"Artist's A-Z"

Marco Barina
(This text was written for "The New Museum" book)

Aim To create an imaginary ‘Museum of Mankind’, reawakening the spirits of sovereigns and warriors, gods and ancestors, sorcerers and shamen, princes, princesses, courtesans and ordinary people, all of whom lived hundreds or even thousands of years ago.

Belonging When looking at art from bygone civilisations, I have often been struck by a sudden recognition of forms that trigger an echo of ancestral memories and emotions. Such archetypal images are sometimes powerful and surprising. Do they belong to what scientists refer to as our ‘basic emotions’? The New Museum is a journey into this archive of human memory.

Civilisation ‘The total culture and way of life of a particular people, nation, region, or period.’ (Collins English Dictionary)

Direction Since the dawn of time, representations of the human figure have been a powerful conduit for confronting life and death, power, sexuality, religion, spirituality and our innermost fears. This impulse, central to so many cultures from prehistory to today, is therefore the direction I decided to follow on my journey into the history of art.

Emotion What many people feel as they wander through the halls of the Metropolitan or British Museum, catching sight of a prehistoric Venus or a Cycladic figurine, a Dogon sculpture, a Fang mask, a Moche ceramic or a Chola dynasty bronze. Emotion raises one of the central questions in this imaginary museum: namely, how can contact with art from very different, far-off cultures and civilisations prompt such profound feelings and responses?

Found objects Recovered objects are already steeped in their own history, which they reveal in a unique patina, a dent, a missing piece. These objects are in some sense imbued with the life story of the people who previously owned and used them. We might say that they ‘embody time’, a property that is transferred into the sculptures they then make up, giving them a special kind of credibility.

Gathering It took more than three years to create the 111 sculptures that make up The New Museum. During that time, Rome’s second-hand market at Porta Portese was my happy hunting ground for turning up the objects that I went on to use in the sculptures. Two criteria informed my purchases: the evocative shape of the chosen items (their potential to become a head, a limb, a torso or clothing) and the patina that time had bestowed on them.

Handmade It has always intrigued me to think that, with very few exceptions, the objects I repurposed to portray human figures were themselves all crafted by human hand.

Images Some objects are so commonplace that we generally pay them little or no attention. But if you look at them as images in themselves, it is often possible to discern in them an extraordinary and powerful beauty.

Joining Assembling two objects, for example two metal vessels made for some practical use, can lead to very different associations and images than one might expect from the individual constituent parts. While creating the characters that populate this imaginary museum, I made another fascinating, yet subtle, discovery: joining together found objects is a process that, through the mysteries of assonance, can lead to the rediscovery of truly ancestral forms – a sort of strange alchemy that is renewed when the raw materials are re-assembled into sculptures.

Knights, knaves & knives Two more surprising discoveries: a) the enormous variety of characters you can create simply by placing together the most basic objects; b) the precious appearance that these sculptures can have, even when made from just an old bowl and some cutlery.

Likenesses The real civilisations that informed my sculptures are, of course, recognisable, even if the peoples who fill the glass cases of The New Museum are the result of a certain ‘distortion’. It is almost as if we have shifted into a space-time dimension that is very similar to, yet somehow different, from our own. Worlds rediscovered and reinvented – worlds that are, at the same time, extremely plausible.

Museums Extraordinary places so often home to astonishing artefacts. I have always wondered why the Futurists wanted to burn them down.

Naming The ‘imaginary captions’ that shed light on each room of The New Museum are fragments of imagination shuffled into shards of reality. They were written simply as jumping-off points and suggestions. At an imaginary museum, of course, everybody is invited to ‘rewrite’ these captions for themselves.

Others I was born in Rome to a family who originally came from Venice, and the two cities have defined my frame of reference and continue to act as beacons in my life. Since my earliest years, I have lived among some of the greatest masterpieces of Western art. This incredibly fertile environment, so dense with echoes and references to and from other cultures, prompted me to feel ever more curiosity for the rest of the world – not in order to compare or contrast other cultures with my own, but rather to attain a sense of necessary ‘completion’. Other peoples, other civilisations, other histories: other possible worlds.

