Sunday, 12 August 2012

INVISIBLE: ART ABOUT THE UNSEEN 1957-2012



Once the Hayward seemed a hitter on the London gallery circuit. But since the high of the much-celebrated 'Undercover Surrealism', I find I haven't been back in some six years. Admittedly, partly because I saw the John Cage show in Bexhill before it transferred to London, and (alas) missed the Rodchenko photography. But mostly because they seemed to be becoming more and more mired in Brit Art. And frankly I sometimes wonder if even disliking Brit Art betratys too much of an involvement with it. What would it take to tempt me back?

The answer, it transpires, is an exhibition of invisible or otherwise unseeable artworks, described by curator Ralph Rugoff as “the best exhibition you'll never see.” Perhaps he should have pre-empted the inevitable heckles and called it 'The Emperor's New Clothes.' Needless to say, many scoffed. But is the result gimmick, folly, one-note joke with stretch marks or actually something worth taking in? Take that poster image (above), is it of a man heading into infinity or just stepping himself into a corner? But even if it just is a series of empty rooms with an entry fee, that already sounds better than Brit Art, so I decided to find out...

(And yes I did think of posting a blank review, broken up by empty frames for the illos, of a review in white-on-white text, and all the other variants...)


Anti-Art Was Just the Start

Things kick off with Yves Klein's video 'Propositions Monochrome', from the 1957 Paris exhibition of blank space. (Commonly called 'The Void', though that was theoretically the title of an empty vitrine within the show.) The concept was that the artist had passed through the space, influencing it with his personality, a parody of the great artist and his heightened sensibilities. I wasn't sure whether the smart-suited figure (actually Klein himself)was the artist inbuing the place with his special presence, or a gallery-goer carefully inspecting these empty spaces. I don't suppose it matters. It provides the vital spark needed by every gag – the straight man.

He went on to even more direct critiques of art as a commodity, selling “zones of immaterial sensibility” for gold, a short-circuiting of the artist's relationship with wider society, doing something pseudo-mystical for the wallets of the wealthy. Purchasers received certificates modelled on cheques, some of which are on show.

Similarly, Tom Friedman's '1000 Hours of Staring' (1992/7) is a piece of white paper he simply stared at for that set time, ostebsibly taking those years to create it. Of course it doesn't work, it's just a blank piece of paper, the supposed superior hyper-intensity of the artist is not magically transmitted. (In fact we don't even know if he actually did it, as he refused to document anything.) Meanwhile in 'Untitled' (1991) Maurizio Cattelan reported the theft of an invisible work of art to the police, then exhibited his copy of their crime report. Something out of nothing.

Such Dada anti-art antics, aiming to fail and to take down with them the whole of the rest of art, of course these remain vital. It's not just a joke, it's a joke with the sting of the truth. We have a straight choice. We can either forget about art, feign that it somehow magically transcends capitalism's ability to regulate our social relations, or embrace anti-art. And what better place to show this stuff than today, and at this temple to Brit Art? Those conspicuous consumers who buy pickled sharks from Damien Hirst, they don't really like the work, do they? Any more than a Rolex owner thinks it tells the time better than a more regular watch. They just want to own a Hirst. They buy the price tag and the work comes free.

Yet twenty years ago, and full of piss and vinegar, I would have wanted the whole exhibition to stay like this, repeatedly hammering the same point home. After all, in Richard Hell's phrase, I belonged to the blank generation. But it isn't so one-note, and today I'm glad of that.

Pure Dada is a bit like stripped-down, three-chord punk tracks. Music generally goes back to that when it starts getting lost. But, for all that both are negative sentiments, both are starting points. You remember that essential lesson as you move on. They're not intended as places for you to stay. Having quoted Richard Hell, let's follow up with X Ray Spex: “anti-art was just the start.”

As things turn out, there's more to invisible art than straight provocation. When the exhibition states boldly “works that share a similar blankness can convey remarkably varied content,” it's notable how fully it can live up to that promise. Though it would be an exercise in folly to imagine that whiteness could be categorised or the invisible boxed, let's run through just a few of them.

