the human form is a catalyst for exploring such themes as immateriality, metamorphosis, and transcendence.
“In many of her enthralling pieces the human form is a catalyst for exploring such themes as immateriality, metamorphosis, and transcendence.”
Sukhi Barber, Crystal Clear, 2009. Bronze and crystal, 15.5″ x 9″ x 9.5″ Courtesy of the artist.
Author: Jill Smith
Modernist sculptor Henry Moore once stated, “All art should have a certain mystery and should make demands on the spectator. Giving a sculpture or a drawing too explicit a title takes away part of that mystery so that the spectator moves on to the next object, making no effort to ponder the meaning of what he has just seen. Everyone thinks that he or she looks but they don’t really, you know.” With the new, exciting sculptures of Sukhi Barber we must not only stop and look but also take the time to contemplate. In her works there is a sense of intangible nothingness captured in supreme elegance. Using the traditional technique of stone carving and lost-wax bronze casting, Barber has spent over a decade creating works that are philosophically palpable and formally brilliant. With beautiful simplicity, her work highlights the intersection between Eastern spirituality and Western materiality. She also references the history of modernism, sharing an affinity with Moore and Giacometti. In her many enthralling pieces, the human form is a catalyst for exploring such themes as immateriality, metamorphosis, and transcendence.
After graduation from City and Guilds of London Art School, Barber traveled to India and was entranced by the timeless quality of peace and balance that she found in the art of Asia. Ancient devotional artwork can be found in the architecture, jewelry, and even the clothing of the people. Settling in Kathmandu, Nepal, she spent the next twelve years studying Buddhist philosophy. Buddhist thought has a rich cultural heritage and Barber creates work that reflects this ancient practice. The Buddha lived and taught in the northeastern Indian subcontinent some time between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE. As an enlightened spiritual leader he shared his insights to help sentient beings end suffering, achieve nirvana, and escape the constant cycle of suffering and rebirth. Achieving this higher plane of awareness is the goal of all sentient beings. In her sculpture entitled Excell, a beautiful bronze man sits in the lotus position, meditating. Expanding from his heart are rotating hollowed out triangular forms, creating negative spaces within the torso. This hollowed out human form pulls the viewer in towards its center. At the very center of the heart is an empty hole. This man is an archetypal signifier that represents all of humanity. His heart is unattached in all respects, divine and pure. In essence, we are reminded that human existence is transitory and that we are made up of the same chemical compounds as everything around us: the universe is both around us and in us. In his essay on Nothingness, Ueda Shizuteru writes, “Absolute nothingness is concerned with the coincidence of ceaseless negation and straightforward affirmation, such that the coincidence as such is neither negation nor affirmation. In the history of Buddhism, it has been Zen that has given this coincidence a fresh, existential concreteness to cut through the layers of speculation surrounding it. Zen is achieved through the interpenetration of the concepts of absolute nothingness and the self. In a word, we are presented with a nothingness-self—or, one might say, a nothingness viewed as someone rather than as something.” This is precisely the case with this sculpture; nothingness is someone and simultaneously everyone.
Sukhi Barber, Excell, 2010. Bronze, 12″ x 9.5″ x 6.5″. Courtesy of the artist.
By intuition, Sukhi Barber renders the human form in a way that embodies formal and philosophical ideas. In this way she says she seeks to “explore themes of hidden potentials, and the transcendence of our limiting view of a solid reality. My work often represents the negative space as being as important as the material itself, implying the dance of form and spirit, a constant state of transformation.” This brings us to the central theme in the work of Barber: metamorphosis. Metamorphosis is a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a marked and relatively abrupt change in the animal’s body structure through cell growth and differentiation. When a sentient being undergoes metamorphosis, it is usually accompanied by a change of habitat or behavior. This is the latent content of Barber’s sculptures: that by way of the symbolic metamorphosis of the human body she demonstrates how we effectively change our behaviors, patterns, and the world around us. These sculptures call upon each of us to take a qualitative leap in our individual existences. Such is the case with the sculpture Synthesis. Here, Barber creates another man in the lotus position who sits, meditating, with eyes closed. This work features swirling lines that traverse the torso of the man. As these lines reach the precipice of the head, they create cuts in the form and unravel like a lotus flower. This dramatic display of impossibility is miraculous. As the head expands like a flower, it reveals a hollow center.
