Anthony Hawley on Itziar Barrio

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An assemblage of three IKEA chairs rises up from a stark-white cement plinth. Rubber cuffs bind the folding furniture’s legs, suspending the trio in a tilted balletic pose. Swaths of buttery stygian latex cover each end of the metallic structure, evoking something between soaking-wet laundry hung out to dry and s/m garb in shiny sumptuous black.

The closing iteration of Itziar Barrio’s twelve-year project THE PERILS OF OBEDIENCE, 2010–22, was all about the dialectics of sex, labor, and style. Visitors experienced this interplay throughout the gallery with a selection of photo-based works, sculptures (such as the aforementioned Untitled (JEFF 7), and You Weren’t Familiar but You Weren’t Afraid, both 2022, a three-channel video that features, among other things, an unresolved debate between the Roman goddesses Minerva and Venus. (“Lavoro!” “Amore!,” they argue. “Lavoro!” “Amore!”).

The film—the nucleus of the exhibition—follows Stella Kowalski, the character from Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire (1947) on a series of adventures. But this is Stella 2.0, a woman who abandons Stanley and New Orleans, beginning anew in Bogotá by appearing in Colombian director Sergio Cabrera’s 1993 movie La estrategia del caracol (The Strategy of the Snail). She then goes off to Rome—where she actually gets to meet Minerva and Venus—to take on the role of a sex worker in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Accattone (1961). Stella’s Odyssean journey is given even further intertextual layers via Barrio’s metacinematic approach: In each location, the artist casts a new set of thespians who work in front of live audiences (or, sometimes, in empty white rooms) to develop the scenes and their characters.

During these moments, the film seems to pause to live-annotate itself—Barrio builds footnotes and appendixes into the work to interrogate, in real time, “scriptedness” and concepts surrounding labor. Players speak directly to the camera between run-throughs while answering deep questions given to them by the director. For instance, queries concerning Blanche and Stanley “preferring chaos or order” turn more personal and philosophical: “Do you consider yourself a leader? What makes a leader?,” asks Barrio. “Drive, forward momentum, someone with an ensemble mentality,” answers the woman playing Stella. Occasionally, these interludes steer the narrative into various speculative episodes, such as a brief music video starring one lead who also happens to be a writer/rapper IRL. The abrupt discontinuities in genre feel perfectly at home here, producing a series of dynamic exchanges in which the force of language pivots the power structures at play. Those in front of the camera have as much control as those behind it.

Speaking of control: The probing of authority, authorship, and ownership that characterizes Barrio’s film crescendos in the work’s last act, when our down-and-out Stella stumbles upon the divine duo inside an extravagant villa in Rome’s Trastevere neighborhood. Our heroine feels hopeless after losing her beloved boyfriend and pimp Accattone in a traffic accident. Who will defend the sex workers, and how? Venus, speaking in rhymed couplets, cajoles Stella with impassioned verse into playing a considerably more traditional female part. But a perturbed eye-rolling Minerva, fed up with her companion’s purple poetry, argues for more practical tactics. “For three thousand years, Venus has been protecting prostitutes. In three thousand years she has not been able to make it into a job.” The texts the deities read when first encountering Stella perfectly encapsulate the dilemma: Venus holds an Italian translation of Paul B. Preciado’s Pornotopia: An Essay on Playboy’s Architecture and Biopolitics (2011), a text about the psychic and social structures of pornography, while Minerva has Franco Farina’s 2018 volume on Marx, the working class, and labor titled Karl Marx e il processo produttivo (Karl Marx and the Productive Process). But this predicament is actually generative. Much like Untitled (JEFF 7), with its dialectical drape, You Weren’t Familiar but You Weren’t Afraid keeps us suspended between the poles of Preciado and Farina, between desire and work, between passion and practicality, between the individual and the communal. Something’s stirring in this amorphous yet fertile space—it might be the potential for genuine social impact.

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