Dreams. They can seem convincingly real, but are not. Fertile products of the unconscious, they are often filled with curious narratives, fantastic images, and strange juxtapositions. Compared to the rational order we try to make of our waking hours, dreams are reminders of life's underlying randomness and uncertainty. Tapping into the shadowy realms of the dream world are the fascinating, animated artworks of Gregory Barsamian.
An artist with a seemingly improbable combination of creative drives, Barsamian has found in kinetic sculpture an outlet for his collective interests. A student of philosophy, with particular interest in the nihilist ideas of 19th-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the dream analyses of 20th-century psychiatrist Carl Jung, Barsamian is also a devotee of film animation and a self-described motorhead who loves to tinker with machines. He became intrigued with Nietzsche's belief that, in a world without absolute truths, artists were uniquely free to invent their own worlds.
In his early years as an artist, Barsamian made sculpture in metal and then experimented with glass blowing. From the beginning his works had a surrealist edge, offering provocative and humorous observations on the strange conjunctions between the real and the imaginary. As his personal interest grew in dream psychology (the artist began recording his dreams in 1983), he became interested in finding a mode of expression better suited toward the peculiar miscellany of unconscious thought.
Around 1989, Barsamian stumbled onto the form of the zoetrope, or wheel of life. Although regarded as a 19th-century parlor toy, the zoetrope was also a significant optical device that illustrated the scientific principle of "the persistence of vision." Introduced by Peter Roget (of Thesaurus fame) in 1824, this principle explained the phenomenon that we experience, for instance, in motion pictures: that the human brain "fills in the blanks" between sequential images seen in a rapid succession, creating an illusion of continuous action. Decidedly low-tech by today's standards, the zoetrope was progressive in its time. Images, at first hand-drawn and eventually replaced by photographs, were mounted on the inside of a rotating drum. Viewers looking through slits in the drum witnessed this illusion of unbroken movement or animation. For Barsamian, the zoetrope was the perfect vehicle for expression of dream imagery -- thelanguage of the unconscious that he had absorbed him for years. After his first experiment with the zoetrope, Barsamian quickly realized that he could make animations in three dimensions -- in the viewer's time and space. He made sequentially formed sculptures in plaster, cast them in urethane foam rubber, and attached them to a motorized armature. To this, Barsamian added the synchronized flash of a strobe light, whose flickering illumination completed the illusion of animation. As one of the earliest and simplest of the sculptures in this show, Putti is perhaps the clearest illustration of Barsamian's intentions. Hovering overhead, spinning figures of cherubs (putti) turn into helicopters and back again into winged babes. The nature of this transformation is purposefully ambiguous: do the cupids become helicopters first or do the whirlybirds turn into ministering angels? Describing Putti as a joyful piece, Barsamian relates that it was inspired by a night spent on his roof watching the city. Living near a commercial heliport, he perceived the machines flying "like bees or like Renaissance putti attending the city." Yet, what does it say about human nature that the interpretation most frequently given of this transformation is negative? It conjures up the loss of innocence, the encroachment of police states, the buzz of Valkyrian war machines. Thus, the "persistence of vision" principle applies to the subject as well as the mechanism of Barsamian's art, precisely because the viewer's mind not only fills in the gaps of the animated sequence to give it visual continuity, but also completes the sculpture with the added dimension of personal meaning. By using recognizable, suggestive imagery, the artist leaves space for individual interpretation. Just as one cannot control the content of dreams, Barsamian makes no attempt to control people's needs to extend the metaphors he has set up and takes joy in the variety of responses they create.
The delight that engendered Putti does not, however, lie at the base of many of Barsamian's works. He does not intend his art to have a menacing face; however, by choosing to explore the unconscious mind, room must be made for dark visions as well as light. "In Jungian psychology," he explains, "dreams are a safety valve of the conscious mind. They take the conscious images that come through during the day and find a place for them." Revealed to us in our dreams, these images help balance the waking mind. They are by their very nature the opposite of daytime imaginings, containing random, unpredictable, emotional, and irrational thoughts that, in the artist's words, "unmask our illusion of control and reveal our vulnerability." Leafing on a Leash is just such a sculpture, born from the primordial soup of unconscious thought and one of several pieces Barsamian has created on the role of instinct. He explains:
This Sisyphean routine -- a figure condemned to perpetually labor at an apparently futile and pointless task -- lies at the core of many of Barsamian's works. In Leafing on a Leash, the figure continually "beating his head against a wall" seems to operate as Barsamian's metaphor for the repeated lessons that humans are destined to teach themselves. Despite trying to overcome or control human nature, we are nonetheless compelled by that nature -- by instinct -- to duplicate our actions and to repeat history. Both Putti and Leafing on a Leash were created during a year of tremendous creative fertility for Barsamian. He followed his success in the realization of three-dimensional stroboscopic animation with a series of increasingly larger, complicated, and technically challenging sculptures. Creating tall, cylindrical armatures for his sculptures, he was able to extend his animation sequences from 1* seconds to 6 seconds, which allowed for a more extensive narrative. Barsamian's works entered not only the world of art exhibitions, but were purchased for or commissioned by science museums and other venues attracted by the appealing techno-wizardry of his pieces. A recently completed commission for the Nippon Telephone and Telegraph InterCommunication Center in Tokyo -- at fifteen feet, his largest yet -- featured lifesize human figures juggling telephone receivers that metamorphose successively into various objects: milk bottles, dice, parachutes. This sculpture represents a juggling act between the convenient ease of modern communications and the accompanying losses of privacy and individuality. Certainly, the continual accessibility by employees to their workplaces through the use of pagers and cellular phones is increasingly recognized as both a delightful blessing and an enormous curse.
Subsequently, Barsamian has returned to working his big ideas on a pleasurably intimate scale. Making its debut in the summer, Cake Walk is the second sculpture the artist has created around the theme of birthdays. His first effort, Forty, features flying birthday cakes that become Medusa heads, with candles changing into snaky locks of hair; it could be described as a fun yet frightening meditation on midlife. Cake Walk is a tabletop piece, an iced birthday cake with a missing slice. Out of this space, figures are born and move toward the outside edge of the cake as they grow. Along the way, they are buffeted by the turning pages of a book that line the absent wedge. As each figure reaches maturity, an oncoming Mack truck (an illustration in the book) smashes into it. The sequence repeats every three seconds. The text of the book is quoted from Nietzsche's Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra), itself a doctrine of eternal recurrence: "Many die too late and a few die too early. The doctrine still sounds strange: 'Die at the right time!' Of course, how could those who never live at the right time die at the right time." It appears that Barsamian brings up for critical examination Nietzsche's conception of the superman (Übermensch): the superhuman person who could accept life repeated endlessly without alteration.
Finally, Joslyn's exhibition presents Barsamian's newest piece, one so new, that at the time of writing this essay, it was still in conceptual development. What can likely be said of it, and indeed of all Barsamian's art, is that it presents to the viewer, through inescapably familiar imagery, some of the fundamental dilemmas of human existence. Engagingly low-tech, yet amazingly effective in its illusionism, Barsamian's sculpture simultaneously delights and confounds. It provides a fanciful, fun, essentially existential ride on the merry-go-round of life.
Janet L. Farber
Associate Curator of 20th-Century Art