Gregory Barsamian’s work exists in a profound confrontation with reality. Theatrical in the sense that it takes place in a darkened space before a passively engaged audience, his sculpture relies almost completely on the viewer, because what the viewer sees, seemingly fully present and tangible, is, in fact, not there. Products of the viewer’s subconscious response, these constructed illusions create a conflict between sensory information and logic, a confrontation suggestive of a dream state. Barsamian has discovered a way, through the use of animation, to give visibility to images normally hidden in the subconscious mind—images usually accessible only while dreaming. His work is oddly solipsistic, implying to the viewer that nothing exists and that even if something exists, nothing can be known about it.
Perhaps because Barsamian isn’t a trained artist (his degree is in philosophy), he is particularly receptive to expanded definitions of the art object. This has allowed him to conceptualize beyond confining genres of presentation and subject matter. His work is shaped by Jungian psychology, dream theories of all sorts, and recent research on the neurology of dreaming. He is especially interested in differences between the conscious and the subconscious mind. As he pointed out in a recent statement, “Consciousness…in a rather slow (15 to 20 bits per second), plodding way, is capable of remarkable feats of reason…the senses bring in 20 million bits of information per second. Our minds are actually processing and acting on much of it in ways completely unknown to consciousness…in the subconscious, we experience things not through the limits of the conscious mind but rather via the full torrent brought to us by all our senses.”
Barsamian makes the experience of seeing his work comparable to that of hearing music—taken in through the senses in ways that bypass the filters of consciousness. He yokes Jung’s intuitive mysticism to the theory that dreams create new ideas as well as mutations in brain structure. Barsamian has been tape-recording his dreams for two decades, and much of his own dream-imagery appears in his work. His dream materials fall into distinct categories: action dreams, dreams of flying, and dreams involving transformation. This material is manifested in his work in the form of iterative loops, cycles of mutation and transformation with no clear beginning or end.
In his mechanized scenarios, players are locked into their situations, and constant repetition makes them visible. In this purgatory, nothing is resolved. Reflecting the tenuous, insubstantial, and fleeting nature of dreams, his images have no fixed meaning; each piece makes equal sense running backward and forward in time. In Die Falle, human forms flow from sleeping heads, arch backward and form wheels, which become square and dysfunctional before mutating back into figures that drift upward to rest in beds formed of mouse traps. In the majority of Barsamian’s work, images of futility, rage, sin, excrement, shame, or flying blink in and out of the viewer’s consciousness during the two- to five-minute life of each cycle. His imagery is sometimes personal, sometimes universal, and is drawn from politics, everyday life, and pop culture.
The representation of mood, or emotional nuance, is as central to Barsamian’s work as it is to dreams. Emotionally, his images are simultaneously humorous and melancholy. The comedy is related to the history of animation, which doubles as an encyclopedia of cultural humor. Animation is inherently funny because of its clumsy simulation of reality—its artifice, stylization, and mechanics make Barsamian’s work comical despite its sometimes scary and often serious content. The work’s mysterious and profound melancholy comes from its obsessive and repetitive re-enactment. The iterative imagery conjures feelings of helplessness, exasperation, and pathology while mimicking the involuntary nature of dreaming itself. Weighted with representations that elicit response rather than inform it, his work is more about the phenomena of dreams than literal dreams.
Barsamian’s Brooklyn workspace is Dickensian: shadowy, dimly lit, a hodgepodge of old-fashioned tools and electronic implements. He refers to his apparatus as “Industrial Revolution-style technology,” using the phrase to describe his combination of 19th- and 20th-century fabrication techniques and advanced electronics. His equipment ranges from hand tools, welding machines, mold-making equipment, and resins to strobe lights, motorized turntables, electrical cables, and computers. Although his work is categorized as media arts, he doesn’t project his images using advanced optics. His use of the computer is limited; he employs it as an aid in design and fabrication and to model sculpted elements. Unlike most artists whose work is derived solely from computer-driven processes, Barsamian’s digital interventions have no overt presence in the final object. The computer is just a part of his eccentric collection of equipment, a time-saving device. The end results look slightly crude and distinctly handmade, defined by their material substance.
Barsamian motorizes hundreds of elements to create three-dimensional illusions of moving objects. His installations consist of sequentially formed sculptures carved in plaster and cast numerous times in urethane foam rubber. Some elements are cast from readymade objects including Barsamian’s face and hands. The fabrication is painstaking and time-consuming, often taking up to a year. Barsamian’s technique produces the appearance of motion from a succession of static objects, and the brain animates the images/objects, giving them spatial reality. This psychological phenomenon is called the persistence of vision; simply put, an illusion of movement is created when a viewer sees a rapid succession of images. As Barsamian describes it, “Knowledge of objects allows us to link the images together into a single identity…a kind of animation. As we move, forms mutate one into the other in a wild spectacle of change.” Lucretius is credited with discovering persistence of vision; like Barsamian, he thought of it in connection with images seen in dreams.
Barsamian has to juggle multiple factors in order to produce the illusion of one smooth motion. The sequentially formed pieces (sometimes as many as 40) are attached to a motorized armature, a spherical wire cage that spins as fast as an old-fashioned record player (33 1/3 to 50 revolutions per minute). The cage spins vertically in front of a strobe light that flashes 13 times per second, illuminating the sculptures as they move. Perfect calibration of light and movement is crucial; with the right timing, you don’t see a blur as the sculptures spin by but a single moving image like a filmstrip. The motion mostly takes a vertical direction, as though the forms were moving from top to bottom and bottom to top rather than in the direction of the turning armature. If the timing is too slow, the illusory waterfall of motion loses its directional quality and every gear and knob appears; if the timing is too fast, the images become incoherent. The end result is so disconnected from reality that you are confronted with two choices: accept every facet of it or reject it as a mere trick, something contrived and merely mechanical. Barsamian makes his work so curious, complex, and seductive that it bypasses the entrenched structures of disbelief and the usual 20-second glance. The cascade of images, drone of motors, and slight breeze generated by the whirling armatures envelop the viewer, delivering a sensory assault so encompassing, so potent, that it erases the usual separation between spectator and object.