Playing marbles with words

'The tide comes in and out on our story.' The words of Irishwoman Orla Barry read like an incessant river of words. Her stories seem to originate directly from the well from which all thoughts spontaneously spring. Anecdotes, inventions, descriptions, incomplete comparisons, absurd caricatures, biographical elements, apparent truths, injunctions – these are all elements that Barry assembles into her own, almost private, system. Long drawn-out details are more important to this than a storyline. The most minor peripheral factors are expanded upon boundlessly. In its complexity, her writing seems like a direct reflection of our thought since there are no unexpected main or bit players or intrigues. In 'Holding thoughts' she attempts to paint a picture with the speed of a Polaroid photograph using hopelessly interwoven thoughts. Nonetheless, her language is in no sense complicated. In fact it more closely resembles children's rhymes in its utter simplicity and is free of any superimposed meaning; it follows the expected order, allowing us to conjure with it at will. Her work seems to have a magic about it, as in long aphorisms in which the words tumble after one another as a matter of course. Separated from meaning, they invite us to be swept away with them on their flood of imagery.

'Wake up or sleep, but please stop floating between the two.' Barry's words have something of the surreal about them. They teach us something about the curious connections that our minds make. Moments are just bumped into each other as in a game of marbles. We move from one mood to another, deeply melancholy passages are interchanged with brief alert messages. Coincidences and repeated occurrences are commonplace. The result has something of René Magritte's bizarre combinations of imagery which, in all their absurdity, created an enriched field of meaning. As in the work of the Brussels painter, Orla Barry's words appear to emanate from the mouth of a sleepwalker or daydreamer: straight out of the unconscious, where logic, cause and effect are wicked things.

'Then something awakens inside, starts telling me stories, head stories, sleep stories that I would like to direct.' Barry's individual sentences and stories stimulate our imagination. She focuses on means of communication and on how the complexity of human relationships is able to find a place for itself within this. Between 1991 and 1999 she kept a kind of diary called the 'Blue Volumes' in which she wrote down sentences for each date. In the mid-1990s she used to stuff little notes with words like 'You only have to choose a moment' into the jacket pockets of total strangers, or otherwise she would leave such short sentences lying on café tables, in the tram or the train. The recipient becomes caught up in a system that, although not a part of him, does spur him on to reconsider and to remember. The project in the newspaper De Morgen was a similar case in which one sentence by Barry appeared every day over the course of a few weeks. Absurd and completely devoid of any context, they were haphazardly placed amid the news of the day. 'A number of days something leads to nothing', or 'No lights at the laundrette'. It was not so much the sentences themselves as the subsequent outpouring of responses to them that interested her. Readers interpreted them as secret messages, supposed them to be part of an advertising campaign or else spontaneously replied to them. 

'The art of writing begins with the voice and the eyes, said the old woman.' While Barry's words exist in their own right, they serve equally as a springboard to (other) expressive works of hers, such as sound bites, photographic series and videos. Barry usually recites the texts herself. In audio works, such as Listen to this (2000), she speaks directly to the listener several times. She lends a visual, physical and sensual quality to the text from her standpoint as the writer. This is strengthened by the monochrome, colourful 'places' that she creates for looking and listening. The tonality of her voice makes it easy for people to become immersed in the words and flow with the text. Tone and rhythm give the recitation a very individual character. Recently, she created the work Unsaid (2001) together with the Portuguese artist Rui Chafes. Visitors are invited to place their heads in Chafes' sitting sculpture thus removing any physical distance. Once in position, Barry speaks to the listener in an imploring whispered tone making the listener feel at once uneasy and yet still wishing to continue listening because of what she is relating and what it evokes. 

