Flooded Churches

Per Barclay’s Oil Rooms, on view at Kode 4 in Bergen, invites us to reflect on the unwritten histories that lurk beneath the official edifices of our culture.

Per Barclay, Chapelle Sainte Radegonde Chinon (I), 2006.

On the occasion of the opening of his solo exhibition at Kode Bergen, the Norwegian artist Per Barclay (b. 1955) showed up for a talk with the museum’s new director, Petter Snare. Answering the question of whether Barclay – with his restrained use of colour and materials – defies the stereotypical profile of an ‘80s artist, he admitted having never thought about this, though he agreed.

Barclay’s dissociation from the trademarks of neo-expressionist painting is clearly underlined by the exhibition and the setup of the artist talk. Nearly every aspect of the exhibition, located in the Tower Room on the top floor of Kode 4, answers to a symmetric order: the square and domed space, the harmonious arrangement of the ten photographic images in a rhythmic alternation between horizontal and vertical formats; even the placement of chairs and water bottles for the two speakers was painstakingly symmetrical.

Per Barclay, Rue Visconti # 9, 2010.

The composition of the pictures – all belonging to Barclay’s Oil Rooms series – is also frequently symmetrical in nature. All ten photographs depict interiors with the floors covered either in black machine oil or other fluids, such as wine, blood or milk. The pictures’ centred points of view enforce the symmetry of the architecture. In most of them, the camera is aimed along the middle axis of the room, thereby either establishing a strong central perspective or presenting the opposite wall in its ornamental richness. Only a few pictures do not utilize this centred viewpoint, and two – La Banque, Genève (I) (2005) and Pallazo Costantino #9 (2010) – are taken from a high angle. The locations include several churches, a chapel, a palace, a museum, a private library, a slaughter house and the toilet of a gay club.

Although bled of expressionist gesticulation, Barclay’s Oil Rooms still recall the 1980s. His installations-turned-large-scale-photographs resemble artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s efforts at creating photographic representations that would mirror the monumentality of their large-scale public and land art projects. At the same time, the ornamental quality of Barclay’s Oil Rooms hints at the dissolution of photography’s indexicality, a motion towards abstraction reminiscent of that found in the large-format photographs of artists like Andreas Gursky and Candida Höfer.

Per Barclay, Untitled, 46 Quai-Le-Gallo-Boulogne 5261, 2011.

In his talk with Snare, Barclay explained that he does not produce the photographs himself, but employs professionals. In most cases, the installations are set up only to be photographed. With a few exceptions, they are not meant as works in their own right. The emphasis on traditional pictorial effects (most crucially: central perspective and symmetry) and the use of symbolically charged spaces mean that the Oil Room photographs are deeply entrenched in art history. In The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary (1990), Hotel Otava (1992) and SLM Oslo I (2001), opened doors and curtains frame the motif. This theatrical effect echoes the many windows, doors, pictures and other openings that Barclay’s chosen locations feature, and which gives the impression of a Baroque-ish play with distinctions between reality and pictorial representation.

Per Barclay, Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, Palermo, 2016.

This media-reflexive medley of image, ornament, architecture, photography and painting is beautifully arranged in Santa Caterina d’Alessandria, Palermo (2016). The multimedia complexity of this church interior from the late Renaissance is reinforced by the reflecting surface of the liquid. The milk covering the entire church floor mirrors the walls in a faint and delicate manner. This mirror effect suggests a decrease in representational value by turning the church interior into an abstract pattern. In this sense, the liquids can be read as empty signs since they merely reflect other objects, emptied of social and historical meaning. The liquid suggests that the image as a whole is an ornamental fabric of emptied forms.

However, Barclay’s photographs cannot be dismissed as formalist trickster aesthetics. Especially the dark reflecting liquids can be understood (or rather viscerally felt) as portals into repressed, hidden and unwritten histories. This is most apparent in The Church of the Holy Virgin Mary. A half-opened green door with a big white crucifix reveals the view of a small side room of the cathedral with a low wooden ceiling. The curtain of the confessional box is closed. Icons adorn the walls. The floor, awash with machine oil, is a dark and unfathomable pit, a screen for the spectator’s projections. The image is enriched by a surplus of signification, enabled by the fact that the actual space in front of mirror and the illusory space appearing on its surface are never fully identical. This difference invites critical reflections on the architecture’s signification. The black reflection of the church opens up a history beyond the symbolic order of its interior, a history void of redemption and resurrection.

Per Barclay, The Church of The Holy Virgin Mary Smirtidiotissa, 1990.