Lather, 2002. Steel, urethane foam, acrylic medium, motor, and strobe, 5 x 5 ft. diameter

Gregory Barsamian and the Flying Dream

Gregory Barsamian’s work exists in a profound confrontation with reality. Theatrical in the sense that it takes place in a darkened space before a passively engaged audience, his sculpture relies almost completely on the viewer, because what the viewer sees, seemingly fully present and tangible, is, in fact, not there. Products of the viewer’s subconscious response, these constructed illusions create a conflict between sensory information and logic, a confrontation suggestive of a dream state. Barsamian has discovered a way, through the use of animation, to give visibility to images normally hidden in the subconscious mind—images usually accessible only while dreaming. His work is oddly solipsistic, implying to the viewer that nothing exists and that even if something exists, nothing can be known about it.

Perhaps because Barsamian isn’t a trained artist (his degree is in philosophy), he is particularly receptive to expanded definitions of the art object. This has allowed him to conceptualize beyond confining genres of presentation and subject matter. His work is shaped by Jungian psychology, dream theories of all sorts, and recent research on the neurology of dreaming. He is especially interested in differences between the conscious and the subconscious mind. As he pointed out in a recent statement, “Consciousness…in a rather slow (15 to 20 bits per second), plodding way, is capable of remarkable feats of reason…the senses bring in 20 million bits of information per second. Our minds are actually processing and acting on much of it in ways completely unknown to consciousness…in the subconscious, we experience things not through the limits of the conscious mind but rather via the full torrent brought to us by all our senses.”

Barsamian makes the experience of seeing his work comparable to that of hearing music—taken in through the senses in ways that bypass the filters of consciousness. He yokes Jung’s intuitive mysticism to the theory that dreams create new ideas as well as mutations in brain structure. Barsamian has been tape-recording his dreams for two decades, and much of his own dream-imagery appears in his work. His dream materials fall into distinct categories: action dreams, dreams of flying, and dreams involving transformation. This material is manifested in his work in the form of iterative loops, cycles of mutation and transformation with no clear beginning or end.

In his mechanized scenarios, players are locked into their situations, and constant repetition makes them visible. In this purgatory, nothing is resolved. Reflecting the tenuous, insubstantial, and fleeting nature of dreams, his images have no fixed meaning; each piece makes equal sense running backward and forward in time. In Die Falle, human forms flow from sleeping heads, arch backward and form wheels, which become square and dysfunctional before mutating back into figures that drift upward to rest in beds formed of mouse traps. In the majority of Barsamian’s work, images of futility, rage, sin, excrement, shame, or flying blink in and out of the viewer’s consciousness during the two- to five-minute life of each cycle. His imagery is sometimes personal, sometimes universal, and is drawn from politics, everyday life, and pop culture.

The representation of mood, or emotional nuance, is as central to Barsamian’s work as it is to dreams. Emotionally, his images are simultaneously humorous and melancholy. The comedy is related to the history of animation, which doubles as an encyclopedia of cultural humor. Animation is inherently funny because of its clumsy simulation of reality—its artifice, stylization, and mechanics make Barsamian’s work comical despite its sometimes scary and often serious content. The work’s mysterious and profound melancholy comes from its obsessive and repetitive re-enactment. The iterative imagery conjures feelings of helplessness, exasperation, and pathology while mimicking the involuntary nature of dreaming itself. Weighted with representations that elicit response rather than inform it, his work is more about the phenomena of dreams than literal dreams.

Die Falle, 1998. Steel, urethane foam, acrylic medium, motor, and strobe, 9 x 6 ft. diameter.

Barsamian’s Brooklyn workspace is Dickensian: shadowy, dimly lit, a hodgepodge of old-fashioned tools and electronic implements. He refers to his apparatus as “Industrial Revolution-style technology,” using the phrase to describe his combination of 19th- and 20th-century fabrication techniques and advanced electronics. His equipment ranges from hand tools, welding machines, mold-making equipment, and resins to strobe lights, motorized turntables, electrical cables, and computers. Although his work is categorized as media arts, he doesn’t project his images using advanced optics. His use of the computer is limited; he employs it as an aid in design and fabrication and to model sculpted elements. Unlike most artists whose work is derived solely from computer-driven processes, Barsamian’s digital interventions have no overt presence in the final object. The computer is just a part of his eccentric collection of equipment, a time-saving device. The end results look slightly crude and distinctly handmade, defined by their material substance.

Barsamian motorizes hundreds of elements to create three-dimensional illusions of moving objects. His installations consist of sequentially formed sculptures carved in plaster and cast numerous times in urethane foam rubber. Some elements are cast from readymade objects including Barsamian’s face and hands. The fabrication is painstaking and time-consuming, often taking up to a year. Barsamian’s technique produces the appearance of motion from a succession of static objects, and the brain animates the images/objects, giving them spatial reality. This psychological phenomenon is called the persistence of vision; simply put, an illusion of movement is created when a viewer sees a rapid succession of images. As Barsamian describes it, “Knowledge of objects allows us to link the images together into a single identity…a kind of animation. As we move, forms mutate one into the other in a wild spectacle of change.” Lucretius is credited with discovering persistence of vision; like Barsamian, he thought of it in connection with images seen in dreams.

