In the visual arts, the twentieth century experienced a striking contradiction. On the one hand, the idea that beauty is not the priority of art challenged public sentiment, in part intimidated by critics and gallery-owners. This doctrine, if we look closer, is indeed peculiar, because it would be like saying that health is not the priority of medicine, or more simply, that understanding, the attempt to say something meaningful and intelligent, is not the priority of these lines, or of any text written by anyone, addressed to a reader to tell him about something. The public, intimidated, accepts and submits. People go to art shows and applaud; if they can, they buy, proving themselves to be far more insecure than the bourgeois collectors of the nineteenth century, who though they scorned the impressionists, at least in doing so, also proved that they had their own taste in painting.
On the other hand, take note, the public tolerates these vexations ( this term is intended with the lucidity and irony expressed by Eric Satie in his composition Vexations, a piece for piano to be performed consecutively eight hundred and forty times) because Beauty has sought refuge elsewhere. Not only within the elegant walls of galleries displaying artworks whose priority is not beauty, but in furniture design, hotels, restaurants, and in numerous and splendid objects which are industrially produced, like the Olivetti Lettera 32 manual typewriter of decades ago or the IPods and IPads of today; automobiles; Japanese pens; Moleskine notebooks; fans built in the 1950s; juke boxes, and Mont Blanc fountain pens. That these objects are beautiful is only right and natural for their beauty enhances their attractiveness to buyers. That they have a culturally acknowledged aesthetic dignity is also recognized - if we consider that such objects are conserved at MOMA and elsewhere, in collections dedicated to design.
What is by no means obvious, and which Marco Barina has so worthily stressed in his work, is that these objects so hastily defined as "minor arts" actually contain a greater art. What´s more, this beauty is still out there, waiting to be discovered wherever such objects are to be found, as the secondary and humble witnesses of our lives: in our attics, junk shops, or in those marvelous archives of objects: hardware stores, where among nails, pliers, hammers, keys, screws and a thousand other things minutely classified (otherwise how would we ever find them?) there exists an inventory of worlds and of possible stories from which hundreds of novels might be written (from, say, the story of the couple who come into the store to buy a hammer to hang new pictures on the wall of their new house - to the husband or wife who returns some years later to buy a new lock for the door) and especially a potentiality of forms whose aesthetic resources are precisely the focus of Barina´s research.
Let´s leave the hardware store and enter the gallery. Duchamp thought he was showing that anything can be a work of art, but he really proved something rather different (luckily ) and that is that a work of art is first and foremost a thing. Many artists have followed Duchamp in the former direction, down the wrong track, in a succession of ideas and wonders always less and less surprising and more and more repetitive, all based on the idea, worthy of the worst bureaucrat, that even a tooth ache can become a masterpiece if it comes with proper certification. Fewer artists have followed (or rather have contradicted or perfected) his second thesis: the idea that a work of art is primarily a thing. And among those few, a special place must be reserved for Barina. To understand the process through which he has done this, I believe it may be of use to use to consider four elements which create a sort of constellation in his work.
The first element is Pop. Barina is in search of beauty. He is by no means convinced that it can be done without. He refuses to be intimidated or vexed, and more importantly, he doesn´t want to intimidate or vex anyone else. And his work seems to suggest Pop Art´s transformation and metamorphosis of the Ready Made. Where Duchamp put something already made -and ugly as well - like a bicycle wheel or a urinal, Warhol put the Brillo Box or the photos of Marilyn and Liz Taylor - things which existed in themselves but were transformed, literally magnified, enlarged; things which possessed an intrinsic beauty, since the boxes used in commercial packaging must be beautiful in order to attract the public and make them want to buy. Barina also uses found objects ( the Ready Made aspect) but with these he creates still others, which are unexpected, beautiful, both legible and mysterious (the Pop aspect).
The second element is Gestalt, the form, the idea that objects possess autonomous expressive qualities, independently of the intentions of subjects. This is the thesis sustained by the Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka, very politically incorrectly, when he says that "water says `Drink me!,´ thunder says `Fear me,´ and women say "Love me´" The principle is valid, but requires two adjustments, aside from the warning "Women aren´t things and this isn´t the nineteenth century." Firstly, things can also refrain from saying what they are --- when they camouflage themselves with special expedients, or in a stroke of bad luck - keys and eyeglasses are very skilled in this art. Secondly and above all ( and this is Barina´s great resource) things say more than what they are with an initiative that seems to stem from them and not us. It is impossible to look at a winged corkscrew and not think of a dancer. The front of a house with the door in the middle and two windows above that is called a "façade" or face. Inevitably we speak of "bottle necks" and "table legs." We may not wish it to be so, we may not think it to be so -- but that´s how it is : The tendency to see an object thus is stronger than we are because the initiative dwells within the object itself.
