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June 15, 2012 7:54 pm
Nothing will come of nothing; speak again.” How do you express nothing in art? By silence in language or music – Lear’s Cordelia, John Cage’s mute pianist in 4’33”; by invisibility in visual art. But what sort of exhibition could that produce? The Hayward Gallery’s new show Invisible: Art about the Unseen is flawed, difficult and never more than a breath away from pretension. It is also bold, thought-provoking and timely.
With its record prices, rush of gallery openings and the success of fairs such as Basel and Frieze, the art world is in triumphalist mood this summer. Invisible is a corrective: still, contemplative – and also prankishly undermining market pieties.
A stark installation transforms the Hayward’s brutalist interior into a parody of the ubiquitous white cube selling machines: swathes of blank white walls, bare spaces, captions so pallid you can’t see them, art so conceptual you can’t find it or pin it down. Tom Friedman shows an empty plinth; he hired a witch to curse the space above it.
Maurizio Cattelan complained to police that an invisible art work had been stolen from his car, and exhibits the certificate recording its theft. Gianni Motti’s “Magic Ink” drawings disappeared as soon as they were made; on display, framed, are the blank sheets of paper that remain. Carsten Holler’s “The Invisible” purports to be one of a fleet of racing cars; all we see are the reflective road markings denoting its imagined starting position.
Since Marcel Duchamp declared an empty glass ampoule to be a sculpture – “50 cc of Paris Air” – in 1919, invisible art has hovered on the conceptual landscape as an absurdist jest: the ultimate emperor’s new clothes of modernist experimentation. The Hayward show begins in 1957 with a display around Yves Klein’s “The Void”: an exhibition of an empty room infused, according to the artist, with the presence of “pictorial sensibility in the raw state”. Klein went on to barter his sensibility as a commodity, in exchange for bars of pure gold – which he then tossed into the Seine on condition that collectors destroyed receipts for the transactions. The entire encounter thus became invisible.
Klein was sending up the art market, but he was also a philosopher and a Catholic: dematerialisation, a world beyond appearances, and the nature of blind faith are his themes. It is by exploring this range of what absence can imply that the Hayward’s show rises above a one-gag joke.
Klein died on June 6 1962; a 50th anniversary exhibition, Klein, Byars, Kapoor,opening later this month in his home town, Nice, focuses on his legacy as artist-metaphysician. Kapoor is not in the Hayward show, but “The Ghost of James Lee Byars” (1969) is an unnerving highlight: it consists of a space of enveloping darkness, with all light excluded apart from a glimmer around the velvety black entrance/exit curtains, making it impossible to see who or what else is in the room with you. At once lush and austere, it is one of Byars’ signature pieces – the others are the red room installation “This is the Ghost of James Lee Byars Calling” and “The Perfect Death of James Lee Byars”, where the artist dressed in gold lamé and lay on the gold-painted ground, becoming in effect invisible. All meditate on the limits and limitations of art, as well as on mortality.
When is an empty room not an empty room? Roman Ondák’s “More Silent Than Ever” is a bare white space fitted with a hidden eavesdropping device, referencing the artist’s childhood in eastern Europe. Teresa Margolles’ “Air” is also an empty space, but feels colder: air-conditioning units cool the atmosphere with water previously used to wash the bodies of murder victims in Mexico City mortuaries.
Invisible art as political statement has a distinguished history. Claes Oldenburg’s “Placid Civic Monument” (1967), recounted here in photographs, was a sculpture in Central Park, where gravediggers dug a grave then filled it in only with earth: “the perfect anti-war monument”, according to the artist, during the Vietnam war. My favourite instance is one recorded by curator Ralph Rugoff in the catalogue: during the second world war, St Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum, “having stashed its invaluable art collection for safe-keeping ... continued to operate guided tours, with docents describing the absent art from memory while leading soldiers through rooms occupied only by empty frames and plinths.”
The Russians knew by instinct what, 20 years later, became a bedrock of conceptualism: that viewers or readers bring their own imagination, interpretation – even participation – to complete a work of art or literature. The 21st century’s art of spectacle – Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project”, Kapoor’s “Cloud Gate”, Antony Gormley’s Fourth Plinth installation “One and Other” – depends on this democratised approach. The Hayward has a witty example in Jeppe Hein’s “Invisible Labyrinth”. Occupying what initially appears to be the show’s largest vacant gallery, the piece changes endlessly as headphone-clad visitors stop and start with jerky movements, trying to negotiate a maze made evident only by infrared signals that trigger an alarm when invisible walls are touched.
Hein is a clever choreographer, and his piece stands out among much that is overwhelmingly dry, didactic or just plain dull. For invisible art, inevitably, prizes neither virtuosity, nor beauty, nor formal rigour; it must be judged on different qualities. Yet that does not excuse the smug mediocrity of many works here – Bruno Jakob’s paper muddied with snow or rainwater, “Invisible Paintings”, say, or Yoko Ono’s tedious texts “Instructions for Paintings”.
Invisible is a brave experiment, handicapped from the off by the fact that seminal works in the history of unseen art have been performances concerned with the ephemeral and fleeting, which can be at best archived, not recreated. But Rugoff is an inventive curator and has curated the show as primarily a participatory performance piece, dependent on physical encounters with spaces that by turns inspire dread, confusion, laughter, annoyance.
Does that compensate for a gallery experience of unprecedented visual deprivation, with so little to stimulate the eye that you emerge on to Waterloo Bridge thrilled at the sight of a red London bus? Rugoff seems to me to be playing out conceptual art’s endgame in a show as intriguing as it is frustrating.
‘Invisible: Art About the Unseen, 1957-2012’, Hayward Gallery, London, to August 5 www.southbankcentre.co.uk
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