text Anne Malherbe. Docteur in Art history, art critic and curator.

Christine Barbe or the possibility of territory.

 

 

 

Attempting a path, losing your balance on the uneven ground, tripping over building site equipment, being stopped by branches, stumbling on an entanglement of hoses or wire fence.

 

Or finding yourself in a space with no point of reference, a matrix space or space of conscience, closed and oppressive. Feeling your body being hindered from the inside by the assessment and variations of your own inabilities. 

 

The work of Christine Barbe is about being held-up. She talks about the difficulty of being up to date as a social being, in a world asking us to belong and participate. She also talks about the fundamental inhospitality of any space we enter as strangers, about finding our place and field of life. 

 

However, in spite of the perceptible discomfort in her most recent series: Lignes de flottaison, Rêves de rébellion, Là-bas / Down there, they offer, in the way they are artistically treated, their own response to the necessity of being part of a space.

 

 

Inhospitality

 

 

Là-bas / Down there(2016 – 2017), her latest series, is made up of large size paintings. They are landscapes — in that they are outside views with no characters —, building site zones, in the middle of a forest or a wood.

Through their dimensions, the artworks are a similar size to bodies. We could step in them, walk into them, search for our place. The forefront, sometimes marked by a very pronounced perspective, may tend to brutally carry us away to the heart of the places, as if we were being pulled by the collar. However, at the last minute, we stand still at the border. 

These places are both close and far away. Close because it would be enough to just follow this stretch of path which is opening in front of us and walk down the embankment. Far away because the central place, the artificial lake, the abandoned architecture, become more distant as we move forward through an effect of intensified perspective. 

Elsewhere, a piece of building site fence abruptly blocks the way. Or we stumble over rails, placed in such a way that they threaten to topple towards us. 

Nothing really invites us to step through, neither the acid light, nor the uneven ground, nor this unresolved state in which the place seems to have stopped. Nothing allows us to become one with the space. These spaces are neither waiting for us, nor do they need us, just like these territories that the artist approached as she was moving, from Grenoble and Paris to California and New York, through residencies in North Africa, making her permanently stateless and seeking her own space.

In these strange places (“strange” used here in that we feel as strangers there), something falls within the realm of misrepresentation. Under the grading works, the artificial colors, the light that indicates no time, these places conceal their identities. By watching them, they may remind us, with their light, with their mystery also, of Peter Doig’s landscapes. However, the latter, in a very romantic rush, seem to be made to arouse desire, whereas with Christine Barbe, the landscapes disguise themselves in a bid to escape the desire of the traveler. In fact, their particular strength is to turn desire down flat.  

 

 

Seize (S’emparerin French, translator’s note)

 

Although Christine Barbe’s trips have mainly taken her to urban zones, she chose a forest zone for her latest work. Admittedly she now lives near a forest. However, it is also because forests give her work a specific malleability. Then there is also the attention paid to nature itself and the way human beings have seized it. The créature series (created at the same time as Là-bas / Down there) presents a succession of dead animals. Moles and birds, forest creatures, are suspended in space, similar to old hunting paintings. Rejected from their natural habitat because of human intervention, they find themselves surrounded by a dark background which is like a non-space.

 

Therefore, there are the ones who seize territories, and then there are the others. In Rêves de rébellion(2013 – 2016), both a video and a series of edited screenshots, the close-up on the artist’s face shows her endlessly repeating variations of the sentence “I don’t know how to do it”. She repeats them, like an obsessional litany. These words come with tireless movements of the head. She rejects her powerlessness like a fever pegged to her body. 

In its original (and dated) meaning, the French word désempareris a transitive verb: désemparera place used to mean getting out of it. Désemparera ship also meant making it unusable. Here, the body has been deprived of its place. It is no longer able to even remove itself from the situation it is in. It is, strictly speaking, désemparé, or lost at sea. 

This expression, “I don’t know how to do it”, repeated endlessly, is available in three languages (French, English and Dutch, the three languages spoken by Christine Barbe) as if, through using them all like the keys of a bunch, one of them would end up smashing the glass wall and break through the spaces. But we are in an obsessional dream. The hair is spread like the hair of a drowned woman. The inscriptions on the surface, words and traces of color, are laid out like mist which acts as a relentless reminder of the impassable glass panel. 