Art Needs No Objects

If conceptual art can too easily be conflated with anti-art, there is of course an overlap between the two. The catalogue correctly sees in it “a form of resistance to...the increasing power of the martekplace to determine the significance of works of art.” With no artworks to grasp, there were no items to trade. Simples. But conceptual art is more an attempt to reset the priorities of art than a fist-pumping attack on it.

Lucy Lippard calls it “a dematerialisation of art” while Laura Cumming in the Guardian comments “it's only the thought which counts.” Take Robert Barry's 'Inert Gas Series' (1968) in which he released inert gases into the air, to allow them to travel slowly but inexorably around the world, me and you inevitably breathing a little of them in. It's perhaps the comsummate conceptual artwork as its a mteaphor for conceptual art itself, or quite possibly art overall. Art is about the release and dissemination of ideas, with the rest either accoutrements or obstacles.

Hence conceptual art doesn't set itself up as a type of art, as another ism, but as the purest form of art, stripped of it's unnecessary appendages. The sinking stone was only ever a means to get the ripples going on the pond. If you can create them without the bother of the stone, so much the better.


However, 'Air Conditioning Unit' (1972, above) by Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin of Art and Language gives conceptulism a different spin. A room is empty save for two air conditioning units. The outside wall is covered by a text explaining all this, in dense and fairly incomprehensible language. There's also a poster avdertising an early showing of this, which is itself almost all text. (In fact the room existing at all was something of an afterthought, it was not set up until four years after the work was conceived and the idea disseminated.)

It would be easy to take it as a skit upon the theory-heavy world of Modernism. (Even the catalogue suggests they “set out to question and subvert the basic tenets of Modernism.”) But their point would actually seem to be a wider one – to render problematic the supposed discrete reality of an art object. Language inherently involves a cultural filter, I can't write “air conditioning unit” in a way that will keep you cool, I have to write it in English or some other culturally specific language, and so on. Art can feel free of all that. A sculpture of Winston Churchill is simply a scuplture of Winston Churchill, surely.

Yet as the catalogue says art was never about “the inherent characteristics of an object... but with how it is positioned within a larger symbolic network.” A statue of Winston Churchill in the park may look straightforward enough, but actually is just the tip to the iceberg of whole set of cultural assumptions. The artists are attempting to invert things and show us the iceberg.

The Invitation of Incomplete

Surround white with other colours and it stops being a blank canvas and immediately becomes a vivid foreground colour. (I've used that trick with my own comics.) Equally, silences in music can be arresting or even profound.

Similarly, some works here use the unseen as a trigger for the imagination, with the works as pointers, giving the audience just enough of a framework that their minds can start to fill it. Perhaps the majority of works fit this caregory to some degree, for even the all-white works are framed, not empty spaces on the walls.


The mosty clear-cut example might be Carsten Holler's 'The Invisible' (1998, above). Asked to design a racing car for an art project, a kind of modernist 'Wacky Races', his contribution was an “invisible car.” We see it's starting block laid out on the gallery floor, but that is all. Being a natural-born cynic, I did not imagine an invisible car had actually been built and now sat there. But somehow, I found I couldn't walk over those lines.

It's not that each of us constructs a working model of what that invisible car might look like, and so ends up with their own personalised artwork. It's more that the space becomes a focus for thought, and your mental assumptions come to inhabit it. It's like those horror films that avoid showing you the monster, figuring whatever is formless in your imagination will always be scarier than anything on screen.

Taking a Chance

We've all long since turned against any notion of art as didactive, a fixed object transmitting a set meaning into the audience's mind. We recognise it as a collaborative process between the transmitter and the receiver's ears. But the interchange, the radio static is still often seen either as a simple passageway or an obstacle to be overcome. Yet that game of Chinese Whispers is just as much a part of the magic happening. Once you start to think in this way, chance becomes a method of creating art just like a paintbrush or a camera.

