Gregory Barsamian, the artist-philosopher

Gregory Barsamian is an artist whose work draws upon philosophy, dreams and mechanics. You may not have heard of him lately, as his website indicates that his most recent work was from a few years ago. Even so, his work remains a beautiful example of philosophical concepts fueling the aesthetics of art-making.


Barsamian’s works are animated sculptures, initially based on the the zoetrope, invented by William George Horner in 1834. A precursor to cinema, the zoetrope animated two-dimensional images by spinning still frames across a single field of view—creating an effect similar to an animated flip book. Unlike the old method, however, Barsamian’s work updates the concept with strobe lighting timed to highlight successive three-dimensional frames mounted upon a spinning armature.

I had the pleasure of seeing Barsamian’s work presented by the Anderson Gallery at Virginia Commonwealth University, back in 1999. To experience Barsamian’s work, you walk into a cool, darkened room, to the whirring sounds of a motor operating the sculpture. Other than that, there’s little sense of the mechanics which brings life to the waking dream unfolding before your eyes. Out of the darkness, the strobes flash quickly from one sculptural still to the next to create an illusion of seamless three-dimensional motion. This effect is apparent in the animated GIF shown below.


After being amazed by what I saw, I bought the catalog, printed by The Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati. In the video below, you can see how the margins of the pages consist of frames that are animated when the pages are flipped.


The concepts behind the aesthetics

As visually stunning as it is to see, Barsamian’s work elicits a deeper sense of meaningfulness than just any eye candy could. Gregory Barsamian, who received his degree in philosophy from University of Wisconsin-Madison, explores themes of dreams and the subconscious in his work. As he describes it, in terms of computer-speak, our consciousness processes about 15 bits of information per second. Meanwhile, our senses are taking in about 20 million bits per second. This leaves us with a lot of raw, unprocessed data filling our subconscious, with only a small amount of information filtered into our awareness. Through dreams, however, we can catch glimpses of that hidden part of ourselves.

For Barsamian, his works are personal—illustrations of his own dreams. Yet, he’s content to have the viewer bring their own unique perspective to his work. He recognizes that even as we experience similar events, we do so from different points of view (literally and figuratively) and therefore each of us experiences our existence uniquely. Likewise, as Barsamian’s artworks are three-dimensional and incorporate motion, there is the added dimension of time. Walking around his animated sculptures, the layered elements of time and space create exponentially more ways for the senses to absorb information, with the experience changing from one angle to the next.


Defining the subconscious?

The viewer may be tempted to interpret the meaning of these dream sculptures. However, as Barsamian mentions in his artist statement, the vast amount of unprocessed information we take in through our senses is like a vast river. An effort to explain such dreams only leaves us afloat on a thin surface of comprehension.

As he elaborates in his artist statement…

“I’m not offering order. I’m not offering an explanation. That might trigger a left brain, conscious response. There’s no instruction manual for deconstructing my intent. It’s assumed that the process is a collaboration between viewer and artist. There are only sensations that create feeling, intuition, emotion. (Though consciousness will undoubtedly be there fighting for control). For me, this is the reason we make art: to bypass the slow plodding communication of the conscious mind, and project content through all the senses directly, with all the complexity that it possesses. Perception on this level is inherently honest, free from the filtering that so limits our experience.” ~ Gregory Barsamian

If there’s anything we can learn from this, perhaps it’s that how we define ourselves is somewhat limited. Maybe by understanding this, it could be a wake-up call, so to speak, from our day-to-day lives. For when we see that we are living on a thin surface above the deep depths of data, it’s apparent that limiting beliefs are the only things keeping us from greater possibilities.