The sun and moon appear the same size to us because, in a striking coincidence, the sun is both 400 times larger than the moon and 400 times farther from Earth. I am awed each time I recall this fact; it suggests the universe makes sense in a poetic way. I had the same feeling while viewing Rosa Barba’s Stellar Populations (2017/2022), a mesmerizing kinetic sculpture. In the piece, one clear loop of film is pulled taut by two mechanisms that cause it to bump repeatedly into another, red strip, which is fed loosely through three revolving nobs. All this occurs within a light box, which also contains stainless steel spheres—perhaps pinballs—that roll around the smooth surface, corralled by the film. The whole thing is surprisingly elegant. It’s as if Barba is showing viewers the magic of how things work.
The Italian-German artist tinkers with the workings of things as straightforward as mechanical devices, as sublime as celestial bodies, and as elusive as poetry or space or time. “Radiant Exposures,” her show at Esther Schipper in Berlin, contains many round, spherical, and revolving objects, whether in the form of kinetic sculptures, expanded cinema, or, most often, some combination of the two. The moving sculptures all use light and film as materials, and are mesmerizing in the way of a looped animation. When she shows moving images, her analog projectors have a commanding presence in the gallery—one of them is larger than its projection screen, and its sound permeates the entire show. Elsewhere, film—whether celluloid bearing handwritten text or in-camera recordings depicting solariums or solid colors—is projected through colored glass, woven into mobiles, or pulled by mechanisms across light boxes. Rather than having all the works “play” at once, Barba chose to stagger them; some run on timers and take turns lighting up, helping choregraph a visitor’s movement through the space.
In the 6-minute, single-channel film that titles the show, Radiant Exposures—Facts Run on Light Beams These Days (2022), Barba uses 16mm film to record an expanse of mirrored solar panels in a desert. Her framing of this unpopulated industrial landscape is reminiscent of educational or documentary footage. Yet her subjects—solar energy, the technologies we’ve designed to capture it, and the sun itself—feel more wondrously enigmatic than they do demystified. A haze that appears to be heat-induced shrouds a view of the empty road. Did Barba record a mirage, did the sun melt the celluloid, or did the artist manipulate the image herself? A time lapse where it’s never night adds to the sense that this odd place exists outside of our space-time. The work’s subtitle is a quote from a footnote in Donna Haraway’s 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges,” meant to update Bruno Latour’s claim that scientific facts exit the laboratory only via the paths the lab itself creates. The line suggests that Barba sees her interrogations of the apparatuses through which we perceive light, space, and time as probing reality itself.
Through disassembling these apparatuses, Barba often takes on subjects that feel too big, or too elusive, to truly “know.” Her wall-based sculpture Composition in Field (2022) shows excerpts from Charles Olson’s 1950 poetry manifesto “Projective Verse” on celluloid; the text argues that poetry was a form of “energy transferred from where the poet got it” to the reader. Black letters occupy one frame each; clear, blank frames serve as spaces. The strips are woven together and stretched around a stainless-steel frame whose bars rotate. Some strips read top to bottom, others left to right. The words are always moving and colliding, so they’re hard to follow, but the text tries to explain poetic mechanisms. Barba demonstrates curiosity as to how poetry works, but also refutes one man’s attempt at a straightforward answer. Throughout, her elegant tinkering both exhibits and induces an admirable curiosity. She doesn’t break things open to learn how to put them back together, but rather to assemble new forms, dwelling in the space of wonder and marvel that comes with brushing up against the almost graspable.