Exhibition Review: Sara Barker & Ryder Architecture

“A Subtle Knife”
Sara Barker and
Ryder Architecture
BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art
https://www.balticmill.com/ Gateshead Quays
S Shore Road Gateshead NE8 3BA

“And then they revealed that solids were not solid 

That a wall was not solid 

That it consisted of molecules fixed and vibrating 

Some distance apart, as did the flesh

That solidity was really the likelihood

Of stuff not falling 

Between two chairs, down the gaps 

And that walking through the wall was not impossible 

That it could be like Slipping between pine trunks into a forest 

Which had looked from the road impermeable 

But was where something lived 

And that one could peer back from the gloom towards the light 

A different creature 

With tender eyes, with an ear for water.”

Frances Leviston, “The Gaps”


When I arrived at BALTIC’s Level 2 Gallery the first thing I realised that the exhibition space, which previously seemed chaotic, had been re-designed to redirect the flow of visitors. The gallery was remodelled by one of the North East’s leading architecture companies, Ryder and Yates. It also features a site-specific sculpture entitled ‘A Subtle Knife’, a collaboration between Ryder Architecture and Sara Barker, a young artist from Glasgow.

Sarah Barker

Sara Barker, A Subtle Knife, 2013

My first reaction upon seeing this strikingly large-scale piece was a sense of intrigue and awe. It felt like the sculpture has always been in that space. It certainly didn’t look like an artwork on exhibition, but rather a part of the gallery’s interior, as it truly complemented the architectural structure of the BALTIC. The sculpture has been created as a response to the newly built interior of the Level 2 gallery by using industrial materials, which echo the light and the surroundings. Barker brought together a variety of styles and genres of art making for this piece; from painting to sculpture, from architecture to jewellery making. Large glass panels placed vertically at different angles are supported by thin white concrete plinths which are placed on the floor in an irregular fashion with clear references to Italian architect Carlo Scarpa’s dysfunctional staircases.

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Castelvecchio, stairs by Carlo Scarpa

Although upon investigation, I later found out that the plinths are actually made out of wood and covered with a layer of concrete and resin mixture. Thin and shiny copper tubes travel from the plinths, encircling the glass, some of them taking the form of antennas or transmitters and rising towards the incredibly high ceiling of the gallery space. The aluminium panels, which painted with watercolour and gouache, almost alluring to Kandinsky, bring a painterly contrast to the cold and industrial mixture of glass and copper. All of these industrial materials are connected by a joining technique used in jewellery design, thus, making the entire piece look so delicate and fragile. It is, in a sense, defying gravity despite its considerable weight.

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Detail from ‘A Subtle Knife’

‘A Subtle Knife’, Barker’s largest work to date, owes a lot of its success to North East of England architecture firm Ryder and Yates. Architect Gordon Ryder and painter/designer Peter Yates, who also happened to be a close friend of the modernist icon and pioneer Le Corbusier, founded Ryder Architecture in 1953. Beginning their careers with exhibition space design, Ryder and Yates helped transform the entire city of Newcastle by designing houses, factories and commercial buildings across the North East region. Ryder Architecture, with this mutually beneficial collaboration, aims to liberate architecture from common suppositions, that it is essentially an industry, which is only concerned with functionality and profits. They aim to bring “artistic expression and creativity” into discussion*. Their involvement in the making of the piece is crucial, as Barker, who had always worked on small scale sculptures before, was now granted access to a whole new world of materials in Ryder Architecture’s disposal.

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Marcel Duchamp, “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even”, 1915 -1923

Barker’s choice of using large glass planes initially brought to my mind Marcel Duchamp’s ‘The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even’ commonly known as ‘Large Glass’, which plays with the notion of space by making the audience see the interiors of the gallery through the artwork. Space and the viewer thus both become the part of the artwork. ‘The Subtle Knife’ however, not only makes you aware of the space; it creates an alternative space within a space. Glass panels are placed so cleverly so that they create multiple reflections of the Tyne Bridge, Tyne River, the BALTIC’s lifts which constantly go up and down, finally and most importantly, people walking around the sculpture. Different times of the day when the sunlight shines through the windows of the BALTIC, the sculpture seems to change, as though it is responding to the natural light just, like sunflowers. At one certain point, I have seen four separate reflections of myself and became startled, as they all resembled ghostly apparitions from another world. This is perhaps due to the science fiction roots of the piece. ‘A Subtle Knife’ is heavily inspired by sci-fi literature and the phantasmagorical world of English painter John Harris.

John Harris, “Fire: The Zig Zag”, 2011, oil on canvas

‘Northern Lights’ is a sci-fi novel by Philip Pullman and it is the first book of a trilogy, ‘His Dark Materials’. Barker appropriately named her sculpture after the knife in the book, which is supposedly so sharp that it can cut through to parallel dimensions. “One-moment several things are possible, the next moment only one happens, and the rest don’t exist. Except that other worlds have sprung into being, on which they did happen”(Pullman, 1997, p. 226) writes Pullman in ‘Northern Lights’. These lines are perhaps most apt to explain the uncanny effect of ‘A Subtle Knife’ on the viewer.

Barker, with this sublime piece, opens up a door to a spectral dimension where nothing is impermeable, everything flows, and shadows and reflections are one moment there and the next moment gone. This piece, subtly nourished by quantum physics theory, in which one thing could be in many different places at the same time, makes the viewer aware of the possibility, that perhaps another versions of them exist within an alternative universe, which is so close yet so inaccessible. ‘A Subtle Knife’ cuts through the membrane that separates these worlds and gives us access to a whole new experience of space, time and being.



*Taken from an interview on http://www.thejournal.co.uk/news/north-east-architecture- firm-ryder-6308922