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Rosa Barba: “Moving between the layers of time”

The video artist and star of the revamped Neue Nationalgalerie discusses Mies van der Rohe, filming in the desert and why analogue is best.

Image for Rosa Barba: “Moving between the layers of time”

Rosa Barba. In a Perpetual Now. From Source to Poem, 2016, Film still 35mm film, colour, optical sound, 12 min. © Rosa Barba / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn 2021

Rosa Barba is one of the standout artists working today. She talks to us about her new Berlin exhibition, In a Perpetual Now, one of the inaugural shows for the reopening of the Neue Nationalgalerie.

We’ve all been waiting years for the Neue Nationalgalerie to reopen. How does it feel to be part of its inaugural show?

It is amazing. Mies van der Rohe’s Neue Nationalgalerie is one of my favourite buildings and it happens to be in the city where I live. I’ve seen it transform from a construction site and had a chance to really understand the building, which is all new and exciting.

How did Mies van der Rohe’s architecture inspire the exhibition?

My work often reacts to the architecture of the exhibition space, but for this exhibition I found myself attracted to another of Mies van der Rohe’s work – a drawing for an unrealised building, Brick Country House. I’m very interested in how to bring light into unrealised ideas and give them a different kind of exposure. And I have translated the ground floor plan of this building and used it as a framework for a metal stage, which has different platforms and different heights and on these are 15 different film works and sculptures all running at different times.

You also made a new film work for this…

Yes, I made a new film called Plastic Limits, which is based on Goethe’s idea that architecture is like frozen music. The film is very experimental, with a lot of double exposures, and it plays with this possibility of how we can enlarge the frame and bend the idea of architecture through the filmic lens. Running down the side of it is a text part which is a sort of lexicon of my personal menu for filmmaking.

You are known for your poetic and powerful films articulating space, films that establish a new relationship with nature and the environment, like in The Long Road, where the camera traces the oval of abandoned racetrack in the Mojave Desert.

Working in environments and looking at things in landscapes that society left behind is something I can do with a film camera; this processing of the material, this translation, has a lot to do with time. I use film to set this kind of performative frame, where something can be unravelled and unearthed. It’s about moving between the layers of time and this might activate a possibility for the viewer to think or perceive something in a new way. I’m interested in the subconscious and how we keep certain parts of history in our subconscious and then activate it into reality.

You’ve always been devoted to analogue film and its emotional potential. What is it about the medium that resonates with you so much?

When I was young and working with photography, I was interested in the process of how the material was printed and developed. Then, when I started working with a moving camera and filming people, I was amazed at what a film camera can do. Holding a hand-held camera that is heavy helps you make decisions: How long do you hold an image? When do you stop? How do you work with the sound of the camera? What does it do to other people? I did some work with a digital camera but it did not enable that sort of travel.

One of the films included in the exhibition is the 35mm film From Source to Poem, which is based on interviews and recordings from the Library of Congress. It is a piece that demands significant commitment from the viewer – is this something you aim for?

With film, I think we are often not allowed to think for ourselves; that’s why I didn’t want to make very narrative films and I didn’t go to film school as I felt that it was very limiting. There is a beginning, a middle bit and the end. I felt very early that there was a spatial component in how we watch a film and by not hiding the equipment, you follow the lines of the material while you watch the film, so it becomes a sort of mediation of thinking.

This is a busy time for you. You are about to open the long-term open-air cinema installation Inside the Outset: Evoking a Space of Passage in the UN-controlled buffer zone in Cyprus. How did that project come about? Coming from Berlin, I was fascinated and horrified on a visit to Cyprus by this division, this wall that’s been up since 1974. And I thought that I would love to build an open-air cinema in the buffer zone, where all communities can meet without passport control and share the same screen, because the cultural landscape is very divided. No one reads the same newspaper or sees the same films, even though they are so close together.

Was it difficult getting the project together?

When I started out, it felt like a far-fetched dream, but I stuck with the idea and we were able to negotiate with the UN to have the cinema built. It’s taken almost 10 years since starting the project and it will finally open later this month. I just hope it can succeed as there is a lot of tension in the area and a few times I thought I would have to stop the project altogether.

Your recent sculpture, ‘Pillage of the Sea’, on the coast of Belgium, consists of piled-up stones that symbolise cities threatened by rising sea levels. Do you feel responsible as an artist to make work that gives urgency to the threat of climate change?

I feel the responsibility to look at the world and shed light on certain aspects of things; not to be super dramatic or threatening, but a yardstick working with time again in a different way. It is a gesture and hopefully it won’t sink under the water. It is like an offering in a way, a wish for things to change and hopefully they will.

In a Perpetual Now through Jan 16 Neue Nationalgalerie, Tiergarten

Image for Rosa Barba: “Moving between the layers of time”

Rosa Barba, Portrait. Photo: Sara Masüger

Born in Italy in 1972 but raised in Germany, video artist Rosa Barba mines the conventions of cinema to create poetic works that explore questions of geography, history and the imagination. She studied theatre and film studies in Erlangen before moving to Cologne’s Academy of Media Arts, where she made her first 16mm film Panzano (2000). Her work, which also includes sculpture and installations, has since been exhibited in galleries and at festivals internationally. She currently lives and works in Berlin.