Topographies of disappearance
By Thorsten Sadowsky
The exhibition Merete Barker: Spejlinger/Spiegelungen [Reflections] is the latest fruit of the productive cross-border co-operation between the art museums Museumsberg in Flensburg, Germany, and Kunstmuseet i Tønder, Denmark. It began in 1999 with a Per Kirkeby exhibition, and has now been succeeded by the second stage of co-operation, during which the aim will be to present distinguished Scandinavian artists on a regular basis. By introducing Merete Barker it has been possible to present an artist who has held an important position in Danish and Scandinavian contemporary art for about 20 years. Whilst her early works could still be labelled new geometry, her latest artistic expression has changed considerably, without, however, entirely denying the debt it owes to Constructivism and Minimalism. The exhibition provides an insight into current developments in her work, concentrating on Merete Barker’s manifold artistic production in the 1990s. Photographs, drawings and sand installations are shown, in addition to various series of monumental acrylic paintings.
Merete Barker is known as the Danish artist who made most intensive use of the technical possibilities of the computer in her artistic expression. Since the 1970s, she has produced computer-generated data landscapes which combine constructivist and expressive elements. Although Merete Barker was strongly influenced by the abstract art typical of the era, which sought to reduce artistic expression to a minimum, she certainly did not advocate minimalist art to the exclusion of other art forms. Her starting-point was not self-enlightenment, nor was it the emptying of painting and its purification of all images of the world, which was so characteristic of this artistic school, nor a negation of any illusionist notion of spatiality. Instead, as a member of the artistic group “Ny Abstraction” [New Abstraction], she developed a comprehensive interaction between painting, sculpture and architecture.
The overlap between spontaneous experience and a regulating rational systematisation is characteristic of the early works of Merete Barker. This trait appears in her early series of mechanical drawings executed in Indian ink, and becomes even more distinct in her later combinations of painting, computer graphics, objects in a huge variety of materials and room installations. The link between constructive geometrical forms and structures borrowed from nature remains a characteristic of her later work. Formal elements and artistic attitudes, such as the logical precision and enthusiasm for technique of Minimalism on the one hand, and the dynamism and spontaneity of Expressionism on the other, are fused together to produce a pictorial language of its own. To viewers of her works, it seems as though the metaphysical world and dream images are in a state of permanent transformation in front of them.
Towards the end of the 1980s her experiments with computer technology in the areas of drawing and painting receded increasingly into the background, and instead the aesthetic travel experience became the decisive theme. Merete Barker travels widely in the USA, southern Europe, the Middle East, Latin America, China and Indonesia. She builds up her travel experiences, which are recorded in numerous photographs and sketches, into monumental series of pictures. What primarily takes shape on the canvas are architectural, geological and organic-anthropomorphic structures marked by the passing of time. While, for example, the photographs mounted on large pieces of cardboard form a serial and endlessly continuous mosaic (atlas) of travel and world experience, they also form large-scale pictures representing a process of condensation of blurring or metamorphosis of concrete images. It is no accident that Merete Barker has on numerous occasions chosen highly sophisticated scenes of civilization as her subject when elucidating the crossover between culture and nature. Cities are centres for the formation of civilization. They are also capable of supporting human beings in their endeavours to advance in free, unorganised spaces and transform these. Our cultural memory is in the meantime also aware of the fact that this conquest of space may have come full circle and is for example wiping out Indian cultures, which shakes our faith in the future based on a linear understanding of time. The ruins and remains of disappearing ancient cities and temple grounds provide silent testimony to past civilizations which are now once again subject to the control and cycles of nature. Similarly, Merete Barker’s pictorial spaces radically depict the concept of time, in that some elements are purposely accentuated, and yet at the same time they are made up of concise brushstrokes so as to blur their edges in favour of dynamically flowing fields of colour.
Merete Barker’s way of painting is illustrative, but not in an imitative sense. It is not the visible surroundings that are represented, but instead the sensual impression of places that are long forgotten or lost. In a similar way, her paintings are perhaps rather site-specific psychographs than exact replicas of places or travel destinations, and thus also appear as mirror images or reflections of impressions, experiences, and encounters with scenery, atmospheres, architecture and people. Merete Barker’s worldly-wise production is the result of an encounter with the unfamiliar, yet without leading to new primitivisms, exoticisms or archaisms. The images she has created correspond to our age, and should be viewed in the context of Western modern art. More than anything else they are travel pictures, because they retain characteristic sensual impressions from journeys that reverse the idea of time and space, as the philosopher Ernst Bloch incisively describes in his work Das Prinzip Hoffnung: “In this way travel time is filled as otherwise only space can be filled, and space become the medium for change, as otherwise only time can be. The result is filled time in a displaced space, which appears changed.” 
