The minute I entered Phyllida Barlow’s Tate Britain commission entitled “dock” I knew I wanted to write something about it. In order to do so I felt I needed to read as many articles and reviews about it as I could. Mostly because I am not an art critic and I felt rather insecure to express my opinion. Almost all of these texts were slightly fragmented descriptions with a poetic air about them. Focusing on different parts of the huge constructions, the writers came up with interesting metaphors that came to their minds when they visited “dock”. However I felt I did not read anything that accurately described the truly powerful feeling I got from this work which most importantly for me I also found truly architectural.
Lately I have been to quite a few exhibitions that attempt to interpret architecture and ultimately see it as conceptual art. I always applaud the endeavour because of its degree of difficulty but also because us architects, do think of ourselves as artists as well and not only as technocrats who constantly problem-solve.
What really struck me with Barlow’s sculptures, is that they are more architectural than any architect’s installation that attempts to be purely artistic. These massive creations speak of volume and scale and start a dialogue between the body and space. Good art has the ability to make one go within, in a psychoanalytical manner. It brings about forgotten memories or even previously unknown realisations and touches us because we identify with it. At least most contemporary art aspires to do that, compared to classical works that were more about creating masterpieces that inspired awe to the viewer.
Architecture closely as it flirts with visual art in borrowing aesthetics and trends from it has its own vocabulary that mostly derives from the fact that buildings are meant to be inhabited by people. Hence they reflect their bodies as they are designed to accommodate them. What I am saying here is that architecture can be very artistic in expressing existing philosophies or views of the world. It can also create entire pieces of the world which aspire to expand people’s understanding of it. However, even the most controversial building’s conceptual references manage to somehow incorporate the human body. This is what is defined as “the human scale” and buildings are often judged by how successful they are in reflecting it.
Standing next to the “dock” sculptures I had an immediate sense of my own body’s size and how big these structures were compared to me. I watched and photographed people walking in, under and around them and I thought I was back in university making rough scale models for some unit project. The figurines though were real people and the scale model that I used to make out of some club’s flyer and sprayed cardboard was hugely blown out of proportion.
I do not want to go into details and share what each of the structures reminded me. There are plenty of articles that do that as I said in the beginning. I also do not enjoy much being very literal. Using a phrase that haunted me throughout my student years from one of my favourite books of all time, Gaston Bachelard’ s Poetics of Space: “The poet does not confer the past of his image upon me, and yet his image immediately takes root in me”
The poetic dimension of Barlow’s sculptures took immediate root in me. But that did not happen because I have been trained as an architect. It happened because architecture refers to bodies, and I have a body through which I experience the world as much as I do with my mind.
The sculptures will be on display in Tate Britain until the 19th of October 2014
Tate Britain’s site on the exhibit here
Read more about Plyllida Barlow here