Barsamian has to juggle multiple factors in order to produce the illusion of one smooth motion. The sequentially formed pieces (sometimes as many as 40) are attached to a motorized armature, a spherical wire cage that spins as fast as an old-fashioned record player (33 1/3 to 50 revolutions per minute). The cage spins vertically in front of a strobe light that flashes 13 times per second, illuminating the sculptures as they move. Perfect calibration of light and movement is crucial; with the right timing, you don’t see a blur as the sculptures spin by but a single moving image like a filmstrip. The motion mostly takes a vertical direction, as though the forms were moving from top to bottom and bottom to top rather than in the direction of the turning armature. If the timing is too slow, the illusory waterfall of motion loses its directional quality and every gear and knob appears; if the timing is too fast, the images become incoherent. The end result is so disconnected from reality that you are confronted with two choices: accept every facet of it or reject it as a mere trick, something contrived and merely mechanical. Barsamian makes his work so curious, complex, and seductive that it bypasses the entrenched structures of disbelief and the usual 20-second glance. The cascade of images, drone of motors, and slight breeze generated by the whirling armatures envelop the viewer, delivering a sensory assault so encompassing, so potent, that it erases the usual separation between spectator and object.

Artifact (detail), 2010. Steel, foam rubber, paper, and acrylic resin.

While Barsamian’s work is compelling and enigmatic even at rest, it’s impossible to experience through photography. Photographs reveal the mechanics of the work and the appearance of the many small pieces that create the illusions. These are wonderful to see, and they are beautifully crafted, but seeing them is like looking behind the green curtain and encountering the Wizard of Oz. Barsamian’s details are like the articulations of a puppet—seeing the pieces in action is the point. The function of the components is to create the magical illusion of animation; the content is the entire experience. The best way to see Barsamian’s work is either in person (the collection of the Museum of the Moving Image in New York includes Feral Font) or on his Web site.

Artifact, Barsamian’s most recent piece, was commissioned by David Walsh, creator and owner of the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart, Tasmania. Its form and imagery were inspired by the 19th-century pseudoscience of phrenology. Unlike many of Barsamian’s previous works, the 10-foot-diameter steel head is stationary and enclosed, its animating armatures concealed inside. Because the viewer has to walk around the work to view the animations, the experience is intimate and engaging. The head wears a benevolent expression, eyes open, a faint smile on the lips, as if experiencing a pleasant dream. Presented in a darkened space with its huge cheek snuggled against the floor, it bears a faint but distinct resemblance to Brancusi’s Sleeping Muse. The skin is criss-crossed with delicate lines—the tack-welded edges of the hundreds of small plates that form the head and lend it the look of a refined Frankenstein’s monster. When Artifact is operating, light leaks out between the suture-like welds of the skin, bathing the whole object in a crackly, electrical glow.

Inside, the head contains an irregularly shaped, rotating armature bearing a jumble of wire. The interacting, animated elements mounted on it relate to the phrenological regions. These sequences are exposed through seven ovoid portals placed at varying levels around the head. The viewer looks down into or crouches next to these portals to see what’s going on inside. Each portal displays a different view of objects moving both horizontally and vertically. The pieces are supported on the loosely wound ball of wire, and the cast objects appear in the spaces between the wires. Under the strobes, the ball of wire tends to disappear, but it leaves a vaguely scratchy visual imprint. The armature supports the animated sequences very precisely, so that they appear to be floating inside the head.

Through one portal, the viewer sees a flock of flying birds emerge from a mysteriously pulsing organ. They alight on the pages of books, which slam shut and crush them. Another portal features a network of steel rods supporting a group of tree branches bearing apples that fall into green hands. There, they appear to decay into a colorful liquid that drips onto the brims of hats arranged below. All of these animations are deliberately jerky, not as smooth as those in Barsamian’s other pieces.

The equally ambitious Juggler (1997), which consists of 16 life-sized figures arranged on a 12-foot-diameter armature, was commissioned by the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph Intercommunications Center in Tokyo. Juggler’s imagery concerns the subconscious impact of telecommunications technology. Barsamian thinks of the telephone as “the most intimate symbol of electronic interface that ties humans and machines.” Using it demands a constant, conscious effort to balance privacy and individuality within the boundaries of work and private life. Juggler is still his largest work to date and his only installation to use vertically spinning armatures. The viewer sees 16 orange, life-sized figures that resemble wire-frame drawings. These figures continuously catch and re-catch a series of telephone receivers, tossing them back and forth, each one just making it to the next outstretched hand. During the move from one hand to the next, the receivers transform from baby bottle into milk, milk into dice, dice into bones. The cycle ends with the slow descent of the bones suspended from parachutes. It’s a mordantly funny comment on the idea of being “connected,” as well as on the artificial, filtered nature of communication.

Juggler is a visual version of the game of telephone, which begins with the first player whispering a phrase or sentence to the next player. During the passage of whispers, the original phrase often mutates into something totally different and disconnected from the original words. The point of the game is the distortion. The point of Juggler is to demonstrate how speech turned into frequency creates a simulacrum of communication in which what matters is transmission rather than content—how you say it, not what you say.

Art-making has always negotiated the boundaries between the real and the fantastic, though this process has been defined by and confined to available technology. Tools that can re-order reality have now become incredibly sophisticated and accessible. Video recording devices, computers, and even scientific paraphernalia are now so inexpensive that millions own them. Using these accessories no longer requires any kind of expertise; to get results, watch friends using the device or ask their children how to make it work. You don’t have to read instructions.

Barsamian’s way of using science and technology bypasses simple play with gizmos. His work is relatively low-tech, based on simple mechanical techniques that demand a physical relationship with an object both from Barsamian and from the viewer. Because he doesn’t make much use of advanced technology, he can take advantage of the mistake, the odd wobble, the gap between the lights where you can almost see beyond the illusion. The mechanisms that create his work are a crucial feature of the experience; the constantly cycling ends are as interesting as their means. Barsamian’s work is a response to an intense longing for a fantastical reality that has presence and tangibility. His work produces a direct experience, one negotiated through memory, vision, and physicality and not processed through the sanitized distancing of a digital instrument.