At the present time, Merete Barker’s painting in the borderland between objectivity and illusion displays unambiguously narrative features. The end of the great narratives is not postulated, but the after-effect on our time of utopian relics is subjected to systematic analysis. Her images do not, thus, depict any topographies of reality, but seem rather to resemble seismographs of the tremors that culture and nature both undergo. The artist’s journeys through geographical space are documented in pictorial works that allow the viewer to travel through time. This means a great deal in a world entangled in a net of finances and technology, and which is becoming increasingly uniform and globalised. The Utopia, the no-place which for so long gave wings to the Western imagination, has today, to a certain degree, become a reality against its will in ultra-modern, history-less non-places or transit spaces. In Merete Barker’s paintings, on the other hand, a sense of Utopia is recognizable as a relic from times past.
From Merete Barker. Spejlinger/Spiegelungen, Kunstmuseet i Tønder & Museumsberg, Flensburg 2000 Ernst Bloch, Das Prinzip Hoffnung (collected works vol. 5), Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1990, p. 431  cf. Marc Augé, Orte und Nicht-Orte, Vorüberlegungen zu einer Etnologie der Einsamkeit, Frankfurt am Main: S. Fischer, 1994
From Another World
By Merete Barker
”From Another World” – The Journey
“From Another World” stretches from West to East, from the visible remains of cultures to the incomprehensible reality, from what we imagined to what we did not expect, from the bombardment of the senses to reflections on worlds of which we have only seen traces, from specific travel destinations to extreme conditions, from precise visual impressions to the subtle universe of interpretation.
“From Another World” draws its motifs from the Inca Empire in Peru and from historical Persia.
I visited the ruins of the Inca Empire in the autumn of 2004. I had long dreamed of seeing the Inca settlement of Machu Picchu in the Andes, and now this finally came true. Having been fascinated for years by the idea of these magnificent constructions erected in overwhelming mountain landscapes, to finally see them exceeded all my expectations. Primeval landscapes seize our senses and make us think of continuity. We are overwhelmed by that which is larger than ourselves. And when you stand before Machu Picchu, the clouds drift with you. What you thought you would see is suddenly only faintly visible. And then, as an observer, you see it, that which is to be seen: that everything is in motion – the light, the clouds, the mountains, the buildings, your own thoughts and the image of this world seen from a vantage point.
I visited the historical remains of Persia in the spring of 2005. It proved such a contrast to the Inca Empire that it shook my entire sensory and mental apparatus. To be there and to be so close to something I had learned about as a young person gave me a real sense of bygone eras. It was placed in the chronological perspective of contemporary Iran, and it is from that perspective that “From Another World” emerges as a second chapter. In Iran you find yourself in a present which can change dramatically, and in the historical past, which you disappear into in the belief that it will continue to exist. The revelation of beauty and the relentlessness of the political game are so closely related that we must abandon our position as observers.
”From Another World” – Painting
When you pick up your brush and begin to paint what you have seen, the painting takes over in the artistic process, and the actual images recede into the background in favour of what appears on the canvas. It becomes the vision. Events are capable of altering life gradually or in a split second. A painting can be changed by strokes of the brush, like traces of free-floating thoughts.
17th August 2005
From Ud-tryk, No 3, Autumn 2005, Vol. 6, Randers Kunstmuseum
Form and Reality
By Ann Lumbye Sørensen
“Everything in an artist’s life is connected according to the implacable logic of inner evolution.”
Merete Barker’s art has undergone several distinct phases since she held her first solo exhibition in 1974. Her original point of departure was pure abstraction in colour, shape and line, in a style of painting stripped of references to the outside world, and referring only to itself. But such isolation from the arena of life was not satisfying in the long run, and so this was soon followed by a series of experiments with computer-generated graphics and minimalist-based sculptures, constructed from painted geometric modules. The aim was to involve the surrounding space and activate form into space-creating dynamic structure.
Her painting in the 1990s is often described as expressionist, but in my opinion, this implies an unreasonable degree of limitation in relation to the weighting of the creative systematics of the composition. This is a fundamental factor in the large paintings, which feature motifs drawn from the US, Mexico, India, Turkey and other places that seem exotic in our eyes. In spite of the intuitive character of the brush gestures applied, these paintings are also guided by their own inner logic, through which Merete Barker has succeeded in creating a robust synthesis out of what, from a conventional point of view, might appear to be opposing impulses.
