PsychoBarn at the Met: More than Meets the Eye
By Bobbie Leigh
It’s not the little house on the prairie. And it’s not as scary as the sinister mansion next to the Bates Motel in the Alfred Hitchcock film Psycho. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s s new Roof Garden Commission “Transitional Object (PsychoBarn)” is inspired in part by the film but British artist Cornelia Parker’s goal with this installation was not duplication. Her esteemed body of work is admired for transforming found objects, not replicating them.
Parker explains that she was looking for “something architectural for her Met rooftop commission. She liked the idea of putting a red barn on the roof but it was too big. As a fan of the film Psycho, she started studying it reel by reel. A stroke of luck led her to see two of the original slats from the film which started her thinking about how to merge the physical reality of a barn with the fiction of the Bates hilltop mansion from the film.
Another source of inspiration was the 1925 Edward Hopper painting, “The House by the Railroad.” Parker recognized that Hitchcock had based the Bates house on the painting. The theme of the House by the Railroad is what experts have called “the alienation of modern life.” Poet Edward Hirsch called Hopper’s house “strange and gawky.”
Having decided what to create for the Met’s roof, Parker located a dilapidated farmhouse in upstate New York. After collaborating with a restoration company, she transported these found materials and then used them to create her version of an artist’s “readymade.” Parker’s PsychoBarn looks fragile, weathered, warped and sad not unlike the melancholy image of Hopper’s painting.
Assembled from dilapidated red- barn siding, whitewashed posts, and corrugated steel recut to evoke the horizontal roof tiles of the Bates sloping mansard roof, Parker’s sculpture is unlike any you are likely to see in a long time. Certainly not one surrounded by the panorama of the Manhattan skyline. About 30 -feet high, nestled in a corner of the Met’s roof, and surrounded by a green privet hedge, it looks lost and abandoned. As it has only two sides like a stage set, from the back you see the water-filled ballasts and scaffolding that hold it in place to withstand up to 100-mile-per-hour winds.
What visitors to the Met’s roof see is a recontextualizing of images from a film and a painting into something new. Add to that Parker’s dubbing her lonely house Transitional Object (PsychoBarn). This could mean viewers should consider the sculpture as a transitional object which in psychological terms is any source of comfort, usually for an infant. A baby’s teddy bear or the little blue security blanket that Linus always carries in the Peanuts cartoons are considered transitional objects because they are used by children as mother replacements, comforting objects. A house is also supposed to represent security and safety. It can also be considered a transitional object that provides protection. Yet on the Met’s roof, it represents the opposite –abandonment and loss. It is just an empty shell. What Parker has done is turn an American icon, home sweet home, on its head.
This rural symbol sitting on the rooftop of one of the greatest museums in the world is not the only American symbol in an incongruous setting in Manhattan. Elmgreen & Dragset’s Van Gogh’s Ear at Rockefeller Center is a sculpture of a swimming pool sitting upright that looks as if it was snatched from a suburb of Santa Monica. Like PsychoBarn, it contradicts all expectations. Parker puts it this way: “I like the idea that you take things that perhaps seem clichéd, but they’re clichéd for a reason, they resonate with a huge amount of people, and that’s why they’re the most visited spots. And I somehow think the inverse of the cliché is the most unknown place.”
The Met’s roof bar stays open late on Friday and Saturday nights until around 8:30. A glass of wine is $13. There is no better place in the city to enjoy the sunset. PsychoBarn will be on view through Halloween.