Portrait

A chat in a cafe with Geraldine Barlow, head of international art for the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art. By Elizabeth Flux.

QAGOMA’s Geraldine Barlow

Afterwards, when I listen back to the tape, I’m surprised by all the normal cafe sounds – the snippets of conversation from the next table, the music, hearing something dropping to the floor about halfway through. I also realise that I can’t picture our meeting other than the odd occasional image. Sitting down at a table set up with a laptop. A waiter bringing over a coffee.

Instead, what I imagine is a series of rooms filled with rocks. I can see a snowman, trapped in a cage. There’s a photograph of a man using a blowtorch on a glacier. And over the top of it all is Geraldine Barlow’s calm voice, talking through the ways these images connect.

Physically we might have been in a cafe, sure, but somehow it feels as though we’d spent the morning walking through an exhibition that doesn’t yet exist.

Barlow is the head of international art for the Queensland Art Gallery and Gallery of Modern Art and for the past 18 months she has been at work on their upcoming show Water.

As a concept, at first it seems overwhelmingly vast. How do you tackle something that can be viewed in so many different ways? That is so vital, so ubiquitous, so politically charged?

“It’s really tricky with a show like this because it’s a subject that so many people and so many artists are really passionate about – and so who do you give voice to?” asks Barlow.

There isn’t a conventional pathway into art curatorship – curators come from a variety of backgrounds, including art history and philosophy. Barlow came to it after training as an artist, and has been working in the field for the past 20 years.

Curating a show is like creating a bigger artwork unto itself, one that has its own ideas and messages. Putting one together successfully then requires balance between personality and intent, ensuring the exhibition as a whole works together without drowning out the voices of its component parts or twisting artist intent.

“I want to be playful with the reading … but I wouldn’t want someone to feel uncomfortable that their work has been pressed into a conversation that was not part of their intention,” she reflects.

“In my role you have to let yourself fall in love with things, but then you have to come back the next day and question that, and look at how those different pieces of the puzzle of the exhibition fit together.”

Water is a mix of video, sculpture, photography, immersive and experiential art all coming together to explore every aspect of the topic. “I do think that it’s a perpetually relevant subject – I felt a sense of urgency around questions around climate change and action upon that.”

Barlow describes each work the same way as you would describe a close friend or a child: with familiarity, warmth and pride.

Her description of Danish artist Olafur Eliasson’s Riverbed is so vivid you can almost hear the water trickling through it. Spanning multiple rooms, and consisting of about 112 tonnes of rock brought in from all around Australia, it’s a huge, ambitious work that is essentially bringing a riverbed into the gallery itself. “I was looking for something that could be both spectacular and profound,” says Barlow.

Climate change is also approached in a number of ways. Barlow speaks with great affection of Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss’s Snowman. “[He] is kind of like an endangered species and has to be kept in his freezer and he frosts up and every day someone marks out his face,” she says with a smile.

More subtly, she uses the idea of a rising tide throughout the exhibition. “For me that was trying to find a relatively gentle way to talk about climate change.” This means that “instead of hanging all the works at conventional eye line, there will be quite a number of works that are in long rows that are more like a child’s eye line,” Barlow says.

This idea is continued in William Forsythe’s interactive work The Fact of Matter. “It’s a series of clear transparent gymnasium rings that hang from these grey cords,” she says. Visitors can climb on the work, and are required to work out how exactly they can make their way across the room without touching the floor. “I wanted to do something that in a fun way related to that idea of thinking about living differently … We’re going to need to adapt new skills and look out for each other as we move through the space.”

She goes through each work carefully, knows each artist’s story intimately. “Sorry, my idea of a ‘speedy’ overview… I get drawn into it,” she says, laughing.

Though Water does explore specific themes, “I didn’t want the show to be too much telling us what I feel like we already know,” Barlow reflects. Instead she hopes that it will open up conversations. “All of us, sometimes, we get into patterns of thinking, don’t we? But the great thing about art is it can somehow break you out of patterns.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 19, 2019 as "Immersive experience". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.