Ruth Barker





The gallery is a room in which things happen. It is valuable as a space that we agree to set aside for speculation, proposal, and looking. There is pleasure to this, but there is also need. We need a space like this. And yet the things that happen may not be tied to the rooms that may hold them. And speculation, proposal, and looking, often happen elsewhere.


We try to understand. We take a room and we try to remove everything we can from inside it, removing all the things that give clues as to what kind of room this is.


First we take out all the furniture and the wallpaper and rugs.

Then we take out the coloured lamps and the shelves and the television.

Then we take out the curtains and the lampshade and the coloured radiators.


We make the floor flat and hard, so that it can bear weight without buckling (we might want to bring in something heavy).

Then we paint the walls. We decide that white is a good colour for this (we tell ourselves that it is neutral, and we know that we can always paint them a different colour later, if it suits).

We aren’t sure what to do about the windows so we leave them as they are (we can always put in blinds if we decide that the room needs to be dark).

We install lights that give a flat and even illumination, smoothing out the shadows and laying everything out before us in an ideal clinical equivalence.


It is beautiful. The room is as we want it to be; very clean and very empty. The room is not quite mute as we have let it retain its dimensions and proportions - the view from its window and the particular height of the ceiling. These small things become the language of the room and we learn to read their individuality, praising or condemning them as we wish. The room is our space, which we have pre-prepared to house our need for speculation, proposal, and looking.


What is meant to happen in this room? What happen now? We are not sure. We try things out. One at a time, things are wheeled in on a wooden trolley. They are examined as moments within the room’s whiteness and then they are wheeled out again. For a short while the room is empty, while we make arrangements. And then a new thing arrives to take the other’s place.


In comes a sculpted mound of coral, fresh from the ocean, dripping with the smell of ozone and salt. 

Then we try a carved wooden saint, her hands clasped in prayer and her wooden eyes raised to heaven.

Next is a piece of paper with ink splashed onto it. The marks resemble a pattern of streets splayed to a bird’s eye view, and filled with the outlines of people, marching.

Here is a plastic coffin, glossy and lurid, with lights and plastic wreaths and sweet candy birds.

Then we see a gigantic hat, woven from grasses and loss and grief and bound under a hedgerow so that we have to squat down and peer, to glimpse it.

Now we are looking at a small painting of someone I once knew.

Then a doll’s house comes.

Then a line of bottles made of glass.

Then a huge wooden tiger, reaching its paws up to the sky.

Then the inside of a park, transformed into a dream of lights and steel.

Then many strips of cloth in different colours.

Then photographs: of things, and places, and shapes, and people.

Then folded ceramics.

Then iron pillars.

Then tiny pins.

Then plaster casts and a radio and a jug of water.

Then rubber shapes of fruit, and a prick of lapis lazuli.

Then more, and more, and more, each thing more fantastic and unpredictable than the last, each one ugly and wonderful and fine, and we are dazzled as we realise that they will never stop coming, and will march on and on for ever in our room.


And then as one we turn our heads and through the room’s other door come the people. One at a time they come in, something happens, and then they leave. And they fill the room not with things but now with time.

A woman tells a story that never ends.

A man climbs a rope and falls back down.

We dance.

There is a play but we cannot quite see where the stage is.

Someone else dances.

A woman covers her face, and then uncovers it.

There is a game of darts.

Someone pushes and pulls.

A man opens his hands like a bird.

We pop the bubbles and there is nothing left but the exhilaration of popping them, which fades (we knew it would fade).


We come together. We try to understand. There is pleasure to this, but there is also need. We need these spaces. And yet the things that happen may not be tied to the rooms that may hold them. And speculation, proposal, and looking, often happen elsewhere.