Jessica Hemmings

Textile Writer

Barnaby Barford: The Big Win, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle

Barnaby_Barford_reviewBY JESSICA HEMMINGS

Barnaby Barford: “The Big Win: A Modern Morality Tale”
Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle
September 10, 2011 – September 2, 2012

Barnaby Barford is a storyteller. His ceramics – from the mass produced to the one off – construct scenes that comment on modern life. For the Laing Gallery, Barford has responded to themes found in the gallery’s collection of 18th and 19th century art, reworked in present day kitsch, to suggest that society’s social problems are far from new. Across a series of vignettes we witness a track-suit clad character experience the emptiness and unhappiness caused by a desire for material excess prompted by his roller coaster ride from debt, to lottery-win and subsequent downfall. The narrative denouement is thrown open to the public, who have been invited to submit their own proposal for a final sculpture Barford will create halfway through this year-long exhibition.

Barford’s message could be understood as a warning against the hollowness of material excess. Situated amongst the Gallery’s collection, the tale is both one of contemporary critique, but also suggests that human weakness and false gods are hardly new to the human condition. Our story opens with a scene of debt letters and OK magazine copies strewn on the floor of a living room scene. David and Victoria Beckmann pin ups decorate the wall, framed by a background of dismal high-rise tower blocks. But there is little to fear, because dreams come true. A lottery win comes to the rescue – and a ‘spiritual’ awakening pulls our layabout into the centre of a mandala of ceramic lotto tickets – without lifting a finger. Consumptions rules: strips of advertisements for Argos and Rolex sit check and jowl. At the same time, mini turds mingle with doll sized beer cans. By mid-story the main character has grown a paunch and his companion bears a pregnant belly, perfectly poised to nurture a new generation.

A landscape of Las Vegas-inspired aspirations – jet black rearing stallions, glass palm trees, mini paper playing cards and ceramic euros (no sterling in sight) – sets the pre-fall scene. By the closing pages our character returns to the cul-de-sac of his life and stands in a landscape of uncoloured chips of clay. Each crudely formed piece represents an antithesis of the detailed attention and unnerving quantity captured in Ai Weiwei’s recent installation of sunflower seeds cordoned off from public interaction at the Tate Modern. If craft represented labour and perfection for Ai Weiwei, for Barford it exists as appropriation.

Currently, the final scene on display involves our main character leering at a billboard advertising unsecured loans by a prostitute bedded with cash. The final unpredictable twist that remains to be created will come from one of the public suggestions Barford has solicited. The gesture is very much in keeping with this practice of revision. Components – both material and narrative – are borrowed and reconfigured. Britain does not manufacture, it acquires. Barford does much the same. The commentary that emerges is critical, but equally tongue-in-cheek and ultimately open-ended.

Crafts Magazine (Jan./Feb. 2012: 63)