"I never stop taking risks – this is the condition for the intoxication of hearts" Georges Bataille (1)
Orla Barry's diverse and multilayered work is particularly literary. It is presented in the form of photographs, sound installations, performances, videos and texts – including books – which are related alternatively or simultaneously to fiction, poetry and theatre. It would not be true to say that Barry is not interested in the formal aspects of her work since her work is produced with great care, but the fundamental element characterising and unifying it is the poetic aspect of her art practise. This is why, despite the formal diversity of her work, there is a unifying character. Her entire work is a reflection on the mechanisms of thought and memory, seeking, in the words of Cherry Smith, "the place where myth, memory and a robust and sensual physical reality intersect" (2). To do this, Barry gives us works that adopt the heterogeneous forms that prove most suitable to describe these time lapses. They are always clear and straightforward, and do not distract our attention towards what we might call the handcrafted aspects of her work. It is not that the final result is more important than the medium, but that both are one and the same, permitting a curious spatial experience of language. Thus Orla Barry's works are the meeting-point between the artist – herself – and the viewer, who reinterprets what he or she sees, reads and hears in what we might call a psychological space. Viewers do not analyse a specific three-dimensionsal object, but rather search in the mechanisms of their own brains for what has given rise to the artwork that they are confronting.
Orla Barry's work speaks, among other things, of disintegrated identity. It offers us narratives that go off in different directions and move through vague spaces and times as in dreams. This vagueness obviously complies with a will to ensure precision, by creating a context in which broken ideas become clear, taking a phrase from her text for the video A Tear for a Glass of Water (1997-1999), which explains partly how her narratives work. Poetry is a way of understanding the world which does not work denotatively. It is more than an instrument of knowledge: it is a form of knowledge in itself. And this idea is the foundation on which Orla Barry's work is built. Indeed, in the above-mentioned work, we find sentences that provide direct information, such as "I like French cooking", however this very sentence is followed by another such as "I was born in April 1904", which obviously has a different function – bringing us into the world of myth – since the woman saying it – the actress Tara Casey – is a much younger woman. We also find very poetic sentences that could be explanatory, like "Art is a wound in the head", and others that appear to exist merely as images or sounds, for instance "Singular sunflower". There is no hierarchy between all of these types of sentences, and the effect is accumulative.
In her texts, then, Orla Barry mixes up maxims, images and descriptions that act as memory flashbacks, mimicing the chaotic structure of thought. It is clearly easy to establish an Irish precedent for her work ranging from the interior monologue of James Joyce and the vague theatrical (or mental) spaces of Samuel Beckett to the complex audiovisual work of James Coleman, where the text is equally important as the visual image being portrayed. Barry shares this tradition with a few other members of her generation such as Gerard Byrne who, like Coleman and Barry, also works with actors. In any case, Orla Barry's work in particular forms a chart of her most intimate feelings. It also permits poetry to be deciphered or re-read. The places in which her audiovisual works take place to date (I have not yet seen the new film presented in this exhibition) always look like real or metaphorical stage settings: an empty theatre in Wideawake (2003), making the most of the literal meaning; the two home settings in A Tear for a Glass of Water; and the metaphorical space of a beach in Foundlings (2001), her most complex film so far. These places are possibly different metaphors for naked thought. What fascinates Barry is the power of language in transcending the limits of experience and objectifying emotion, however intense it is. In this process, the mystery of things does not disappear, but is perhaps reconverted into myth itself.
The Irish beaches we see in Foundlings are a particularly suitable image to use when speaking of the artist's psyche, and by extension of the psyche of all of us. Mixing autobiographical memories with an analysis of desire, Barry maintains an area of freedom inside which is visualised as the sea or nature. The character in the red swimsuit walking along the first beach (we do not know where she comes from) and who returns to the sea at the end, becoming lost on the horizon, turns into a mythical figure. We see a woman who has perhaps been abandoned at the shore and whose thoughts move in time with the waves, powerful when they rise up but always disintegrating into a continuous magma. Everything that is going on inside her is as intangible as the clouds, the sand, the tides or the day itself, with its diurnal and nocturnal cycle. Like all of these things, this interior is no less real or marvellous. The person returns to the sea, accepting her shortcomings: "It's not my hands that are shaking, it's the world that's shaking". Words written with stones and shells are all that remain on the beach: "tide life", "alive", "queer", "eye", "girl", "boy", "unreal", "alone"… In addition to reflecting the thinking with which Orla Barry's work is imbued, the analysis of desire, these words are perhaps, given their ephemeral state since nothing lasts on a beach, metaphors for artistic creativity, the power of which is not diminished by its fragility. The beach is the place where land, sea and air are found, therefore it is also a metaphor for the place where memory, myth and physical reality - according to the above quotation from Cherry Smith - materialise.
