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When the inert is reactive

When considering materiality and permanence in art, Robert Barry’s ‘Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion’ of 1969 is key. As a gesture pointing to the real but imperceptible, Barry released five gases of known volumes of (then considered) noble gases into specific sites around Los Angeles to equilibrate with a boundless infinity.

I often think about how, at the time of making this work, Barry was guided by the scientific understanding that the gases he was working with were noble, nonreactive or inert. However, as science has evolved, the theory of the nobility of these gases was tested and it was proved that compounds of xenon, krypton and radon exist.

If an artwork is an idea tied to specificity but the boundaries of specificity then change, does the artwork also change? The answer would of course be framed by your definition of specificity; whether you consider the work to be defined by knowledge, space and location at the time of inception or action, or whether specificity is centred on substantiated fact, stability and practicability. From the title of Barry’s work, it appears that the decision to select these gases was at least partly based on the understanding by the artist that these gases shared a common ‘inert’ characteristic.

Barry’s work therefore signals a complex but often not discussed question of conceptual art: if the idea is paramount to the work but the ideas of the materials used to execute a conceptual work change, does the work still ‘exist’? This logic could also apply to the certificates and contracts generated by conceptual artists of this time to separate them from market influences, object which themselves have shifted as legal systems and definitions that influence their meaning also change.

Robert Barry, documentation of  Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion , 1969.

Robert Barry, documentation of Inert Gas Series/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Indefinite Expansion, 1969.