Matter, Mind, Death, and Time
by Brooks Turner
In her exhibition Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection at the Weisman Art Museum, artist Harriet Bart uses simple material juxtapositions to create complex and compelling meditations on lived experience. Throughout the exhibition, art historical references become like footnotes to the material poetics that occupy center stage. Invoking but transcending Dada, Surrealism, and Minimalism, Bart formulates an aesthetic lexicon rooted in symbols, sounds, and potential, an alchemy where matter is allowed to reveal its own hidden gold.
In “Concrete Poem,” washable fabric instruction labels sewed backwards onto a painted canvas form a blurry grid. At a distance, fields of fibrous color obscure the text, but in moving closer, frayed and illegible symbols take shape. Up close, this accumulation of unreadable text becomes a found incantation in a forgotten language: representation, meaning, and sound diverge but nonetheless conjure a sense of an enigmatic whole. Through this lens, Bart’s grid, which reappears throughout this exhibition, aligns itself with the page of a book, a space of generative potential more closely aligned with the occult or magick than the cold purity of the Minimalist’s industrial grid. Bart’s grid proposes a space where spirit and matter are ontologically one.
Elsewhere, three large bronze bowls with smooth, wide brims, each titled “Bronze Bowl,” share a low plinth. They are elegant in their size and simplicity. Through the bowl we can imagine a function, the coming together of people around a table, sharing a meal together. But, the irregular materiality recalls a meditation bowl rather than one for eating. I can almost hear the clang of a mallet striking these bowls. The simultaneity of bodies gathering and sound radiating initiates a certain kind of possibility: the body as wave, matter as immaterial potential, as undulation and echoes. Bart seems to use objects as tools of conjuring, even if what is conjured is merely an idea in my head.
“Geniza,” the newest and largest installation on display, uses a grid of open cabinets to display various assemblages of found and created objects. Instantly, it recalls “The Wall,” an installation of artworks and objects collected by the surrealist André Breton. Where Breton’s dubious installation displays the close relationship between European surrealism, colonialism, and the fetishization of Africa, Bart’s wall of assemblages imbues objects with a surreality that generates from our moment in time rather than theirs. Darkly ethereal tones surround the sculpture in vibrations varying in tone and intensity. Different material forms found in the cabinet wall repeat throughout the exhibition: boxes of different sizes and materials, both opened and closed, beakers filled with shattered glass or strips of paper, bell jars covering bronze bowls and other objects, a pile of stones each labeled with white catalogue numbers (perhaps their approximate ages), an antique book resting on a bed of industrially produced pencils, felt shoes, a bronze plumb bob, and more books. “Geniza” is a cabinet of captured thoughts, some fully formed, some half formed, some still forming, and some being forgotten. Time is jumbled by the mind—the present acts on the past and the future, the past acts on the future and present, and the future acts on the present and past. Here, linearity is disrupted by potentiality. It doesn’t matter if alchemy isn’t physically possible—the potential is real, the potential acts.
Nearby, “Reliquary” presents four shelves filled with bulbous glass forms that mimic those found in the Ancient Mediterranean at the origin of glass blowing. No object is identical, but all share an inflated bottom and single long, straight, and thin stem. Breaths taken 2000 years apart converge on a formal poetics. Each glass shape is a mold, the negative formed by the positive breath pressed into the hot, melted matter. Together, these frozen breaths become Pneuma, the breath of life, which animates each of us and the rest of the world.
Plumb bobs appear in several works throughout this exhibition. These objects hang just off the ground, working with gravity to draw a perfectly vertical line, and have been used since antiquity as an architecture reference to ensure vertical construction. As an object, the plumb bob unifies verticality and horizontality, which defines part of Bart’s fascination with the object, a wall text informs us. But the plumb bob also carries a poetics of time; in motion the plumb bob becomes a pendulum, a tool of time keeping that has lasted centuries. A large cast bronze plumb bob sculpture, titled “Pendulum,” draws out this relationship between motion and time. The sculpture draws a vertical plumb-line, hanging an inch off the ground. The horizontal implied here is the ground plane of the museum, the shared space of bodies and objects. I am / we are in time and out of it, passing, past, and present, continuous but fragmented by each frozen moment.
Abracadabra—a magick word, or perhaps a mantra for matter and time. New Materialism proposes a reinvestment in material agency, in conglomerations, in the power of objects, things, stuff, to affect our world. This theory seeks to undercut a hierarchical hegemony that situates human action as having ultimate power and agency, all matter being inert but for the touch of man. Written in different terms, New Materialism proposes that if we acknowledge the inherent agency of matter, we’ll rekindle the alchemical world. Bart’s exhibition lends truth to this proposition. Narratives, materials, and objects found in our world become ingredients in spells that transform the mundane into the magickal.
Abracadabra and Other Forms of Protection is on view at the Weisman Art Museum through May 24th, 2020.