The Razor’s Edge19 April 2018
In Archie Barry’s Hypnic, the artist walks into a crowded gallery at the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art with their hands cupped in front of them, and shuffles over to a single member of the audience. Unpeeling their hands, they reveal a synthetic nose fixed to their palm with a lip wrapped around the inside of their thumb. As they begin to puppeteer the little mouth, a deep, yawning song emerges inexplicably from their hand.
and I’m not really real and I’m not fake
The audience soaks in the contradictory logic. Through Barry’s uncanny physicality, the tiny puppet becomes a second body in the room—one that is both artificial and yet emphatically substantial. Lifting the prosthetic mouth over their own, they create a doubling effect: their palm, melding with their face, melding with the puppet. Now placing their hand against their cheek, Barry joins the puppet in harmony. The lyrics seem to take on a new meaning, coalescing with Barry’s own experience as a non-binary, transmasculine artist.
it’s enough to break me and shake me from my sleep
where I dream that I’m awake
The duo sings an eerie lullaby, dissolving the barriers between the definite and the unknown, reaching at a space beyond recognisable language or image. It is something visceral and confronting to witness.
The Melbourne-based artist tells me they are compelled by a simple question: “What happens when I don’t show up in the way that you expect I should? … I am in my body, in my self, but what will happen when I don’t make that available to an audience?” In works similar to Hypnic—such as Dreamboy, where Barry performs a character whose body is inverted, with a face on the back of their head, or Tatsache, in which they dance beneath colour-negative film—they confront their audience with a self that is distorted and contradictory. Meeting Barry is to encounter a different person again: someone reticent and yet fiercely articulate. With a shaved head and a long ponytail, they toy with our instinct to define. “To me the idea of what queer is, is partially against categorisation, or being dissenting in some way,” they explain.
As a non-binary artist, Barry makes work that delves into the liminal spaces of queer identity, exploring what it means to inhabit a non-normative body. Frequently they draw on paradoxes, mining the space where everyday logic and assumption collapses. They call it “midsense”: “It’s not nonsense, but it’s not common sense. It’s in-between sense—where I try and create phrases or sentences that have something familiar but at the same time are expansive.” Stepping into the divide between stranger and friend, real and fake, old and new, Barry defies what they describe as an “either/or mentality” to palpably assert the legitimacy of a transgender existence. Perhaps most crucial to this is the way that Barry seems to tap into something instinctive and shared; the little mouth’s song buzzes in the marrow of its audience.
Originally practising predominantly in illustration, Barry found themselves drawn to creating performance art, calling on a what they call a “combination soup of techniques” to create a “non-binary artform”. Performance is crucial to the experiences and questions raised by Barry’s work, which follows a lineage of queer work that depends on its relationship to an audience. “Performance,” Barry explains, “is a really attenuated medium to explore queerness because it’s at the razor’s edge of the present moment, and it will disappear as soon as it appears, and [it’s] a form that can say things about presence and invisibility that perhaps other forms can’t do.” Its power rests in its insistence that art is a sensory experience—a process that exists not as something that is flat or static, but live within and responsive to, its audience.
Barry’s art—which also extends to visual and multimedia artworks—constantly centres around their body. When I ask why, they break from the exacting academic register we have conversed in through most of the interview: “Because gender has been theorised to buggery.” We both giggle. “I think that there’s this sense that people feel like they have to have done a gender studies degree to be in ownership of their bodily experience. There’s so many words written, and spoken about, that it’s become very theoretical. And while I think that’s really cool … a body is where gender happens, and I think that it would be remiss not to put some attention on that.”
The acute clarity with which Barry describes the intention of their work reflects the marvellous physical certainty their body occupies in their art. Discussion around non-binary identity frequently directs attention towards constructing or inventing new spaces for people who are gender non-conforming, but Barry offers a different way to understand non-binary identity that uproots these assumptions. Rather than creating a new space, their work reveals the constant presence of the non-conforming body within the mainstream. Exploring Barry’s work is a cathartic process, where the actions that form identities—voice, gesture, language—are picked apart, condensed, and performed in a way that makes them appear new. “I think artwork is a way to experience, or think about, living differently.”