Bruno Jakob released a series of 'Invisible Paintings', where the paper or canvas was subject to rain, snow or other elements which would corrode or undulate the surface. The catalogue tells of a Venice exhibition in 2010/11 in which he left the paintings outside for the elements to 'paint' as the show progressed.

These probably stretch the show's theme, they're more ultra-minimalist than actually invisible, in the manner of John Cage's visual art. But they provide a useful contrast. Particularly when put in the context of pristine white works, they show how the brain needs very little suggestion to start seeing the work as a painting. See a sheer white sheet in a frame and you think “art statement” and check out the indicia to see what the artist was thinking of. Add just a few pale indications and you think “art work” and look at the canvas.

Art As Impermanence

We're always being told great art is timeless, which must be the highest form of visibility there is. A corollary notion is that art must always be kept in its original state. Works are preserved or restored, with any failure to do so presented as a tragedy. But of course nothing lasts forever, putting (as they have done in Brighton) a piece of Banksy graffiti under glass is just staving off the inevitable. So what happens not just when you make art that is impermanent, but is about that impermanence?


Take Song Dong's 'Writing Diary With Water' (1995-present, above), in which he kept a diary by writing with water on stone. Of course the water just evaporates.

As a diary represents a life, they also contain the concept of sedementary layers. A conventional diary is a record of progress, a moving from one state to another. This diary accumulates, as if our memories are not a series of events, but a set of pictures each superimposed on the ones before, not advancing like a career but growing like coral.

Oddly, there's no attempt to explore the overlap with auto-destructive art. Chance creation of art is all very well, but should the processes stop there? Could they actually start after that point? Gustav Metzger's (semi) recent show explored the way it's erosion and decay could become the subject matter of a work of art.

Significant Absences

But also, and in a paradoxical reversal of everything above, art can also be used to make visible the otherwise invisible. The invisible can be used to represent the ideological, the stuff you don't notice because it's become so naturalised in your mind.

For example, in 1974 Michael Asher took a wall out of the Claire Copley gallery in Los Angeles, to expose the gallery offices and “put on display issues related to labour and the selling of art.” (Unreproducable here, of course, but mentioned in the catalogue.)

And of course there's also a political dimension, where history and even geography render some events and people invisible. In the German city of Kassel a a public fountain, erected by a local Jewish businessman, was destroyed by Nazis. To simply rebuild it would be to remember its original donor, but also wipe Nazi crimes from the record. Horst Hoheisel's 'Ashcrott Fountain' (1987) instead rebuilds it but upside-down, sinking into the earth, “a funnel into whose darkness the water recedes,” thereby marking both the original fountain and the attempt to wipe it out.

Perhaps I am just a romantic but I imagine an America who had held to the 'Tribute in Light' commemoration of Ground Zero would have been less likely to invade Iraq.


Invisible Walls, Invisible Bridges

There are always works which don't fit your clumsy categories, and the invisible inevitably does not take well to an imposed order. Fitting nowhere above but a welcome addition to the show is Jeff Hein's 'Invisible Labyrinth' (2005, above), where headsets vibrate a warning whenever you hit an unseen wall of his virtual labyrinth. This work is fun, involving and charmingly site-specific. It's fitting that they're vibrations not verbal instructions, as it makes them feel more like a 'sense', and less a command. Alas in this less-than-blockbuster show there was only one other person trying it when I got there, when it really needs a small crowd, but you can't have everything.

The steward opening a section of a clear white wall to adjust controls was presumably just performing a function, but it still felt like an integral part of the piece - a glimpse of the hidden world of works behind the smooth passages we traverse.

However the blurb is surely getting carried away by claiming it “disrupts conventional patterns of behaviour.” Already that day not only had I been unable to step on the starting pad of Holler's invisible car. I'd seen a Tube station guard challenge people who'd walking in to an 'out' section of the station, surely the equivalent of a buzzing headset. Surely we follow invisible walls all the time, sticking to lines marked on the floor, standing to the right on escalators. I've been to that Tube station frequently, and probably now consider those floor markings as impermeable as an actual wall.