On the face of it, minimalist-inspired design and expressive painting would appear to be each other’s opposites. A minimalist work seeks anonymity by removing all traces of the artist subject; it is only in the encounter with its surroundings and the observer that meaning arises. Such a work of art consequently interacts with its environment. The expressive work, on the other hand, reflects an artistic approach which is quite the contrary. The core of a prevalent definition of expressionism is the artist’s unique personal imprint on the work, the emotions and moods of which define it as a projection of the artist’s temperament and view of life. The expressive work is often characterised and analysed using literary expressions drawn from the world of poetry and drama, but such expressions and metaphors soon come up short in relation to minimalism, where a terminology drawn from science or philosophy often proves more useful.
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At an early stage, Merete Barker became aware of the potential offered by new technology in relation to picture creation. In the mid-1970s she was one of the very few Danish artists to begin experimenting with computer-generated graphics, and in 1976 she become affiliated with the Datalogical Laboratory at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts, School of Architecture. With a special program at her disposal, she experimented with geometric shapes such as the cube, which could be multiplied and appear in different sizes. The specific geometric shape could thus be transformed into many other shapes of greater or lesser complexity, with the same fundamental figure appearing in many different configurations. Using the computer, Merete Barker explored the basic principles of image formation and picture perception, and ways in which space could be articulated without the use of the classic centralised perspective. These forward-looking experiments gave rise to several series of graphic works on paper, as well as to three-dimensional sculptural objects.
Pictorial art has always contended with reality. Modernist, non-figurative painters sought to distance themselves from reality by rejecting it; but reality can also be given so much access to a work that it almost disappears, as some initiatives have demonstrated, particularly in the 1960s and later. Merete Barker’s current artistic contention with reality does not go to such extremes. Her approach to the world is rather phenomenologically grounded and thus reality-interpreting, in that she focuses on fragments, but never on the total, wide world in a single glance. Her installation works and monumental paintings specifically testify to such an approach – but so does the fact that she must seek out her subject face to face, with her body and all her senses, and be present at the exact location of the object of her interest. The travel destinations are many: the ancient giant redwood trees, the sequoias of California; the Grand Canyon in the USA; the buildings of Native American cultures in Mexico and Guatemala; other ancient monuments in China, India and Turkey. But when Merete Barker undertakes her ‘archaeological’ journeys it is not at the usual tourist pace, as her stays often extend over several months.
The world is not born again, it is there already – and it is this ‘already’ that she explores, and which is transformed, via her artistic filter, from a physical materiality into personal images of reality. With precise strokes, she interprets centuries-old cultures of cities and landscapes. Time and its traces acquire their significance through her contention with reality, in which what is beginning to vanish is given special attention. Like a passionate collector, Merete Barker helps to save these traces from oblivion. And again like a collector, she takes a systematic approach in her way of organising her work and creating a new reality.
Concurrently with Merete Barker’s explorations in the creation of form through technological means, she was and is fascinated by the image’s own spatial function and its significance for the surrounding space. One consequence of this multi-dimensional spatial orientation is that her attention is to a great extent also directed towards the dialogical possibilities that the picture offers to the observer. She utilises form to create a dialogue about a specific topic, which she then varies and comments on from picture to picture. The subjects, as previously mentioned, consist of unusual phenomena, whether created by nature or man. Phenomena whose roots lie far back in time, unimaginable in their greatness as monuments to the power of nature and mankind’s vision of a future which has now long since perished. Today, the ruins stand as memorials of a lost time; in the abandoned temples and houses, silence comes to expression in colours, forms and spaces. Precisely because the artist’s inspiration is drawn from the existence of the past in the present, she can use colour and form to maintain an adequate expression of a continuity, into which the observer is initiated. Picture titles such as Den fortabte by (The Lost City), Fra skyggernes land (From the Land of Shadows) and Energiens spor (Traces of Energy) emphasise the universal aim of the works, for although their starting-point may lie in identifiable landmarks, the result is far removed from topographical documentation.
