Five encounters with Phyllida Barlow

A cul-de-sac at the end of the pier (work by Phyllida Barlow, photo by me)

1: Rig

In a wood-panelled former bank on London’s Piccadilly, concrete trees are sprouting through the floorboards. They rise the double height of the room to tower above in bubble-shaped blocks, festooned in the colours of Chupa Chups lollipops. Upstairs on the balcony is something like an overblown doughnut, while in an attic room there’s been an explosion of giant jelly beans, cobalt blue and maybe green. The room I remember most clearly has pink filing cabinets arranged in an indoor cityscape; stand at an angle where it’s possible to see past it through the window and there’s an eerie sense of skylines overlapping, one fake, the other real. My two-year-old daughter plays hide-and-seek in here for ages, her laughter bouncing from tower to tower as I peek at her through unexpected alleyways.

I’d not heard of Phyllida Barlow before seeing this exhibition at a Hauser & Wirth gallery that no longer exists, even though she’d been making sculpture for decades. I had just started doing an art course, a day a week at Morley College, and within a few weeks of seeing it would learn a lot of her techniques, using scraps of wood and chicken wire, slopped together with scrim, to build my own ungainly sculpture. Barlow’s work isn’t ungainly: it’s magnificent. Magnificent in its monumentality, but also its refusal to behave.

Hauser & Wirth have a collection of photos of the exhibition on their website: the images are instantly familiar when I flick through them, despite in no way matching the images I’ve retained in my head. Every sculpture has warped with memory: the trees I remember had round concrete for their base, a single spindly trunk, a concrete canopy like a cloud crayon-drawn by a child; but it transpires I’ve remembered them in reverse, the bases in the photographs are lumps like spat-out chewing gum, the tops massive sugar cubes draped in fabric, each so big it requires two or more posts to suspend it. The jelly beans are actually multi-coloured pom-poms, the flamingo-pink filing cabinets in fact a variety of shelving, drawer and filing units, more grey than pink. I look at the date: the exhibition happened in autumn 2011. Which means the child I’m seeing in my memory is actually my son, wearing the green coat handed down from his four-year-old sister, now at school. There’s something so pleasing about the slipperiness of all this, the way the work refuses to sit still in my mind. In a sense the details don’t matter, because what’s important is the quality of playfulness: in memory its bliss remains intact.

2: Dock

The Hauser & Wirth website also has a list of Barlow exhibitions and reminds me of this one from spring 2014. Concrete blocks again, more spindly wooden branches, a pillar wrapped in cardboard and sticky tape, the same stuff I hoard at home to give the kids when the mood strikes to make things. My daughter, just seven, has already given up on art for the most part: she noticed one day that my drawing was more “realistic” than hers and found it really discouraging. It’s unsettling because, by conventional standards, my drawing is terrible. After my brief flurry at Morley College I have once again given up art myself.

One of the sculptures is a clutter-pile of crates and cardboard: I find it particularly gratifying that Barlow uses recycled materials, some from a builder’s merchant, some scraps and trash from previous works. I suspect this is why I forgot about seeing this exhibition: there is a way in which each sculpture is a remaking of the last, a honing of an idea. There was a time when I wondered whether repetition in art might be a negative quality, that there was something too limited about an author writing the same book from different angles, a theatre-maker mining the same thoughts for a new form, a painter returning endlessly to the same image. But each turning of the wheel drives reflection a little deeper, each repetition shows the thing, the person, and the time and place that surround both, anew.

3. Gig

Summer 2014 now, and we pass through Hauser & Wirth Somerset on our way home from an annual holiday with lots of university friends — some 20 adults and 15 children, not a holiday, a not-connected friend jokes, but a creche. I feel myself reoxygenating as I walk around the sculptures, trying to ignore the grouching of the children, both of whom have lost interest in exhibitions by now, even exhibitions as irreverent as this. What I remember isn’t the objects themselves but the snaking movement through the building. Each of the Barlow exhibitions I’ve seen is a direct dialogue with the architecture that frames it: the works are the shape that they are because they respond to the shapes of the room, the height of the ceiling, the position of the windows and entryways, the possible routes that a body might travel through it. In high-ceilinged rooms she sends wooden posts shooting up like wilful stalagmites or, as with Dock, has work cling to the roof like stalactites; in smaller rooms, or basements, pieces squat or try to push up the ceiling for more light.

The images for this exhibition show pom-poms again, bundles of material wrapped up like cartoon dynamite, concrete tilting at precarious angles, an upside down flight of stairs. I remember none of it, except the feeling of transitioning from holiday to home. Not home as in the house where I live but true home, heart home, this jagged wonky absurd world of levity and light.

