Met Rooftop Commission: Cornelia Parker’s “PsychoBarn”

Art in Review, Installation

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Looming over the Metropolitan Museum, a red barn jolts the fabric of the Manhattan cityscape like a curious iconoclast. It is a vision from our subconscious, an iconic vernacular, a thing of dreams – nightmares, more likely. Hollywood connoisseurs will instantly wonder by what sorcery the Bates’ residence could appear in the least likely of places. Others will believe they are hallucinating, that the apparition on the roof is a portent of gloom, or that their oneiric order has taken over, plunging them into an inexplicable reality. And some will simply assume, most likely, that this is yet another peculiar and useless form of conceptual art – a work for which there is no apparent reason but nevertheless, makes one feel something. Therein lies the “use” of such a structure.

The grim edifice is 30 feet high, crimson red and of a Second Empire style, fit with a faux mansard roof and an oculus window that peers ominously down at those who gaze. It is, as artist Cornelia Parker titles it, a transitional object, or something ordinary that becomes “compelling and extraordinary” through a code of visual and verbal allusions. Pediatrician and psychoanalyst David Winnicott first used the term in 1951, referring to the stage in a child’s development when he or she begins to feel separate in mind and body from the mother. The child is able to negotiate this traumatic truth by clinging onto a second, transitional object, such as a familiar toy or blanket. Parker first cited this phenomenon in her Transitional Objects I and II (2008), which she made shortly after the death of her parents. These works assume the role of an empty shelter – like children, we use objects to support ourselves in difficult times and use the material world “as an absorber and carrier of emotional and cultural repositories.”

The ghostly replica of Hitchcock’s Psycho farmhouse, indicated by the sub-titularPsychoBarn, triggers cultural metaphors and personal associations. It flickers between the physical reality of a barn and the cinematic fiction of the house, made doubly strange by its sheer “unreality” of placement. Sharing the home of Leytonstone, London with Alfred Hitchcock, an iconic British import to American cinema, there was no doubt in Parker’s mind of the personal and shared connotations this project would manifest. Extending the psychoanalytic idea of a transitional object, the house embodies a host of psychological complexities concerning the film’s mother figure, the murderous Mrs. Norma Bates. The notion of safe, nurturing domesticity is subverted to the horrors that went on in the film, rendering the symbol of a Dutch red barn antagonistic to original subtexts. The intended effect is a visual juxtaposition she describes as both comforting and malign, “an object that oscillates between two poles.”

Beyond the infamous horror-house, Transitional Object: PsychoBarn fits into Edward Hopper vernacular, notably his painting House on the Railroad (1925). Hopper’s style corresponds with a central tenant in Parker’s œuvre: the power of visual art to trigger a complex emotional response. Both artists share the notion that an artwork, with a carefully constructed composition and lack of narrative, can possess a universal quality that transcends any particular locale. Where a style of architecture exemplifies a particular historical period, it embodies a timeless common depth of feeling. PsychoBarn, in this regard, becomes a carrier of cultural meaning.

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Artist Cornelia Parker at the press preview.

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The image of a red farmhouse that inspired Parker preceded Hopper’s visual trademark. She too was inspired by the old Americana, as she wished to bring “the rural idyll to New York.” PyschoBarn is the architectural emblem of the New World: a Dutch red barn. (It is no coincidence that this barn dapples the skyline of a city once known as New Amsterdam.) Like architectural poppies, red barns dot the American countryside with flashes of scarlet, originally symbols of hope to our ingenious colonial forebears. “Early European settlers brought the red barn… [It has] evolved on American soil to become a symbol of everything that is wholesome and good,” explains Parker, who went to the source for this project. She assembled the structure with materials from a dilapidated red barn in upstate New York.

Referencing the history of the symbol, Parker reflects how the project continues the cycle of construction. By reusing its wooden slats, shabby window frames, and corrugated metal roof tiles, she constructed the façade of one symbolic building out of the material of another. Coalescing a subversive range of inferences, simultaneously recalling tranquil home life, rural nostalgia, and vindictive horror whilst pulling from the authenticity of the countryside to the artifice of a film set, the installation expresses Parker’s ability to transform clichés to beguile both eye and mind. By placing the red barn on the top of the Metropolitan Museum, the symbolic value of the work expresses the tension between the rural and the urban, and becomes a familiar truism in and of itself. PsychoBarn adds to the multilayered associations of not only its own vernacular but the place it inhabits: the iconic New York skyline. Together, these two pieces coincide in an illogical union, and the image of each extends the personal narratives and associations of all who visit.Transitional Object: PsychoBarn will be on display through October 31st.

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