‘It is quite obsessive, and I’m quite an obsessive person, so it’s almost like I’ve taken my obsession into my work and each pot is an obsessive object,’ confesses Glenn Barkley. ‘And once I’ve finished, I’ve finished with that obsession and I move on to the next.’ I’m sitting on the side of the road in my car, mobile pressed to my ear, listening to Barkley enthusiastically discuss his forthcoming exhibition, ‘imayimightimust,’ at Sullivan+Strumpf. It’s hot, I’m sweaty – and there is no place I’d rather be. The curator-cum-writer-cum-artist has a way of conscripting you into his obsessions, a way of taking the artistic enterprise and somehow bringing it closer to you. Art is often a foreign and inhospitable beast – one whose discussion is limited to the ‘initiated’ and refuses, or at least discourages, participation from others – but with Barkley, it feels different. It feels approachable.
Barkley’s new exhibition continues to explore many of the themes that have come to characterise his relatively short career as a ceramicist. He returns to the intersection between the past and the present, marrying archaeology with popular culture. Barkley looks at each pot ‘as if it is some sort of archaeological dig’ – an eclectic synecdoche that incorporates text; one moment referencing W. H. Auden poems and the next looking to Van Morrison lyrics.
But despite this eclecticism, there is a concerted consciousness embedded within Barkley’s ceramics that recognises the ‘nowness’ of their own creation. His pots assume one of the most timeless forms yet capture the specificities of our time. ‘[Pottery] is an ancient art form, which has become quite contemporary, but still has a foot in the past in a way that no other medium really does,’ the artist reflects. ‘Once a pot is made it exists forever.’ Barkley plays with this notion of time, pairing the enduring quality of ceramics with the most ephemeral of subjects: Instagram, the Internet, and digital media. Here, the transient becomes permanent, able to escape, what he dubs, the ‘digital death spiral’. Just as we look back at ancient amphorae and witness a moment in time, his works embed aspects of our ever-changing present into the hardened clay.
Yet it would be misrepresentative to confine the discussion of Barkley’s works to such grandiose ideas. While they engage with large questions, there is a humbleness to their existence; to their obvious utility; and to their recognisable form. ‘To me, they’re pots: they have a hole in the top, they have some sort of function,’ the artist says. ‘I want them to be useful in some way – I don’t think people use them to put flowers in, but I wish they would.’ Put flowers in the art? Is he mad? No, just obsessed. It’s clear from the way Barkley discusses his work that he personally invests in their every contour. He avoids the finesse that is afforded by throwing on a wheel, instead opting to slowly hand build each of his creations: coil by coil, piece by piece.
While the surfaces of Barkley’s works are a myriad of patterns and textures, they maintain a simplicity of form. He allows traces of their construction to remain visible, attracting not only the audience’s vision but also their hands. ‘As a curator, I was always interested in the idea of systems – so you can use a system to make a work and if you follow the system anyone can make the work,’ Barkley explains. ‘There is something about my work that fits into this whole idea of systems-based making. So if I were to show you how to make one and show you the system, you could make it.’ He pauses. ‘I just hope that people don’t.’
It strikes me as we talk that Barkley’s experience as a curator has made him more responsive to his viewers. I don’t mean that he looks to placate them, but that there is some ineffable sense of generosity in his work. Yet, when I put this to him, his answer surprises me. ‘Part of the reason that the surfaces [of the pots] are so active and that they are so time consuming… is that I don’t want to feel lazy, and I don’t want the audience to think I’m lazy,’ he confides. ‘I know that the audience likes and appreciates labour, so quite often it’s about me putting in that labour, so that viewers don’t think I’ve done it quickly.’ There is something both comically absurd and completely understandable in Barkley’s sentiments, and the idea that one can toil tirelessly on a show and yet still feel the need to do more.
But of course he does. After all, he’s obsessed.
Tai Mitsuji is a Sydney-based writer.
7 to 23 June, 2018