materials. She composes the texts herself, or gathers them from her social research or art historical events. These fragments of writing work as single and evocative images in themselves or as vehicles to create images. The best example is perhaps the felt drape series, in which typeset text is cut into felt fabric, creating word-shaped holes in the suspended cloth. Illuminated by a spotlight, it projects the words on the wall behind. Felt, used as a sculptural material by artists in the second half of the twentieth century, serves here as a backdrop and screen. Once again Barba combines the languages of cinema and of sculpture to create an image and to suggest the possibility of others.

Time is inextricably linked with the idea of movement in Barba's sculptures, which might be described as machines made of time. She draws inspiration from works like Chris Marker's 1962 film La Jetée, in which images from the past are recontextualised as glimpses of the future. 'There was no way of telling time,' she writes in one edition of Printed Cinema, the publication of visual essays that accompanies her exhibitions. This temporal uncertainty pervades her sculptures and installations. In them the old-fashioned projectors refer us to the past but their performance makes sense only in the present, when the spools of transparent celluloid are in motion. In the absence of filmic or photographic images, it is the feeling of suspended time that remains, or in Barba's words, 'slowly we abandon ourselves to the sensation'.