Phyllida Barlow at the Tate

Impossible not to be surprised by this monumental presence at the Duveen Galleries, Tate Britain! Phyllida Barlow’s installation, ‘dock’, makes quite an impression on the unsuspecting visitor walking into the Tate.

Yet taking a few steps through the artwork, and a deep breath, the mind starts working. Tate installation Isn’t this… err, fragile… recycling materials… momentous… look, plastic bags, cartons… How interesting, that the Tate too (see Kader Attia, Whitechapel),  in commissioning Phyllida Barlow’s work in 2014, ends up with a piece that reflects on fragility, transformation, repair, re-appropriation… Though these are not words or concepts I saw used in the descriptions of this work.

Adrian Searle, in The Guardian review, sees,

“All kinds of things happen over our heads. Here’s something like a fungus or a virus hanging in space, and nearby, there’s some sort of blanket-swathed chrysalis or grub. One sees echoes, here and there, of the many artists Barlow has taught in her distinguished career as an educator.”

A different kind of inequality is being noticed here: disparate, different objects and materials, producing a different kind of vision: a different ‘eye’. Yet this difference might also be seen as one of materials ‘unequal’ to those usually seen at the Tate. In fact, marble and gilded frames, the austere, classical beauty of the Galleries contrast with the used cartons and plastic that hold this work — seven pieces in total — together.

Are the latter unequal to the task? My answer would be: no, they fit Barlow’s work perfectly, by way of bringing out the juxtaposition of the two extremes. Her fascination with the grand Tate Britain sitting majestically next to the Thames, and its docks, has produced a fitting installation. Loading and unloading goods that came and went irrespective of their worth associate with this mass, and mess of materials, producing a work seemingly in the process of collapsing.

Tate Installation, Phyllida Barlow, After all it is the Thames that connected Imperial Britain to its colonies and the world… a ‘stage’ for playing out inequalities, so perceptively linked by Joseph Conrad to the Empire’s Heart of Darkness.

Barlow, in a Guardian interview, reminds us of how our age has been marked by the iconic fall of many things: the twin towers and all they represented for the whole world, for instance; the markets; the fall of dictatorships and idols too. So the pull of gravity and precariousness, ever present in our age, and in Barlow’s work, are vital to this specific project. Interestingly, she says that, until recently, she used to dismantle and then recycle her previous exhibits at the end of her shows.


wide flowing river

the tall orders we left



This post is part of a series of articles written for Blog Action Day 2014, held on the 16th of October 2014, on the theme of Inequality.