Phyllida Barlow: RIG
Hauser & Wirth
London W1J 9DY
2 September through 22 October 2011
Big slabs of sloppy cement are blocking your way from the moment you step foot inside the Hauser & Wirth gallery. Phyllida Barlow has filled the space to the brim with her bold, looming sculptures; out of the cement rise wooden poles, supporting even bigger blocks sitting heavy above our heads. Most of the sculptures making up ‘RIG’ have been constructed in situ, as Barlow has dragged the scruff and grime of the city right into the heart of this elegant building. Moving into the room, the audience has no choice but to walk between the concrete structures, nervously glancing upwards with fingers crossed that the towering blocks won’t tumble.
Barlow has drawn inspiration from the city and its building materials for ‘RIG’, looking to capture the urban congestion “like something wild and feral”. Cardboard, cement, polystyrene and fabric have been used to create the works, neatly fitted into the numerous, small rooms comprising Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly gallery. The basement is filled with concrete shapes, bent in half and grouped together like polyps at the bottom of the ocean. In the room with the armoured door is a stack of easels smeared with paint; a pile of concrete rods is tucked away on top of the old safe. These rough and unromantic materials somehow take on an organic feel, threatening to burst out of confinement. Barlow has taken the physical elements of a city and stripped them back to their barest components, urging us not just to see but also sense: “Things aren’t just visual. They are sensations of physicality.” Even though we know a city isn’t strictly alive, we understand it has its own instincts and moods.
Walking up the narrow stairs to the first floor brings you to another labyrinthine cityscape. Barlow has filled a room entirely with geometrical structures, again forcing the visitor to walk through the works instead of remaining on the sideline. Smeared in black and pink paint, the elements seem placed at random, leading you through the room in a swirling pattern. London, the city outside, is a bit like this too: full of haphazard streets running at illogical angles, a consequence of being built up slowly and organically over millennia.
With ‘RIG’, Barlow leaves her audience no choice but to step up close to observe the sculptures, which never stop threatening to burst out of their limited space. The feeling created is one of energetic tension; then when you leave and step onto the busy London street, the feeling continues.