Dressler Parsons

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Closely Examining The Truth: Hannah Barco’s Fathomings at the ASU Art Museum
By Dressler Parsons

The trick to performance art or participatory art so often lies in the piece’s preservation. How does one document an ephemeral moment in a way that stays true to the original piece? How can the feeling of creation and collaboration stay alive within the walls of a museum?

Hannah Barco begins to tackle this by installing a structure in the ASU Art Museum that is at once familiar and totally unfamiliar–a bizarre blend of a sidewalk and a kitchen countertop that reads as some dreamworld-version of a home. And somehow, it feels absolutely alive.

It’s impossible to nail down a single element that brings Barco’s piece to life, but running water is a great place to start. A kitchen sink, adorned with rags and sponges, overflows into a kitchen-counter cutout of a river. The plumbing beneath the counter–and then sidewalk–is clearly visible, calling to mind the invisible or overlooked plumbing that pervades our everyday lives.

The water is also conceptually relevant; the title of the piece has a double meaning. “Fathom” is a verb used to mean “to understand” or “to comprehend,” but it’s also used in nautical contexts. “To fathom” is to measure the depth of something with a sounding line, or sonar.

Barco’s running water deepens the traditional notion of “understanding” into something more complex–carefully cataloguing the world around us in a quest to find the truth. The water works double-time as a structural benefit; like a water fountain in a shopping mall or a courtyard or a park, the familiar trickling noise calms visitors down and draws them closer. This is great, because calm and closer is exactly where visitors need to be to fully appreciate the structure.

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Barco’s intense attention to detail leads the visitor to carefully explore every inch of the structure. Nooks and crannies are filled with thoughtful surprises. A cabinet beneath a sidewalk reveals a maze made out of pins. Two loaves of fake bread peek out from a half-closed box. An open cabinet door reveals a tiny ladder running from one shelf to another. Grass peeks out of a crack in the elevated sidewalk. These details are at once so lifelike and so otherworldly that it takes a moment to place yourself back in the museum, and not in a psychological mashup of your childhood home and the sidewalk in front of said home.

These small structures, according to the wall text, are sculptural representations of Barco’s own attempts to fathom; she has interviewed scholars across the campus, centering around the question, “How do we proceed with competency and aplomb in a world we can’t fully fathom?” Their answers, and the resulting sculptures, are ways of translating these ways that other humans have learned to understand. Barco’s statement lifts these varied viewpoints, noting, “Each person has a unique literacy–a particular lens through which they are able to read and glean understanding from the materiality of our world.”

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Another drawer, under a kitchen counter and invitingly positioned by a stool, encourages visitors to participate in “conversations that already happened.” The soft fabric envelopes inside make crinkling noises like a baby toy and are labeled in cursive with questions (“What keeps you up at night?”), assertions (“Because in dynamic and inherently complex systems we must name our assumptions”), dedications (“For those who seek profit by meeting demands, feel threatened by change, advocate for the greater good, and/or seek public support”), and abstract images (“The meaning and perception of materials transferring across time through lifetimes of engagement with process and the relational emerging of skillful people as they themselves make their world”).

These words have a clear meaning to Barco; they feel like fiercely underlined sentences pulled from her own notes about the exhibition’s final form. While conceptual artists often have a desire to pull back the curtain, to share the process, it’s rarely executed so elegantly. This isn’t a glass case filled with untouchable, inscrutable notebook pages. These envelopes feel like an invitation and an offering to the visitor; and a note-to-self, perhaps, for the artist.

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Finally, while the structure itself is filled with vitality and small mysteries, the space points to evidence of audience members participating in the creation of the piece. Aside from the structure itself paying homage to Barco’s research subjects, a line of photographs on the wall show hands helping to construct the sidewalk; anonymous, delicate hands. Other evidence is conversation-based; during my visit, a security guard grinned and told me about the chewing gum party Barco held, where everyone chewed gum and stuck it on and under the sidewalk. While he talked, he was genuinely bright-eyed over the memory.

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This is where Barco’s skill really lies. She has this rare ability to create a participatory art piece that’s accessible but not condescending, and acknowledges life’s inherent whimsicality without punching it up to an unrelatable level. Her work is intelligent, welcoming, and quietly fun.

The feeling of the space Barco and her collaborators have created has an unmistakable sense of community. It is a piece that feels like a conversation, an exploration, a fathoming. And like the water flowing from the sink to the counter, this conversation is not stagnant. All visitors are welcome to join in.