The stillness of Maria Bianca Barmen’s sculptures are quite different to a sculptural tradition in Europe that is about arresting motion - the works of Michelangelo would be pertinent here, which
also extends to the works of Rodin. Their sculptures are sculptures about potent reservoirs of energy, of movement at the cusp of eruption. In ‘The Story of Art‘ E. H. Gombrich describes
Michelangelo’s ‘Dying Slave‘ c. 1513 thus:
“There is unspeakable beauty in this last moment of final relaxation and release from the struggle of life - this gesture of lassitude and resignation. It is difficult to think of this work as being a statue of cold and lifeless stone, as we stand before it in the Louvre. It seems to move before our eyes, and yet to remain at rest. This is probably the effect Michelangelo aimed at.” (p. 313)
We encounter a similar approach in H. H. Arnason writing about Auguste Rodin’s ‘Monument to Balzac’, commissioned in 1891 by the French Writer’s Association:
“The anatomy has virtually disappeared beneath the draperies, which are gathered up as if to muster and concentrate the whole of some prodigious inspiration, all reflected like a tragic imprint on the deep-set features of the colossal head. The figure leans back dramatically beneath the robe, a nearly abstract icon of generative power.” (p. 104)
We sense that an important vein within the European sculptural tradition has been an almost animistic desire to re-animate matter with life-force or motion, a tradition that extends back to the story of Pygmalion in Greek mythology.
Can we look for another sculptural lineage that privileges absolute stillness, that seeks to un-do motion? This can be thought of as an attempt at withdrawing from time, moulding another dimension outside profane, entropic time. Stillness becomes a kind of funnel or pipeline to different states of perception and consciousness, where one’s lived time has to accommodate and adjust to a stilled state, which we can perhaps call a state of suspension. This understanding of stillness may be reflected in the religious and mystical practices of many traditions. When I was studying mysticism at university for a Masters degree I used to read the teachings of a Zen monk called Shunryu Suzuki. He was my favorite writer on these matters. Reflecting on my studies of Zen as well as my two experiences of staying in a monastery in Japan for a period of time, I find another understanding of stillness. I do not think that it is particularly unique to the Zen tradition alone, but it certainly marks it. Shunryu Suzuki writes about calmness thus:
“Before something happens in the realm of calmness, we do not feel the calmness; only when something happens within it do we find the calmness. There is a Japanese saying, “For the moon, there is the cloud. For the flower there is the wind.” When we see a part of the moon covered by a cloud, or a tree, or a weed, we feel how round the moon is. But when we see the clear moon without anything covering it, we do not feel that roundness the same way we do when we see it through something else.” (p. 121)
In the case of Barmen’s sculptural ensembles it is perhaps the bodies and minds of we who look at them which provides the ‘something happens’, which Suzuki speaks. The stillness of her works reveals itself to us because of the movement which we necessarily bring to it when looking at them. This seems to suggest a different model of engaging with sculpture to that which Gombrich and Arnason invoke in their respective analyses. In their readings, the sculpture acts as a trigger for the imagination of the viewer, suggesting arrested motion. The sculpture is a carrier of poetic messages, of something paradoxical and impossible - energy that is made inert. It is thus in the minds eye of the beholder that the sculpture ‘works’, by suggesting and hinting at something which it actually cannot do. We can say that the sculptures literally try to leave themselves in this way, to take flight in the imagination. Barmen’s works do not seem to ‘work’ like this. They rather seem to create a state of suspension between beholder and work, in which one does not implicitly affect the other. In this sense Barmen’s sculptures tend to remain resolute. The dogs, human figures and objects which make up her tableaux occupy another dimension that may be not entirely ours. This strangeness of something that looks familiar but which also seems apart is what imparts stillness to the works. In the act of coming across them in an exhibition we recognise this apartness because it has touched our world of perception and understanding. If there is the wind for the flower, as Suzuki says, perhaps for Barmen’s sculptures it is ourselves that open up and allow for stillness.
The Noh performer, or the modern Butoh dancer in Japan both play within the runnels of stillness. For the Noh player, the stilling of the body and its movements into a series of highly formalized, rigorous signs marks the boundary between this world of transient time and that of what the originator of Noh, Motokiyo Zeami, called Yuugen or refined, mysterious and sad elegance. I think that for the modern Butoh dancer, stillness has come to mean something more political, in the sense of a conscious withdrawal or non-commitment to a world of war and human suffering. In both cases, it seems to be the case that another temporal flow or river is being sought by methods of extreme deceleration. I wonder if these performers have managed to discipline their bodies to ‘operate’ at far slower rates of activity than ordinary people? The dance or performance therefore becomes something physically and biologically contrasted to the bodies of those watching and thus intensely engaging and mysterious?
The very small bronze cast sculptures that Barmen made in Japan bring another dimension to stillness. This is weight, density. The sculptures are small enough to be held in the hand of an adult. And yet, when one picks one up its weight immediately makes itself known and felt. Something so small is so heavy. There is a similar small but very weighty object in a short story written by Jorge Luis Borges called “Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius’. It was a magical object, a material object in our world that resolutely refused to be fully a part of it. Let us read what Borges said:
“In his delirium a few coins had fallen from his belt, along with a cone of bright metal, the size of a die. In vain a boy tried to pick up this cone. A man was scarcely able to raise it from the ground. I held it in my hand for a few minutes; I remember that its weight was intolerable and that after it was removed, the feeling of oppressiveness remained. I also remember the exact circle it pressed into my palm. This sensation of a very small and at the same time extremely heavy object produced a disagreeable impression of repugnance and fear.....These small, very heavy cones are images of the divinity in certain regions of Tlon.”
Such objects must be enormously dense, matter so tightly packed together that there are few gaps or pockets in between its constituent elements. This suggests another reading of stillness. As density increases, the possibility for movement between elements decreases, leading to something more still? When molecules are packed so closely that they stop moving, what happens? Was Borges’ magical object a symbol for a state of absolute stillness? It is important and interesting that Barmen’s weighty sculptures are usually of small size. It is relatively easy to construct heavy sculptures in a massive scale - we may cite the Egyptain pyramids, countless stone statues or Richard Serra’s iron works as examples - but something altogether more secretive to achieve density via smallness. The idea of packing matter together densely in a condensed size seems alchemical and magical rather than monumental and ritualistic.
Yet another interpretation of stillness is found in the writings of Roger Caillois, especially his readings of the praying mantis insect and others, which mimic their environments by camoflage and absolute stillness in order to hide themselves from danger. Caillois writes that mimicry is a succumbing of the body and subject to the ‘lure of space’. In this dissolving into space the autonomous self is scattered across the landscape and the landscape mixes with the self. Becoming still is a kind of surrendering of one’s privilege and a prelude to the possibility of an inter-mingling where no one identity is absolute or secure. In many of Barmen’s sculptural situations we are confronted with a human figure, often a lone girl, surrounded by fragments of textile or other objects. Are these figures like the absolutely stilled insects which Caillois writes about? Are they hiding from something?
A paradox emerges, in that they are at once sculptures, works of art to be beheld, but also trying to hide by being so still. In a crowded place perhaps these sculptures would become largely invisible. But in a quieter place their secrets may begin to whisper.