Repetition, displacement and delineation are some of the stabilising factors in Merete Barker’s works. This applies whether she zooms in on her subject and magisterially enlarges it, as in the sequoia paintings from the late 1980s, or focuses on buildings that are repeated and displaced across the canvas, such as in de skjulte byer (The Hidden Cities) (2000) and many earlier paintings. She divides large pictures into a pattern of distinct smaller elements that, together, make up a kind of atlas of the subject. The direction and intensity of the gaze in the composition varies, just as we unconsciously experience when we look around us and the impression made by our surroundings changes in character, even though they are in fact constant. In the pictures, the relationship between the solid form and the manner in which we perceive and retain this form in our awareness is a significant underlying factor.
* * *
In 1987, Merete Barker created the sculptural structure The multiplicity of X. The work consists of a series of neutrally-painted wooden posts arranged in a criss-cross manner, with the ends of the posts marked in signal colours. Depending on the number of individual elements and the observer’s perspective towards them, the structure of the sculpture changes from static to dynamic in character. The basic module is a completely open and simple form, with nothing obscure about its design, but when these modules are multiplied and combined in the room they create a shadow play, and the experience becomes an impression of incalculable infinity. The work is thus in principle infinite, with only the physical surroundings setting limits on its extent. At a height of two metres, the work appears to the observer as a body in equilibrium in space – a material reality, to which one must relate in an active and participatory manner. The artist has also ensured that the attention of the observer is drawn towards the details in relation to the whole, by highlighting the significant colouring of the ends, in contrast to the grey colour of the rest of the structure. Although you can lose yourself among the many intersecting lines, the work does not disintegrate under your gaze, as your attention is constantly being drawn back to the function of the end surfaces as points linking an overall contour.
A world view of this phenomenological character has some features in common with the views formulated by the French mathematician René Thom in his book Apologie du Logos (Paris, 1990), in which he attempts to build bridges between science and art. Especially interesting in this context is Thom’s theory that all forms are created through a few organisational principles, which apply both to our surroundings and to the mental images, thoughts and words that we use. The principles underlying the stability of the things we see around us are the same as those that maintain the stability of our opinions. In order for us to perceive anything, both we and the form must be in a stable state, while at the same time changes naturally continue to occur. Merete Barker creates such a stable state in The multiplicity of X, not least through the repetition of its extremely simple geometric forms.
* * *
Around 1990, Merete Barker become visibly interested in the new layers of reality often associated with the experience of remote locations. Prior to this, she had created a great many temporary sculptural works in the urban environment, with relations to the various signals and codes of urban life, but now the rapid pace of the city became replaced with the elongated perspective of history and memory. She began to recall impressions and experiences in acrylic colours on large canvases, occasionally exhibited in combination with extensive sculptural panoramas on the floor. Far from being tradition-bound, expressionistic landscape paintings, these images stand out through their conceptual approach, inasmuch as the organisational principles and stabilisation of the compositions continue a wide range of the ideas which also comprised the foundation of her previous work. As her aim is to preserve the memory of an appearance she has seen and sensed, the contours must by their nature be blurred and obscured in order to emphasise this function of “the extreme sensitivity of the aesthetic effect to the slightest variations in form” (Thom).
Den fortabte by (The Lost City) from 1993 is an example of a monumental recollection picture in which the title interplays with the motif of the painting. Hollow or houselike forms are multiplied and transformed across the canvas, which is divided into sections of visualised flashes of memory that are maintained within their respective boundaries, but which, however, the form-creating activity of the brushstrokes at the same time attempts to dissolve. There is an inherent dialectical contradiction in the painting’s structure; the varying colours of the sections and the long and short tracks of the brushstrokes are counterbalanced by precise vertical markers and a single horizontal marker or border which together anchor the moving and floating aspects in a stabilising manner. This way of interpreting and comprehending the world also bears similarities with René Thom’s idea that in everything, large or small, every single particle is changing, while a stabilising principle ensures that we are nonetheless able to recognise our surroundings and thereby orient ourselves. In the juxtaposition of such works as Den fortabte by (The Lost City) and the sculptural panorama Sandslotte (Sand Castles) (1993-94), which can be understood as a vision of a utopian city in which the world is organised en miniature, we can see Merete Barker’s vision of how the combination of external facts and internal mental images can obtain an artistic foothold in form and space.
* * *
Merete Barker’s artistic mission has always been to present fragments and segments of the world, as none of us can comprehend or see it all. The works provide a number of suggestions about what reality may look like, and here there will always be many more possibilities than we are able to perceive. Her art acquires significance because reality is not enough for us.
From Merete Barker, “Quo vadis”, Sophienholm, 2002