Synthesis has a profound beauty and rich history that is incredibly compelling. From ancient times the lotus has been a divine symbol in Asian traditions representing the virtues of purity and non-attachment. Hindus and Buddhists alike revere it in their religious iconography. Both Vishnu and Lakshmi are often portrayed on a pink lotus flower. Its unfolding petals suggest the expansion of the soul. The growth of the flower into pure beauty from the mud of its origin bespeaks a spiritual aspiration and promise. Likewise, in Buddhist symbolism, the lotus represents purity of the body, speech, and mind, as if floating above the muddy waters of attachment and desire. In the base materiality of human existence we find the potential for spiritual ideals. Barber’s sculpture suggests that this limitless potential lies within each of our material existences. This is exactly where Barber’s work forms a conjunction between Western materialism and Eastern thought. Western culture has been enticed with physical materialism, a notion we inherited from the Enlightenment. The earth in its entire splendor is a rich resource providing us with the food, shelter, and clothing we need to survive. The same soil that we cultivate is the same soil that all of creation thrives on. We are nothing if not the by-product of millions of years of evolutionary cycles. Yet with all of our technology and intellect we are still completely dependent on our material environment. These two aforementioned sculptures share an affinity with the way Giacometti conceived his work. Giacometti was initially a member of the Surrealist Movement, but his work resists such easy categorization. While expressionistic and formal, his work’s intention was something else entirely. His finished work was typically an expression of his emotional response to his subject. He once said that he was sculpting not the human figure but “the shadow that is cast.” In a sense, his figures were a form of self-portraiture, imaging himself as archetype of all of humankind, as a residual remnant of the flood of existence. Scholar William Barrett in “Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy” (1962), argues that the attenuated and gaunt appearance of Giacometti’s figures embody the outlook of 20th century modernism and existentialism, specifically that modern life is increasingly empty and without meaning. He stated, “All the sculptures of today, like those of the past, will end one day in pieces… So it is important to fashion ones work carefully in its smallest recess and charge every particle of matter with life.”
In another seminal work entitled Crystal Clear, Barber has created a stunning, bejeweled bodhisattva. Here the bust of a man, eyes closed, is presented in a gleaming bronze. Sections of the head have been recessed and removed to expose a large crystal diamond shape. Diamonds have a wide color bandgap of 5.5 eV corresponding to the deep ultraviolet wavelength of 225 nanometers. This means that pure diamonds should transmit visible light and appear as a clear colorless crystal. The reason we see colors in diamonds is due to defects and impurities from the lattice. Here, Sukhi’s diamond appears as a crowning jewel of wisdom, occupying the space where the brain should reside. When the mind is clear and open it has limitless possibility for change, evolution, and growth. Barber’s diamond-mind is a clear one, emptied of the cacophony of banal existence. Too, this “mind” reflects and refracts that which enters its pictorial field. It does not absorb that which is negative or impure. The outside world that it reflects is thus merely a visual projection and not the essential reality. Crystal Clear’s unique quality is that it requires that we move around it as an object in space to truly understand its significance. As we circle the sculpture, it dazzles us with its refracting light, bouncing around the room in the daytime as a beacon of hope, peace, and wisdom. As we move around it, we also realize that everything that is reflected is a visual projection. This has a relationship to the concept of Maya. Maya in Indian religions has multiple meanings, all centered on the concept of illusion. Maya is the main deity that manifests, perpetuates and governs the illusion and dream of duality in the phenomenal Universe. Each person, each physical object, from the perspective of eternity, could be likened to a brief, disturbed drop of water on a boundless ocean. The way this sculpture reveals itself is like peeling an orange; here the man’s epidermis is merely a skin or mask. As we peel away the external layers we realize the fruits inside, and that the peel is merely covering it up. Barber’s work makes a quite poignant statement, namely that beyond the particular narratives of individual existence is a universal plane of awareness. This same concept is in the Diamond Sutra. Interestingly, a copy of the “Diamond Sutra” was found among the Dunhuang manuscripts in the early 20th century. According to the British Library it is, “the earliest complete survival of a dated printed book.” Therein we find the quote:
“All conditioned phenomena
Are like dreams, illusions, bubbles, or shadows;
Like drops of dew, or flashes of lightning;
Thusly should they be contemplated…”
Barber’s work, like the Sutra, is poetic and thoughtful. Essentially, Barber’s sculptures ask us to contemplate that which is beyond material existence. Each of her works is a metaphysical proposition that embody a form to illustrate philosophical and spiritual points of view. By creating miraculous, fantastic events she creates images of the potential latent in humanity. Her sculptures point towards an idealistic pathway and encourage the viewer to embark on that journey.
Sukhi Barber, Synthesis, 2010. Bronze. 13″ x 9.5″ x 6.5″. Courtesy of the artist.