'Only this airy place exists, light and grey. ' In A Scavenger's Daughter (1998-99), a man and two women recite the text against a background of numerous noises, whistling, and Irish songs. Two sisters attempt to converse with each other during a train journey. However, they are continually distracted by other passengers, by what they see outside, by memories of their youth, etc., to the extent that, after following a circuitous route, they constantly lose sight of the crux of the matter. The video of A Tear for a Glass of Water (1997–99) has the text recited as a monologue by actress Tara Casey. Theatrical, uninterrupted and meticulously directed, she takes on the role of storyteller, addressing the viewer face on as a 'sister'. She retrieves memories from the past, sometimes the most bizarre subjects, or relates so-called truths, ('The Mississippi rises in the state of Minnesota', for example). The bright colours and the frontal hard lighting cause you to try to listen attentively to Casey. The remarkable element is that the listener takes everything that is said as being almost obvious even though no clear line appears to run through any of it. The portraits (Undercurrents, 1997) that Barry made of friends have a similar bizarre import. Barry adds attributes as if they were still lives. She attempts to seize moments of unease, such as when you place someone with whom you have a close bond in front of the camera. The images that Orla Barry supplies us with in the photographs and videos in no way merely illustrate the text. They exist in parallel to it and provide links with it. In fact, the images generate a new layer of meaning, a layer that embeds the whole in a broader tangle.

'I crawl up the beach and place myself on a female rock and roar rotten words to the sea.' Females are the pivotal figures in Orla Barry's work. They are the closest to nature. They are 'mermaids', 'far ascendants of king Aha', 'tamed cheetahs'. The 'sisters' shout, share their thoughts with each other, hatch plots, converse like witches, eat strange things, make concoctions to ward off fate and observe life from their own 'wise' perspective. The sisters about whom Barry speaks are at one with the natural elements. They bathe in the sea, adorn themselves with shells, their hair covers the rocks. Numerous iconographic elements recur in Barry's work in an interchangeable context as they hold the pieces together. Thus there are always the sisters and the sea, the Irish sea, with rocks, seaweed, shells and so forth which are assigned human properties. Who are the 'women with crosses around their necks and dirty handkerchiefs stuffed up their black sleeves', who is the 'queen of that small green patch', the [sic] 'spanky Tudor queen'? All of them (mythical) figures from Irish folklore, brought forward again by Barry for us to remember? They are like players in the magic system sketched by Barry. The actual interpretation of all of this is left to the readers/listeners/viewers. On the one hand, they are given the feeling of being an intruder or voyeur in Barry's personal world and the work resists unambiguous interpretation. On the other hand, they are actively involved and invited to relate everything to themselves: 'I will pull the narrative from under you.' The work is open to the perception of the viewer and his or her story at that moment. The opportunity exists to be carried along with the flow to the next wave or turning point.

'I suppose there are two sides to that story, like all stories.' The colourful descriptions of Irish nature are all the more striking when these are compared with the Brussels where Barry has lived since 1994. This 'grey and brown stone jungle' constitutes an opposite to green, contemporary Ireland. Ireland and Brussels, ebb and flow; water is a constant element for Orla Barry. Virtually every day she goes to the swimming pool where lifeguards 'sip red wine and the atmosphere is that of a kind of rehab centre' and takes stories with her. In the winter she swims in the sea, 'here I go white, then purple, then red', she loves the heartbeats and the attack on her nervous system. In 2000, she was invited to take a project to Hampstead Heath in London where there is a series of ponds acting like an oasis in the city. A notable aspect of this project was the numerous texts on signs in the park that issued orders and prohibitions begging the visitors' attention. Barry allowed the visitors to have their say and put their stories and photographs of the ponds, the winter swimmers and the summer festivals in a magazine. In Brussels, she worked for some time with Els Dietvorst on the project entitled 'The return of the swallows', inspired by Rimbaud's writings about Brussels. She made a film using the residents of the Midi district in Brussels. Barry records their stories, publishes photographs of the events and reports about the project in a magazine named after it. 

'Here I can wander all my beaches all alone.' In the recent Foundlings (2001), we see Orla Barry's timeless Ireland. The film is like an ambiguous declaration of love to the beaches of Ireland. The text and photographic stills were produced between 1997 and 1999. The text describes the sea and the rocks and the desire to be swallowed up by the waters. The attached series of 11 portraits are close-up shots of lonely rocks in the surf. The combination of image and text makes it appear as if the rocks were addressing the reader or as if the rocks are giving monologues enhanced by the churning of the surf. In the video, Barry relates her story to us and various aspects of the texts are visualised poetically. We see the young sisters building sandcastles and searching for shells, the central female character curling up to sleep in the sand, the Irish friars in the pub, Orla's sisters, the pints of Guinness, the local singer – numerous clichéd images that are simultaneously confirmed and swept aside. The images assault you, inundate you until at the end the female character dives into the sea that has been constantly advancing, lets herself be carried away with the text and disappears from view.

Eva Wittocx