 

 

Immobility

 

 

The works in Là-bas / Down there, are at a standstill. Neither completed, nor abandoned but, more accurately, left up in the air, as if unknown circumstances had prevented them from their pursuit, as if they had been banned. The trees are bare. Is it winter? There is no clear indication that it is. Maybe nature has just ceased to live. The light is electric, with pronounced shades here and there, like these moments of waiting before the storm. 

We are off-season, off-time, off-movement, in the unreality of a moment that seems to have been deserted by life. We think of those urban and crepuscular landscapes painted, in the Victorian age, by John Atkinson Grimshaw: places abandoned when evening comes and work finishes, and which make you wonder whether they will eventually regain the life that is supposed to animate them.

 

This standstill is also the artist’s body. In the Lignes de flottaison(2013 – 2016) series, it is paralyzed, tied up in a dream, electrified by the light coming out of the light box underlying the drawing, frozen in a position that evokes a drowned or crucified person. In fact, these drawings are created from screenshots from the Balbutiements / faire face video in which the artist, through an endless monotonous chant, shares how difficult it is for her to exist. 

Here, it is existing in its original meaning: placing oneself outside of something, therefore leaving the matrix and standing up in the outside world. Initially, the voice and body may be reunited; they are separated in the video — the voice resonates from a distance, as if, taken away from the artist, it only resonated from a buried zone of the unconscious. The rough and uneven ground in Là-bas / Down there is echoed by a lifeless body, deprived of the immediate access to its voice. 

 

Christine Barbe’s video work can be situated in two distinct families. On the one hand, that of Bruce Nauman and his work on bodies, daily gestures, mimicking, repetitiveness. On the other hand, that of Bill Viola and the way he inserts the body into multiple aquatic environments: the afterlife, the unconscious, amniotic liquid, the space of all virtualities and gestations. However, unlike the latter, where the body gives in to trust in an upcoming metamorphosis, Christine Barbe maintains the long-lasting fight within her body whose aim is to reconnect with the real world. And, unlike Nauman, who presents bodies, or fragments of bodies with a violent and obsessional repetitiveness, with a view to waking up the audience, Christine Barbe gives the body, through the resistance it sets against its situation, the ability to model something new. 

 

 

Stride / Write

 

In Rêves de rebellion, when words and colors are written on the glass panel like mist rejected by the artist’s voice, when the face, through it very modeling, resists the pressure from nothingness, we know that a breakthrough has happened. Striding, modeling, writing: these are the terms through which the work of Christine finds its significance and breakthrough.

The technique is singular. Christine Barbe works from photos she has taken. But instead of using these photographs as they are, she starts by subjecting them to cutting out and transformations, before enlarging them and making them the foundation of her paintings. 

She mistreats these photographs, fiddles with them so that they summarize the difficult inscription of the body. But it is precisely by fiddling with the initial photograph that Christine Barbe can also, eventually, become one with the space. 

Christine Barbe is a trained engraver. Today she doesn’t engrave, strictly speaking, however, her work isn’t far away from that of a painter who creates a universe with their brushes. Although she prefers the engraver’s rollers and rags to brushes.

Once enlarged, the photographs are in fact inked, just like a copper plate would be, and where the ink infiltrates the notches. This is also how a plot of land can be reclaimed. Cutting, modelling, inking is to reclaim a territory as our own. 

In an older artwork (Identités croisées, 1992), Christine Barbe strode across Paris and its heritage, or rather, she gathered the traces of this striding in the form of a series of cobblestones and bits of a fresco. Covered in a photographic emulsion, they bear the ghostly trace, like a persistence of vision (or a veil of Veronica), of the artist’s visit in these places shaped by humans and memory. In doing so, she lays her foundation stones. 

 

Christine Barbe is a performer because she strides. And because through her own will or in spite of it, her life is permanently mobile. But she is a plastic artist in that her entire work consists in making moveable a place that was originally obstructive through its rigidity. It is also as a plastic artist that she creates her own territory. Christine Barbe creates just like she inhabits, she creates in order to inhabit.

 

 

Anne Malherbe