Let’s start at the end: the last, basement-level room of Cologne’s brand-new Löwengasse gallery in its inaugural show held a table with photographs strewn in a seemingly arbitrary arrangement and illuminated by a hanging vintage lamp. The snapshots were taken by California artist Noah Barker on a road trip between Richard Nixon’s former summer home in San Clemente, California—colloquially known as the “Western White House”—and Stanford University. Pictured are mostly the exteriors of research laboratories, behavior study centers, headquarters of technology companies, and businesses connected in one way or another with the military and energy industries. The buildings share a bland and conciliatory modernist architectural style, which provided the artist a semi-homogeneous backdrop in his loose hunt for images that might capture the California ideology: a vein of liberal individualism in a small part of the world that, through media and information technology, has shaped work and entertainment across the planet.
Back at the exhibition’s start, beer bottles, labeled but unbranded, sat in clusters on the floor, perhaps as a wink to leftovers from the exhibition’s opening or an allusion to some other convivial gathering. Only on closer inspection did one notice that the foil rounds covering the bottlecaps were missing—they’d levitated to the ceiling, where they resembled stars dimly illuminating a night sky, as in the DIY scenography of a school play. The frail, glued circles formed constellations the artist shaped by projecting film stills on the ceiling during installation. The first grouping followed the silhouette of John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) at the moment when, having brought his missing niece back to safety, he disappears again into the raw freedom of the West. The second figure was based on the cover of the novel Moby Dick as it appears in a scene from director Christian Petzold’s The State I Am In (2000), a coming-of-age drama about the teenage daughter of two former terrorists. Both stories revolve around obsessions, suspenseful searches for victims, and escapes.
Moby Dick was again invoked in the title of another work, And I only am escaped alone to tell thee (2021), a quote from the Book of Job that Herman Melville used as an epigraph to explain the survival of his narrator from the monstrous wonder of the seas. In this site-specific piece installed on a window overlooking the street, the artist used a semitransparent spray and fixative to create what looked like a drawing on frozen glass. The pattern depicted the structural formula of a molecule of lignite, a form of coal (mining has historically been an important source of wealth for North Rhine-Westphalia, the region around Cologne). The letters that usually stand for the atoms had been replaced with the names and initials of powerful individuals—industrialists, politicians, from the United States and elsewhere—involved in the international and financial relationships (scandals, sometimes) of West Germany. Back came the sensation of being pulled by a chain of allusions and signifiers, from the physical site that hosts the exhibition through sites of political, cultural, and economic power, with a plot as evanescent as steam.
Barker’s extreme narrative economy seemed to refer to the language of film editing, where montage and cross-cutting create worlds from loosely associated scenes, a connection reinforced by the exhibition’s title, “Dream State,” which might refer less to the surreal logic of actual dreams than to the common metaphor of cinema as a dream. That phrase also brings to mind the “best of all possible worlds” of triumphant laissez-faire neoliberalism, an ideology exemplified by Reagan and often in service to the California industries pictured in the basement. Barker’s powerful layering of research and references (too dense to be fully explicated in a review) distinguishes his work from that of the past decade’s young post-conceptual artists. Barker is interested in chemistry and modification rather than overt response to current events or historical facts. He seems interested in analyzing the ideal of the rugged lonely man—foundational to Western mythology and politics, continuing in today’s image of the successful entrepreneur. Still, his own installation employs elements of those narratives, taking the form of a wide-eyed road trip to the point where the land ends, using the tropes of movie genres that have, implicitly, propagated the idea of Manifest Destiny. As in Melville’s celebrated quest, Barker fears his beast—a dangerous composite figure of economic and political power—as much as he is under its spell.