Dany Louise reviews Rosa Barba: Subject to Constant Change at the Turner Contemporary.


In what might prove to be a vain rearguard action, the work of rising star Rosa Barba celebrates the material elements of analogue cinema – its projectors and celluloid filmstrips, its control of tone, and the Heath Robinsonesque noises of its various contraptions.


In this sophisticated and elegant show, Rosa Barba interweaves sound with object, text with light, shadow with projection. Determinedly physical, with its eviscerated projectors, metres of celluloid film and enormous text pieces, it articulates a dreamlike installation that is unmistakeably about kinema in scope and theme.


Whirring, clicking and rattling in the warm darkness, the recurring motif is that of things taken apart, of an investigation into the mechanics of constructed narratives. Analysed, laid bare, interrogated, the insistent use of fragmented and re-assembled text is as metaphorically self reflexive as it is functional in the machines.


Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society, 2013 film still 35mm, Courtesy of the artist


Two ball bearings move uneasily on top of a drum, made to vibrate by the movement of filmstrip feeding from projector to reel, for no other purpose than this and the creation of a mesmerising formalist shadowscape on the wall. In Sight enables us to appreciate distance, a wall sculpture of hand written text fragments on celluloid strips, are spooled across our vision, from left to right, for two minutes only. The text can only be read momentarily, and the piece becomes ethereal in its physical movement while playing optically as well, with the illusion of an uneven interrupted surface. The hypnotic Coupez ici is a wall mounted light-box part filled with filmstrip which writhes along the bottom third of the box and up its left side. In literally animating this dead medium, it is oddly reminiscent of Hirst’s vitrines of tortured flies and butterflies.


Rosa Barba, Color Clocks: Verticals Lean Occasionally Consistently Away from Viewpoints, 2012, 3 filmic sculptures, 3 x 35-mm film, motors, Courtesy of the artist


You can trace the lineage of this work back to the early experiments in actually making moving film work, through to formalism and on to kinetic art, all the way to contemporary text-based art. But there is a distinct voice at work here, coherent and shot through with intelligence. That voice becomes muffled in the film Subconscious Society, filmed in Kent and Manchester. Incorporating many of Barba’s stylistic tropes from early cinema and home movies – the fluctuations in colour saturation, contrast, and celluloid quality, along with the insistent exaggerated sound of the projector, which all but drowns out the soundtrack – it evokes a genuine nostalgia for the non-digital era.  It depicts aspects of the Kent landscape as primordial, juxtaposing its geological – that is, time-based – features, against the dead hulks of modernist industrial machinery.  It’s this content that makes it the weakest piece in the show however; it seems too obvious. For all its staged authenticity, the work feels forced; the intention perhaps, to create a local crowd pleaser rather than genuinely work with the artist’s vision and line of enquiry.


Rosa Barba, Subconscious Society, 2013 film still 35mm Courtesy of the artist


In an unusual collaboration with the Cornerhouse in Manchester, Subject to Constant Change at Turner Contemporary is only part of the exhibition, with the rest showing concurrently in the North-West. There are no plans, it seems, for an exchange between the venues. This is a frustrating state of affairs, with the quality of work at Turner Contemporary leaving me desperately keen to see the Cornerhouse works as well. I suspect the two bodies of work combined would create a single exhibition of considerable substance, with the Manchester version of Subconscious Society enhancing the Kent version. Can this be made to happen, I wonder?


Rosa Barba: Subject to Constant Change at the Turner Contemporary 1 February – 5 May 2013


Rosa Barba: Subject to Constant Change at Cornerhouse, Manchester, 26 January – 24 March 2013