Eliza O. Barrios: a textual approach to art



North Adams Transcript

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. -- Artist Eliza O. Barrios uses language in a variety of forms to examine not only the effect it has had on her Filipino heritage, but how capitalism drives it.

Barrios' work is on display at MCLA Gallery 51.

The show centers around images Barrios created using hand-written text, which began as part of a long-distance correspondence in 2004. That conversation touched on the way electronic media had changed the way people created compositions, as well as how they view things and communicate with each other, which inspired Barrios to begin working with text and mirrors.

"I went with that and started playing with text in the mirror and the reflection and using text as a way to confront yourself," she said. "They're not confrontational questions, but meditative questions that you can ponder, ruminate, as you look at yourself. They're definitely directed to you."

Barrios took the technique one step further for a public text project in the Philippines that she called "Import Export," which, being a first-generation Filipino American, she used to raise questions about culture and colonialism. She approaches all her hand-written pieces as multi-layered objects where at first you see the entire page, then the individual words, then the strokes of pen -- they are paintings of words that are capturing something that is slowly becoming antiquated.

"Handwriting is becoming slightly a lost art," Barrios said, "with the onslaught of how the educational system is going, there's iPads for preschoolers, the amount of cursive writing that's taught in institutions is quite limited and so in the sense that it's like a language not being used as much, and it deteriorates and digresses." Barrios' view is that the meaning of the word evolves into the form of it, and from there, into a metaphor, the various levels of which make an effort to code what you see, according to Barrios, "futile."

"All the text that I do write is journalistic, quite personal," said Barrios, "but I express it in my own way, which is my handwriting, which in some ways, when we do communicate and we have a relationship and talk, there's a misperception that occurs because one has their own perception and they feel like they're expressing themselves in a very clear and definitive way, but the reception, there's kind of a disconnect."

"We communicate, we communicate, we communicate, and we just hope, hope, hope that understanding occurs and so with having my text presented in such a way, it serves as that metaphor, and also you can approach it in different layers. It could be aesthetically pleasing, it could be marks like paint strokes, it could become this ambient, and if one comes to the pieces and receives the work that way, that's great as well, for me, it's that weird point where if you see words, then there has to be a meaning to it, but sometimes there isn't."

Hand-written language is the direct physical manifestation of what goes on in the brain, reliant on motor capabilities as to how well these thoughts are expressed. This mind/body cooperation points to other forms of expression through movement besides handwriting, and one of the most common, in Barrios' experience, is yoga. She has traveled all over the world and the thread between them often appeared to be the practice of yoga.

"The one common language I noticed is yoga," she said. "I was really, really, really taken by that, because we have different languages, different dialects depending on the country you're at, but yoga transcends different cultures and different countries."

Barrios began to create text art that captured yoga poses, as a further examination of the mind/body correlation, with the idea that a pose is an physical manifestation of Sanskrit text translated into other languages. The text defines the pose.

"It was my little way of inserting the language bit and the text bit into this other observation of the unifying language of the form of yoga," Barrios said.

Barrios called this series "The Industry of Yoga," because, while she saw the spread of yoga as a positive, she also found it hard to ignore the commercialism that had crept into the practice, a westernization of that was inescapable.

"There's a commonality, everybody understands it," said Barrios, "but there is also a highly capitalistic facet of this practice that's interesting to me."

Barrios' concern was how marketing and advertising and business plays into the spread of culture' a capitalistic movement that manages to perpetuate a common language in a positive way.

"I don't think it's negative at all, but there are certain forms of yoga that I personally am reticent about, cautious about," she said. "When you have to pay $1,000 for a body-mind meditation retreat to get to your inner self, I'm very cautious of that, but I also understand that for some people, it works, there's this way that money plays a huge role in how valuable a thing is. It's not necessarily a negative commentary on how it's spun and evolved. It's more an observation."

"Import Export" borrowed the yoga -- and offered a "meditative space for reflection," but, tellingly, it was in a public bathroom stall. Barrios says that the installation was meant to address the "transnational experience," the concept of goods, as well as ideas, crossing borders, perhaps even being co-opted, as with yoga and American culture.

In regard to the Philippines, it was a Spanish colony and nexus of trade, which linked it to other places merely through the exchange of goods.

"I thought ‘Import Export' was a pun because that's what happens when you have your bowel movement and you ingest and you receive and you excrete," said Barrios. "It was playing around with the site on different levels.""Barrios points out that the colonial systems of trade also created a situation where parts of different languages formed common words and expressions because of the interaction through the trade routes. Like yoga, with its Sanskrit translated to English and then marketed everywhere, even common words become hybrids of cultures.

This is Barrios' first show on the East Coast, but travel is a huge part of her artistic practice. As she investigates the spheres of influence in her own Filipino heritage, she also puts her art on a track where geography can merge in importance as much as any other part of it, like the language she employs in her work.

"I really like variance," she said. "If I am able to practice outside of San Francisco, either residencies or doing projects abroad, I really enjoy that because sometimes I get so wedded to the language here and the art community here that it limits the dialogue, so I'm super excited about going out there."


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