Robert Barry's Words and Music
Robert Barry, one of the most influential American conceptual artists of the 60s and 70s, talks to Talitha Kotzé about his new installation for The Common Guild
Robert Barry, who wilfully abandoned painting in 1967 to become one of the central figures of conceptual art, is having his first solo showcase Words and Music in Glasgow. Dematerialising the art object, Barry developed a practice producing ephemeral and often invisible works such as telepathically communicating a work of art; using the carrier waves of a radio station for a set length of time; and releasing a vial of helium in a desert. Relying heavily on language throughout, he later became solely interested in words and today he is best known for his large-scale text installations called ‘word spaces’.
Barry will construct an assembly of individual words in response to the site-specific architecture of The Common Guild by using letters made out of a silver mirror-like vinyl film. Choosing the words comes intuitively: ‘I work from a list of words I’ve compiled over the years,’ he says. ‘Many have been used over and over in various situations. Their meaning in this particular work comes from the way they are used, and where and how they are positioned.’
The use of text in art is by no means a novel idea, the two have always been intertwined and can be seen in religious paintings of the 15th century, more intentionally in cubism and Dadaism in the early 20th century and are dispersed in the work of postwar artists. In the early 1970s Barry, together with, amongst others, Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner and the English Art & Language Group, produced the first exclusively linguistic works. Thereafter artists such as Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger developed text-based practices, and in Scotland artists including Douglas Gordon, Nathan Coley, Sue Tompkins continue to use text as an important part of their work.
Today Barry uses techniques regardless of their mediums: photography, sculpture, painting or video is utilised as and when he needs them. Accompanying his words-as-objects installation will be a video piece incorporating music played by his contemporary, William Anastasi. ‘I’ve know Bill for many years,’ says Barry. ‘He has this old piano in his studio and he likes to play it to relax … he was a friend of John Cage and I think that reflects in his playing of those old tunes.’
The video consists of Anastasi’s performance superimposed with changing words and scenarios. ‘There are levels of experience,’ says Barry, ‘obviously it’s about here and now and some place else and memory and time and engagement with the material, and all that pre-eminent modernist art stuff. The piece will only exist in this place at this time for these people.’
Barry hopes that viewers will engage and explains that, like any artist, he tries to get into their minds and provoke their imagination. ‘I like to use words because they come from us. They don’t exist in nature. Even as silent objects, they speak to us. I’m not telling a story, or creating a narrative, or even commenting on the space. In fact, I try to activate the space around the words. Hopefully the viewers will see themselves reflected in the words, in more ways than one.’
Robert Barry: Words and Music, The Common Guild, Glasgow, Sat 4 Sep–Sat 6 Nov.