But this seems more like the success of the piece than the failure. Foregrounding a sublimnal activity, renewing our awareness – that feels like something art should be doing.

And talking of making use of the gallery space...

No Art Here, Let's Look at the Gallery

Bethan Huws comments that attendees “tend to pass from one work to the next, as if the artworks were little islands, and the seas – white walls/ concrete floors in between – go unnoticed. They pass from New York to San Francisco to... so to speak, without noticing the surroundings.” Of course this is similar to John Cage's infamous silent piece, which aimed to bounce us into noticing the ambient sounds of the performance space. Huws' means to get us to reaquant us with our surroundings was to hire an actor to pose as a gallery-goer, but do nothing out of the ordinary for the role.

Now me, I'm one of the contrary types who always notices the layout of galleries, just like I take in the typography of books. And the look here is quite vivid; vast white spaces, with what works there are spread apart, the indicia on see-through perspex or faded grey. (You can't even see these from a distance, so spied from a distance other attendees look for all the world like they're staring at bare walls.)

Of course the gallery space affects us, perhaps more strongly if only taken in subliminally. In 'The Air Conditioning Show' I got all the conceptual backstory about art-as-text, but mostly just found the room a calming space to hang out in. Sitting down, I started tuning into micro-details, such as the way the two air conditioning units had different hums. It was actually hard to tear myself away, I had to focus on the promise of the rest of the show and other errands I then had to run. The whiteness of the gallery became, for me, a vivid foreground colour. Notably Glenn Ligon's 'He Tells Me I Am His Own' (2003) names an all-white print after an evangelical hymn, riffing off religions usage of “white light” as a metaphor for the holy.

...which is perhaps unsurprising. Due to the accursed Olympics, London was more-than-usual cloged with crowds, cops and flags (not necessarily in that order). Even the more enjoyable stretches, such as the South Bank, are stimulating rather than relaxing. Compared to those teeming streets, the show felt like a little slice of heaven. (Think of the all-white heaven in 'A Matter of Life and Death.') It even seemed designed to evoke this, inverting the normal flow of rooms, so you came to the cathedral-like space of the biggest, whitest room last. (A sacrifice for this payoff being they couldn't get you to exit through the gift shop, normally the gallery equivalent of chocolate by the supermarket tills.)

It feels reminiscent of how I felt about the Brian Eno exhibition at an Old Church in Brighton. Galleries are fast replacing Churches, as the place we can indulge our less worldly feelings yet also keep them combined with our fix for personal comsumption.

It also brought to mind two colliding quotes. Alan Vega' said of the notoriously confrontational punk gigs put on by his band Suicide in Seventies New York, “people were coming in off the streets... hoping they’d be escaping and all we were doing was shoving the street back in their face again.” While Peter Blegved, interviewed in the Sound Projector, once commented on his changing tastes in middle age “I'd pay more for silence now than music.”

The problem of this show with nothing to see isn't that it doesn't work, that the blank walls bore, it's that it works far too readily. It presents itself as something radical and challenging when its actually something of a chill-out space. What we can't see, was that ever going to hurt us? In the video below Rugoff talks of “forego[ing] the complacency of seeing”, yet also of the show as “a pallete-cleanser, at a moment when London is having an endless series of spectacles.” Does this show want to keep its Dada roots and eat them?

Let's be upfront, I can recognise some of myself in that Blegved quote and enjoyed being in that serene space. Purging the mind of clutter and instilling a zen state of calm, that's a credible purpose of art and invsiblity seems a likely means towards that end. But should it over-rule all the others? Weren't we told near the start that there could be as many forms of invisible art as any other? The antagonistic anti-art that kicks off the show, should that just be kicked out from there-on in?