The third element is Mnemosyne, as I call it, referring to the iconological atlas assembled by Aby Warburg in order to bear witness to the survival and metamorphosis of the ancient gods in the modern world. Some of Barina´s works, especially his fabulous image archives, describe a metamorphosis of figures and, especially of the human face, across the most disparate cultures and times. This is an archive of value in itself and it is contemporary and active in an interplay of traditions, translations, transformations. It is our personal archive of the images that we carry within us in our cultural memory. This archive is, in a way, the opposite of the work on objects. Whereas a corkscrew may remind us of a dancer, in Barina´s archive, in an unsettling reversal, one of the torture victims of Abu Ghrahib -- that modern crucifix which should never be deleted from our memory-- reminds us of a corkscrew, infusing Primo Levi´s words with new meaning, " if this is a man." No it´s not a man, but a corkscrew, at least, for his executioners who sent him to that place.
As for the fourth element, I would call it Egypt, for lack of anything better. Objects outlive us and look at us with Egyptian eyes. They are wiser than we are because they know they were here before us and will still be here when we are gone. The objects that Barina finds at Porta Portese belonged to other people who discarded them at one time in the past, but they have unexpectedly returned to our midst. They are still here. They have endured and have been reborn as a sphinx or phoenix in another form, while others have all vanished. This is the charm and the power of things, previously found in Dutch painting. We´d need an entire bibliography to help enhance our appreciation of Barina´s work. Not that his works are not pleasing in themselves. But they could be even more deeply appreciated, as when we savor certain foods more when accompanied by certain wines. Here I am intentionally employing a delicate terminology because I am not all convinced that beauty can never be a priority of art. I also firmly believe that beauty cannot do without sensitivity, sensation, and aesthesis which is the etymological root of aesthetics.
That supplementary nourishment of readings which could help us appreciate Barina´s work more deeply includes Rilke´s Duino Elegies which celebrate objects and their simplicity; Borges poem "Things" about the objects which accompany us and outlive us "They´ll long outlast our oblivion; And never know that we are gone." The Philosophy of Decoration by Mario Praz who understood the melancholy muse of furniture, which despite its Italian name "mobile" from "moveable," is much more stable than we are in both time and space, and The Life of Things by Remo Bodei, published last year, a rich archive celebrating the beauty and power of objects. At the core of this experience of things is the idea that they survive us, outlive us -- a concept I found very well expressed in a history book I once read about the second world war, "On November 9, 1958, a pilot flying over the Sahara south of Tobruk, saw a crashed plane lying in the sand. It was the American bomber Lady Be Good which had vanished in 1943 while returning to a base in Libya after a bombing mission in Southern Italy. The radio, guns, ammunition were all still intact. Later among the sands were found the five skeletons of the crew."
Herein lies, I believe, the power of things that Barina so successfully recaptures, with a special addition, and that is, unlike the lost remains in the desert, or Borges´ things, Barina´s objects seem to remember us and to turn their attention upon us. The objects have become artworks, that is they have become things that pretend to be people, things which most amazingly show feelings for us. Kant believed that there are days when the world smiles us. What Barina has succeeded in doing is to send us that smile ( or a menacing look or an expression of amazement) by means of cast off warming pans, spoons, and coffee cups. All this is beautiful and stirs our feelings and emotions, so there is no need for us to console ourselves with a glass of Chardonnay offered by the gallery-owner, as often happens at art shows when beauty is not the priority of the works on exhibit. In Barina´s case, the original materials did not have beauty but usefulness as their priority, but beauty and expression existed in them in latent form and Barina has managed to make that beauty emerge by means of metamorphosis.
Let me make a prediction. I doubt that many twentieth century art works whose priority was not beauty will endure. Perhaps they will be conserved for the sake of documentation - out of ethnographic scruples - or as sadistic oddities, like the museums of torture or the Inquisition. But most certainly they will remain objects of design. In recounting the beauty of other more humble objects which could rarely claim to possess a design, and yet they did -- Barina has given new life to these things or perhaps ( forgive the lugubrious comparison but it is pertinent to the Egyptian inspiration I mentioned earlier) he has embalmed them, saving them from destruction. Perhaps the day will come in which these humanized objects will begin to speak. I like to imagine a dialogue between Marco Barina and his objects - something like Federico Ruysch´s dialogue with his mummies. But that´s not to say that that hasn´t already happened, and Barina hasn´t told us about it to keep from scaring us a bit.