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Image of Untitled: stacked chairs by Phyllida Barlow
Phyllida Barlow, Untitled: stacked chairs. Photo © Hauser & Wirth

Phyllida Barlow

Works exhibited: Untitled: megaphone, and Untitled: stacked chairs

Phyllida Barlow intends her two Untitled works of 2014 to be shown together. One includes a large cone-like funnel resembling a megaphone, while the other consists of a large number of stacked chairs. The viewer of the sculptures is bound to imagine the emission of sounds that have long since ceased, and the rapt attentiveness of an audience that has long since departed. There seems to be more than an echo here of the myth of Echo and Narcissus that has often been used as the subject of artworks. The imposing megaphone that is angle-poised on its tall mast recalls the figure of Narcissus leaning over his pool, while the pile of redundant seating implies his neglect of his lover, Echo. In the myth, Narcissus’ rejection of the nymph Echo causes her to fade away until she dwindles to the function of a sounding board, echoing whatever he says. She is nothing more than an aural mirror – the equivalent of a reflecting pool. The duplicate chairs of Barlow’s assemblage are visual echoes of one another; moreover, they are folded flat and have lost both volume and function.

One is tempted to see this highly suggestive sculpture as an allegory of contemporary art, riskily asserting its value and importance regardless of audience reaction. Like the myth of Echo and Narcissus, it is a cautionary tale, with moral implications. Even when not needed, the chairs combine into an assertive presence; perhaps especially when they are not needed, they form a large and intractable mass; and yet each one is capable of implying an individual human presence, a reminder that people are not mere echoes of one another, but are unrepeatable mixtures of thoughts, feelings and perceptions with unique histories of experience. The megaphone, on the other hand, is not a guarantee of human presence, but is just as likely to represent human absence; if not disconnection, then remote connection to a source of dubious authority. The implied attitude of audience to speaker is one of passive reception rather than interaction. And the somewhat oversized dimensions of the megaphone are a strong hint to the imagination that the balance of power in the relationship is unequal. Barlow’s combination of elements in this installation is very emphatic – its silence is intended to be deafening. It challenges the artist never to take for granted the terms of transmission in contemporary art, and challenges the viewers, the imaginary audience, to act up whenever the signal threatens to fade out.

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