Peoples Strange as it may seem, when I began this project I had not yet fully resolved what peoples The New Museum would contain. The bounds seemed immense: 30,000 years of art history. I hardly knew where I would end up. But as I worked, ten different worlds emerged in quick and spontaneous succession, in a process of aggregation dictated almost inexorably by each new sculpture I created.

Questions How is it possible that some images automatically attract others? How is it that every single one of the characters portrayed in The New Museum immediately found a rightful place in their own ‘world’? From the very start, I knew that each people had to have its own identity. But what specific attributes and congenital traits would the characters in each individual world share? How could a cultural imprint emerge from the juxtaposition of simple objects made by man for completely different motives and ends? These are just some of the questions I attempted to examine in this work.

Reassessing This project also offered me a chance to reconsider some apparently consolidated points of view. Why not look at the past in a different way, shirking the Western view that tends to see cultural progress as a more or less straightforward evolution from the beginnings of time right up to the present day? Why not think of something a little more unstable, or perhaps even turn the whole situation upside-down and look at the past as though it were our avant-garde? From this perspective, the idea we have of the art produced by the major civilisations that preceded us takes on a very different appearance from the one we are accustomed to.

Shaping Most of the sculptures presented here were made entirely from found objects. But, on occasion, I had to step in to create the shapes used for their heads, working either in bronze or in painted resin. In these cases, I intentionally drew on images of existing statues: fragments of reality that, as with all of the objects, were then ‘contaminated’ with others during the assembly process that brought the finished artefacts to life.

Time ‘Before today’ (b.t.): The convention I adopted to assign dates to these sculptures. As ‘today’ is, by definition, always today, in this system it is the past that is continually shifting – a compelling idea that allows us to reflect differently on the history of art.

Uncovering The New Museum may also be seen as the outcome of a peculiar archaeological dig, during which the artist has worn the twin hats of archaeologist and maker of unearthed artefacts.

Voyage The immense journey undertaken – from prehistoric times to today. Or is it the other way around? From today all the way back to prehistory?

Waking ‘Things have a life of their own,’ the gypsy proclaimed with a harsh accent. ‘It’s simply a matter of waking up their souls.’ (Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude)

Xing The sculptures that populate The New Museum are, in essence, hybrids – beings created by crossing different types. Consequently, it felt natural for me to use East Asian bronze masks to create faces for characters from the Golden Empire (p.63a/b); or the decorative frieze from a Celtic jug and a mask from Roman theatre to shape the heads of some of the inhabitants of the Great Rivers (pp.21b–23b); or even to use a Nepalese artefact to make the head of an African-inspired sculpture (p.28c). Crossing and mixing are dominant traits in this work. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to talk of ‘cross-pollination’.

Yarning When I began to write the ‘imaginary captions’, I immediately found that the process flowed very fast: each sculpture, it turned out, had something to say. In fact, I felt that each inhabitant of these other possible worlds could have told a great many different stories – could have spun a great many yarns. The emotions I felt before the sculptures, and my experience of them, persisted in words as much as in images, without being dulled. Well, I reasoned, that’s exactly what you would expect of peoples from an imaginary museum.

Z The last letter of the alphabet. From A–Z: in other words, something complete, something that has run its course. One Sunday morning I woke up very early. I had not been to the Porta Portese market for a month, and I wondered why. For practically four years, I had made a weekly pilgrimage there, and I missed it. I missed the friends I’d made – the people I jokingly referred to as my ‘found-object pushers’ – and I missed the atmosphere of this great market, perhaps the most multi-ethnic place in Rome. There you plunge into a melting pot of different cultures and can hear dozens of different languages spoken in one place – a rich humus that was itself a stiumulus to the entire project. So I went back and spent half a day there, somewhat distracted, chatting with the people I bumped into. And then I happened across two stunning objects. A pair of items that I knew, without doubt, I could turn into intriguing and very ‘different’ sculptures. With the excitement of a child who has been offered an unexpected present, I was just about to buy them when – suddenly – I stopped. And immediately I knew why. While it may be true that an imaginary ‘Museum of Mankind’ should remain something open – something forever receptive and ever responsive – even on the most intense and wondrous of journeys there comes a time when you must realise that you have reached the end.