Sara Barker & Ryder Architecture – The Subtle Knife, BALTIC

Installation view BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art. Photo: Colin Davison. © Sara Barker, Ryder Architecture and BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art

Text by Louise Winter

What better way to celebrate the opening of BALTIC’s redesigned Level 2 gallery, than with a site-specific collaboration between artist Sara Barker and the designers behind the new space, Ryder Architecture.

 

With the second floor now resembling a tall white box the inclusion of a work of art seems a welcome addition to the space. Although, perhaps ‘addition’ isn’t the right word given Ryder’s emphasis on the work as ‘of’ the space and not ‘in’ it. More than a pedantic use of grammar, this distinguishing of prepositions, in fact, gives us a clue as to the intention of the collaborators’: to create a sculptural installation that, like all good site-specific art, explores and responds to the particularities of a given space.

 

Employing techniques borrowed from jewellery making and the construction industry, Barker uses brass, copper and painted aluminium rods to create a metal framework that bridges two clusters of glass. The structure is seated on what initially appear to be monumental slabs of plaster but are later revealed to be wood rendered with cement; the use of trompe l’oeil eloquently subverting our assumptions of materiality with the uneasy reminder that deception hides in plain sight.

 

Time spent weaving through and around the installation is rewarded by surprising juxtapositions that open up virtual spaces; intersecting rods form imaginary plates drawn in air and shadows cast on plinths continue the structure’s lines, extending its form. In one instance, rather humorously, reflections on glass panels make it appear as though visitors to the gallery are entering and exiting via the installation itself as opposed to the building’s lifts. But is there more to this show than a string of visual ruses?

 

Richard Serra believed it was crucial for site-specific work to become part of the site in order to restructure its organisation both perceptually and conceptually, and certainly, this exhibition’s strength lies in its ability to simultaneously fracture and integrate its surroundings, by exploiting the volume and architecture of BALTIC’s second floor, drawing attention to the different ways of perceiving.

 

That said, it is impossible to come away from this show without feeling that something is missing. The problem lies in the fact that what is intended as a collaboration ends up in compromise which sees the artist Sara Barker come off worse. Her earlier works such as ‘Conversions’ (2011) breach the boundaries of painting and sculpture with their wonky steel and aluminium lines that seem almost unsure of themselves. In swapping human for architectural scale at BALTIC, Barker loses her characteristic spontaneity and organic approach to materials, resulting in a structure that, though elegant, also seems clinical and over-thought.

 

The title of the installation, The Subtle Knife, pays homage to a fantasy novel written by Phillip Pullman in 1997 and conjures up the idea of a knife that opens up an entrance to another world. This sculpture, with its sharp lines across a white space appears to hold the same promise yet, despite its nuanced interruptions that open up portals into the imaginary, it lacks the material integrity necessary to become anything other than mere spectacle. Perhaps Barker and Ryder’s final material subversion is that of the knife itself, which has lost its ability to pierce.

 

Sara Barker and Ryder Architecture: The Subtle Knife continues at BALTIC, Gateshead until 30 March 2014.

Sara Barker and leading architects from Ryder Architecture will be discussing their collaboration at BALTIC on 30 January 2014.

 

Image by Colin Davison

Louise Winter is an artist and writer based in Newcastle.