We might also say that the characters in Orla Barry's videos live in a place close to madness, occasionally overstepping the boundaries in order to delimit the area of common sense. In Wideawake, the character we see, performed by Caroline Donnelly, appears to be wandering in a dream, although we have seen her wake up. Her existence is probably due to the need to objectify a series of feelings and ideas in an unconnected way. After waking up, the character in this video goes through some empty corridors and discovers, on opening a door, a theatre that is also empty. The woman scrambles on to the stage, offering us a moody monologue while walking and running alternatively on a thin rectangular platform. This underlines the idea of fragility since she could fall off at any moment. The woman who is dreaming awake ends her monologue and goes back towards the door by which she entered, excusing herself to the empty chairs in the theatre as though there were people sitting in them watching her performance. We know that there is no exit where she came in, and that there is also nobody there, therefore it is possible to imagine the woman returning again alone and repeating the entire operation. The character in Wideawake becomes angry, feels sorry and is frequently incoherent, but does not surrender yet, accepting her solitude. In any case, we can only venture one interpretation of many. Almost at the end of her monologue, the character blurts out: "I don't want to be anything fully. Do you understand me? Commit, confirm, never!". The only thing we know for sure is that she wants to find a hotel for the night and to rest.
In A Tear for a Glass of Water, we see a woman in two different scenes who is speaking, sometimes of her sister, while uttering a succession of short sentences in a logical order. These sentences may, as we said, be maxims, colloquial phrases or poetic images. Together they seem to want to indicate the limits of language for expressing definitively our feelings and emotions. In the first scene we see the woman, played by Tara Casey, seated on a bed looking at the camera. The only décor we see are a life-buoy and a whisk, which appear to indicate that she is about to drown and that all she can do is mix her ideas. Afterwards we see her behind a ladder in front of a painted wall. While she speaks, again looking straight into the camera, she drinks a few sips of an unidentified drink. What she is saying can be understood as an attempt to maintain internal order during a break while she is painting the inside of her house. In both situations, what is depicted is the difficulty in controlling our thoughts, which develop uncontrollably in many directions. In meditation techniques, when observing the mechanisms of thought, an understanding of awareness is obtained, showing us what is it that makes us individuals.
In Unsaid, a sound work, which can be heard while seated on a sculpture by the Portuguese artist, Rui Chafes, the scene in which the work occurs is the very brain of the viewer. The viewer must sit on a strange iron chair and put his head inside the hollow of the sculpture to hear the artist's voice, which is sometimes distorted with echoes and slowed down to a seemingly drugged state. The voice is surrounded by a constant heartbeat, which from time to time speeds up and slows down, reaching climaxes and achieving great emotional effect. At the beginning, the voice exclaims you are sitting inside me, which in fact is happening literally, gradually transiting through various moods using direct, hermetic or suggestive expressions, some bringing the listener close and some creating a distance. The voice tells us my head is overflowing, thus there are also rhythmic associations of apparent incoherence. It is poetic language understood as a lament or a cry – which can also be seen in sentences such as surrounded by heat you eat snow, and which are underlined by means of the dramatic use of the voice – in accordance with the poetics of Jean Cohen as described by the French novelist, Michel Houllebecq: "In poetry, the words vibrate, recovering their original value. But it is not an exclusively musical vibration. Through words, the reality that they designate recovers its power of horror and fascination, its original pathos (…) A theory which Jean Cohen summarises in this phrase: "Poetry is the song of meaning". (3)
Other textual works such as those collected in the Blue Volumes of Orla Barry are aphoristic; sometimes they are simply a verb, the description of an action or the name of something, written under a specific date: "…and so she watched a duck for an hour" is one example. In this way, the uttering acquires unusual importance although it still lacks a real context since the date could be different for the reader without altering what the sensation. We do not know why she began to look at the duck or why she dedicated herself to this action. Another sentence, "The last grey day in the month of March", under the title 31 March 1992, suggests the end of a grey period in emotional terms, but it could be something merely descriptive. Orla Barry watches herself looking for moments to cling to in everyday life. She may not succeed – nobody can – in explaining the meaning of things, but she can explain with astonishing clarity our need to strike up a symbolic relationship with things, feelings, actions and worlds. She induces us, moreover, with oriental wisdom, to concentrate on everything that happens to us however slight it appears.
(1) Georges Bataille, Sur Nietzsche, Gallimard, Paris 1945.
(2) Cherry Smyth, Flown and Sealed, en Orla Barry, Foundlings, Argos Editions, Brussels, 2002.
(3) Michel Houellebecq, Interventions, Flammarion, París, 1998.