4. Set

A huge sheet of plasterboard leans against the wall and what I want more than anything in the world is for someone, friend or stranger, I’m not sure I care who, to take my hand and tug me behind it and kiss me. The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh is full, by which I mean the downstairs space is cramped and reconfigured by blocks and tubes and bars and boards, materials piled and tipped and multilayered, and somehow — given that I’m here during the Edinburgh festival, when my head becomes cramped and reconfigured by seeing show after show, running hither and thither, too much work in too little time and always, always, something that I’m missing — somehow it has an emotional clarity that sets me free. Such blessed release.

Occasionally in the years since having children I’ve felt again for myself the joy of playgrounds: the giddy thrill of the swings, the rush of playing chase, the charm of reaching the top of a climbing frame. Every encounter with Barlow’s work has the same feel to it as that. I don’t climb on the work or dart around it or hide behind it kissing, but I do occupy for a sliver of time a transgressive space where normal rules are suspended and having fun is life’s greatest business.

5. Cul-de-Sac

Across Piccadilly from the former bank that is now a posh-looking restaurant looms the Royal Academy, an institution so classically conservative, in my mind, so far from all the associations I have with Barlow’s work, that I’m startled to notice she’s an Academician herself. I’m so excited to see Cul-de-Sac, the new exhibition she has there this spring, that I giggle on being handed my ticket, have to stop myself grinning wildly at everyone I pass walking through the building to the three bright rooms at the back where the show is held. A narrow sculpture halfway up the stairs, like a bundle of fireworks waiting for a match, and another on the landing, semi-circle coils poised in readiness to hug, have me fizzing with happiness.

The work is familiar-and-different again: in the first room concrete blocks hold poles hung with fabrics in day-at-the-seaside colours, sandy yellow and sunset orange, mint-ice-cream green and stick-of-rock pink; beside it is a sloping structure perfect for Crazy Golf, poles at its entrance vaulting up to a concrete awning. In the next room the pier has collapsed, poles splintering through its layers of wood to tilter at jaunty angles; a tall concrete drum stands beside the curved edge of the wood, encased by it, almost cuddled. The final room has the frenzied feel of an end-of-the-pier funfair: a concrete bollard with an arm like an anchor points to a tripod tent thing, another sloping structure ends in a post which has balanced across it an oversized toilet roll, which points directly at three huge polystyrene blocks perched on slanting stilts (it makes me ridiculously happy that this work is called untitled: blocksonstilts), as though a giant might stroll along any moment and drop an inflated marble through the tube for a game of skittles. Stand at the doorway and it’s like seeing a dance group, arms akimbo, perform simultaneous semaphore. I walk around and around, ducking and stretching to look at each work at multiple angles, zooming close to see the debris of it, the drips of plaster, the shattered wood, its muck and mess, drinking everything in, knowing that, in the same way I remember Rig as a pick’n’mix sweetshop, I’ll remember this as a trip to the beach, gaudy with delight.

In the time between the first encounter with Barlow and this most recent, I’ve gone back to art briefly as part of making zines, doing terrible drawings and bits of print-making to illustrate them. In one, I had a little think about artists I’ve encountered since becoming a mum who connect me to a younger part of myself: a non-theatre part but also, particularly, a self before having children. Barlow is one such and I wonder whether I cherish her the more for it. But there is also a kind of abandon in her work, a stretching to breaking point in the most positive way — in the video interview with her that plays at the entrance to the exhibition she talks about using chance, and working “on the edge of beyond my control” — which shares a kinship in my mind with the experience of being a mum, tells me something about this role I’m playing that somehow I never get used to.

And perhaps there is something else, something that might not have occurred to me without reading an interview with Barlow in Vogue, of all places. Asked a question about the role of the audience in her work, she talks about the fleeting glance: “personally, I am interested in quick looking,” she says. “I would love to be able to walk past my work quickly, for it not to be dwelt on — so it exists as an association or intimation, like the residual memory of a view from a train journey. I am intrigued how imagery starts to erode in the mind and becomes something else.” I think back to the small child who accompanied me on my first encounter with Barlow, how he morphed in memory into my daughter, and the room turned pink around that switch. Both of the children constantly changing but always the same spindly bone structure, the same fabric of skin; each of them a work in process, at any given point in time familiar and different, Barlow’s work teaching me to look quickly, not dwell, see the change but also the honing, not worry for the bits of the past left behind, seeking out joy in the present.

On the edge of beyond my control (work by Phyllida Barlow, photo by me)