Barbara Bloom: Half Full — Half Empty

In Half Full – Half Empty, Barbara Bloom presents a still life that does not remain still. An ordinary table with ordinary objects atop - a candle, wine glasses, grapes, a gift, keys, a book – placed in a manner reminiscent of the familiar genre. As with many of Bloom’s works, innuendo plays a central role. One of her favorite sayings goes “A drink before, and a cigarette after, are the three best things in life.” In her work what is absent or unsaid frequently conveys just as much meaning as what is stated or present. In Half Full – Half Empty, it is agency that is missing and inferred: grapes disappear, cards turn over, a cup fills and spills, a wine glass fills, a candle is lit, with no person visible. The objects are the protagonists.

People however, can be heard. Three parallel audio tracks of a male and a female voice in conversation accompany the scene and the visitor can select which version to listen to at any moment: the present (two adults), the future (two elderly voices), and the past (two children). written in collaboration with the writer John Haskell, the conversations suggest an audible memento mori, as early and late moments of a lifetime can be toggled between with a mouse click. The dialogues relate more or less directly to what happens at the table. One might imagine them taking place at the same location (a vacation home?) at three different moments in two people’s lives. One might surmise that they (brother and sister?) have had similar versions of the same conversation throughout their entire lives ... a prosaic and non exotic Marienbad – last year, this year, next year.

The visitor begins with the conversation from the present, rather than the past. Bloom is fascinated by non linear progression of time. For instance, while she was researching the subject, she found that though most of us describe the future as ahead or in front of us, and the past as behind us, the speakers of Aymara, an Indian language of the high Andes, think of time differently. They see the future as behind them and the past ahead of them, calling the future qhipa pacha/timpu, meaning back or behind time, and the past nayra pacha/timpu, meaning front time. And they gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future. The past is known, so it lies ahead of you. (Nayra, or “past,” literally means eye and sight, as well as front.) The future is unknown, so it lies behind you, where you can’t see.

When first approached about developing a project, the artist considered an online staging of Betrayal by Harold Pinter, because she had long wanted to stage a production of this play that progresses backwards in time. In Bloom’s version there would be no actors, only props which would have acted as remnants of dialogue and action from the future as the story worked its way towards its beginning. Another aspect of Pinter’s work which appeals to Bloom are the long pauses, a performative version of innuendo similar to her visual practice. “It is all about the space between (perfectly selected) things.”[1]

Bloom’s interest in still life stems in part from the reflections seen in glass surfaces of the Dutch masters. But it may also be because historically, still life painting has remained less respected than "grand manner" painting of historical, religious, and mythic subjects. Always suspicious of the norms of value, Bloom has consistently shown interest in the small and intimate as opposed to the monumental in scale. It is precisely the smallness, and often the ordinariness of the commonplace objects in still life paintings that call on the viewer to attend to detailed observation. They also are carriers of memory. The term still life connotes frozen moments in time, and the term momento mori translates literally: remember that you are mortal. Bloom attempts here to create a form that defies the laws of nature by both remaining still and moving at the same time.

To carefully look at her book The Collections of Barbara Bloom leaves one newly prepared to take pleasure in observing the world. Bloom’s ability to draw our attention to objects, for example, brings to mind their power to elicit memories, as well as our tendency to project subjectivity onto them. “Art often works through a kind of sympathetic anthropomorphism, and frequently plays with exchanging the roles of the looker and the lookee.”[2] For example, to carefully consider the glasses in the still life, is to see what they are seeing (as reflection), to consider them as drinking vessels, as decorative objects, and to wonder about their history and their future: they could have been passed down from previous generations, they could exist long beyond our lifetimes, and they could shatter tomorrow. This simultaneous threat of ephemerality and ineradicability is shared by content on the web, where digital media, once copied onto archiving systems might live on forever, yet software evolution could render it obsolete in a matter of years.

Dave Hickey, in his fantastic introduction to Bloom’s work, described the level of attention required by her work: “in the presence of Bloom’s work, one’s sensibility must gradually recalibrate, as a diviner’s must, to identify evanescent qualities that manifest themselves like fugitive colors at the intersection of devotion and adoration, of humility and desire, of loathing and admiration, recognition and romance. This elaborate dance of seeing, picturing, imagining, and comparing evokes a condition of reverie that conjures up nothing more substantial than some specific “quality” of the atmosphere it creates. In this sense, Bloom’s art is a pure high modern art; it requires an engaged beholder who is something more than a sightseer.”[3] He goes on to describe how this effort pays off in the world beyond her art, describing Barbara-Bloom-Moments, “when we find ourselves ‘rhyming’ with the world, or things ‘rhyming’ with one another.”

Half Full – Half Empty affords such an opportunity to observe, while looking carefully at what isn’t there, and listening closely to what isn’t said.

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[1] The Collections of Barbara Bloom. ICP/Steidl Verlag, 2008. Introduction by Dave Hickey. Texts by Susan Tallman. Pg 17.
[2] Ibid. Pg. 65.
[3] Ibid. Pg. 11.

Sara Tucker

 
 
 
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