Published in Whitehot Magazine, 2012. Original article here.
Art about the Unseen
Hayward Gallery, London
‘Art about the unseen’ asks a lot from us. After all, most of the works are things we cannot see: blank papers, empty pedestals, a charge in the air. So when you first step into the Hayward Gallery, all you can see are the visitors standing in silence, facing seemingly blank walls before they take a few steps, then stopping again to stare some more. But of course, this is not actually performance art, as these people are in deep concentration: invisible art demands its audience to commit fully to the experience. And if we do, we will be amply rewarded.
This large group show features works spanning between 1957 and 2012, and had it not been so well put together it may have had an ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ sense about it. If a picture paints a thousand words, what can you say about a show which does not really have any pictures at all? The empty frames and blank canvases nudge us, inviting us to dream, or draw us into their histories. If we suspend our disbelief, the only limitation to what we will take away is limited by our own imaginations.
The first images to greet visitors as they enter the gallery are from Yves Klein’s attempt to telepathically transmit ‘a great concern’, alongside a video of his display of a room filled with his ‘sensibility’. Klein wanted to capture ‘immaterial elements’ such as fire, air and water, and referencing this work is certainly relevant to the Hayward exhibition. Still, we only really start to get an understanding of what Klein was hinting at once we reach the interactive pieces, and this happens with the recreation of Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin’s 1966 show. Moving past a plastic curtain, the temperature drops inside the small room, courtesy of two air-conditioning units. Granted, the concept of controlling our environment was a bit more novel back in 1966, but it sets the tone of the works to come in the exhibition by priming us with an awareness of the things we cannot see.
Such as Robert Barry’s ‘Energy field’ from 1968: this is a small wooden box with a battery circuit. It is impossible to tell whether or not it is powered up, but what Barry was after was the idea of being ‘sensitive, emotionally or physiologically, to the space you are in’. Next up are references to Chris Burden’s ‘White light / White heat’ show from 1975, where the artist would lie in the gallery, out of sight, for 22 days without speaking or eating. The audience reported the room felt haunted. Back at the Hayward, immediately after Burden’s work, we encounter a sign declaring that artist Bethan Huws is here with us, roaming about in disguise as a fellow gallery visitor. This is also the point where ‘Art about the unseen’ is no longer just an exhibition, but it is turning into an experience.
A series of invisible drawings start with the works of Bruno Jakob from 1993, made from ‘invisible ink, water, steam and light’. Staring at the one called ‘The third hand’ I start to become certain I can see a hand in there somehow, or am I imagining it? Next is ‘Philosophy escaped’, made using ‘Zurich snow, water and brain energy, primed with unseen green colour’. The wonderful ‘1000 hours of staring’ by Tom Friedman is less of a visual treat and more an exercise in mind-boggling, as you picture the artist standing in front of this canvas for all those hours. Friedman’s erased Playboy centrefolds are also exhibited, again providing nothing for the eyes but a rich backstory to explore for the mind.
‘The ghost of James Lee Byars’ is a clear highlight. Of course, it does not sound like much, being just a pitch black room. But then you realise you have no choice but to walk through it to continue, feeling your way through a space where your eyes are useless. Is there a ghost in here? I can hear whispers, probably from fellow visitors, but I cannot be sure. I stand still in the dark for a moment, feeling increasingly uncomfortable and intrigued.
As the exhibition continues upstairs, this is when demands really start to be placed on the visitors. Tom Friedman’s ‘Untitled (A curse)’ is a simple pedestal, but the artist hired a witch to curse the air above it. Carsten Höller has made a parking space for an invisible car, and a room by Roman Ondák’s comes with a hidden eavesdropping device. A poster informs us that Lai Chih-Sheng has traced around every single element of this room with a pencil, down to the cracks between the tiles in the floor. Everything about this room is charged with intent.
And then Teresa Margolles takes it to a new level with ‘Aire/Air’, where two humidifying units are running on the water used to wash murder victims ahead of autopsy. It is muggy inside the dedicated room, which visitors enter without knowing what is going on as the sign is on the inside. I find myself reluctant to breathe too deeply as I make myself stay, watching two other gallery visitors turn sharply on their heels to leave once they learn what they are breathing. Margolles’ work hits you in the guts.
Jeppe Hein’s ‘Invisible labyrinth’ is the final piece of the Hayward show, providing us with headsets that buzz when we are on the right path in the electronic maze. With our backs straight we all walk very slowly, turning around to find that connection again once we lose it. For a moment it is refreshing to just follow instruction: step, feel the charge, turn. ‘Art about the unseen’ asks a lot from its audience, it takes a lot out of you by leaving you no choice but to engage. The Hayward Gallery has created an extensive exploration of a fascinating subject: art which exists almost solely in our minds, and how this can be shared with others. This is not a visual experience, but one that is highly interactive, creating a strong connection between the audience and the individual artist. It is engaging and it is personal, and most of all, it is such a buzz.