A Slice of Darkness

As if acknowledging this, some of the more recent works try to spice things up a bit. For example, in Tom Friedman's 'Untitled (A Curse)' (1992, above), a witch has hexed the space above an empty plinth. While with his afore-mentioned '1000 Hours of Staring' the failure had been the point, this time the failure seems just that. For it to work we would need to be transported back five hundred years, when we last believed in such stuff. After being unable to step on the starting block of the invisible car, my first reaction was to stick my head just where the curse would be. I am, at the time of writing, not feeling any ill effects.

The most clear-cut attempt to inject a bitter undertaste was Teresa Margolles' 'Air'(2003), at first sight a straight replication of 'Air Codnitioning Unit'. But the air is from humidified water previously used to wash down Mexican murder victims. Yet again the effect seemed insufficent. On a daily basis, we consume stuff based on the crippling exploitation of others. The clothes we wear might well have been made in a sweatshop where workers were beaten or killed for trying to form a trade union. There's nothing strong enough here to bring any of those repressed thoughts home. (Perhaps we should initially be told it's mountain air from outside a Swiss sanitorium or some such, and encouraged to breathe deeply, before being told the truth.)

The catalogue mentions a 1974 Warhol invisible scuplture surrounded by burglar alarms of different pitchces, primed to go of as soon as visitors approach them. Something like that would have been warranted here, to shake up the calmness a little. (And certainly it would have been better than the Warhol piece they do show.) Another possibility would have been to include an empty room, unmarked by signage or any other indication whether it was another artwork or simply a space left bare.

There's precisely one piece which actually does succeed in unsettling. James Lee Bryar's 'The Ghost of James Lee Bryars' (1969) is nothing but a jet-black room to commemorate his inevitable death. (And restaged after his actual death in 1986.) It's the yang to the yin of 'Air Conditioning Unit', the dark to... oh wait, you saw that one coming. After all that gleaming white, plunging yourself into the pitch black is startling, like diving into icy water from a hot day. A woman before me visibly had to marshall her efforts before she could enter. (In a smart move, you haved to pass through that room to reach the rest of the exhibition.) It feels closing not opening, and I felt none of my earlier desire to hang out in there. It's stark and unfunerary, with none of those flowers, shared memories or talk of “better places”, just a stone-cold fact. Some things, there's just no escaping.

Of course it's possible that the black room only feels so dark from all the whiteness everywhere else. An artwork reliant on a cultural context is an inevitablity. But in this case, this work might have been reliant on the context of this particular show for it's powerful effect. In, for example, a show devoted to death it might fit in far easier. That might be thought a step too far into relitavism.


Invisible, The New Visible

...which is perhaps what we should expect. Unlike his earlier-discussed works Klein seems serious about his proposed 'architecture de l'air', with buildings held in place by jets of air, to “dissolve social mores and conventions.” He even tried to patent them. But that liberating open-ness now doesn't seem that far removed from the glass-and-steel constructions that dominate the modern London skyline, such as the near-completed Shard I passed on the way in.

A credit card company I once worked for were working feverishly on a transparent card, which they clearly saw as a kind of holy grail. Apple have virtually trademarked the colour white with their branding. Once gold or blue were the signifying colours of status. Now, especially since the banking crisis, every corporation is aiming at this 'open' look. Even the idea of the show as a kind of Zen refuge from the London streets, perhaps even that can be criticised. Perhaps it's actually their epitome.

One argument would be that presenting all this as a gallery show at all was an inveitable diluting of the concept. The programme talks a lot of invisible art as a with-holding. Perhaps they should have copied a trick used by Barry and just released the programme, tied to a non-existent gallery complete with unreachable map instructions.)

My natural reaction was to bask in this exhibition as if it glowed. Presented with an all-white room, my heart was briefly at peace. But my brain had nagging questions for both the show and my heart. Whether that was some dilemma purely of my own, which I merely projected onto those vast white walls... well, if an empty plinth can be termed a piece of art, to encourage a more active response from the viewer, then so can a review. It's up to you to decide.



Coming soon! More out-of-date exhibition reviews...

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