Without a theory to go with it, I can’t see a painting – Tom Wolfe…
Review – This summer the Hayward Gallery presents an exhibition of art that is invisible. What may seem to initially be a joke is actually a thought-provoking, emotionally charged exhibition questioning notions of sight, space, meaning, and experience.The works on display span from 1957-2012 and include examples by some of the twentieth centuries most famous artists including Yves Klein, Andy Warhol, and Yoko Ono, to name just a few.
Upon entering the gallery space, one of the most striking features is that many of the works look very similar. This may be a bit obvious since it is art about the unseen, but the effect is almost startling when pieces look nearly identical but evoke very different responses. Despite the prevalence of white and blankness, each work is truly individual. Spanning the media spectrum, including installation, painting, sculpture, and performance, it is evident that working through themes of existence, invisibility, and uncertainty at times requires tradition used untraditionally to be most effective.
Throughout the exhibition, visitor interaction is absolutely necessary for the piece to actually work. For example, three of Yoko Ono’s ‘Instruction Paintings’ are on display, quietly pinned to the wall. These paintings are not paintings in reality, but provide the viewer with instructions on how to create a specific work of art. These are often not actually achievable, but the viewer uses his or her imagination to create an artwork in the mind.
Bruno Jakob’s ‘Unusual Things Happen (It’s All There)’ (2012) appears to be a canister and a canvas hanging from the ceiling of the gallery. Reading the object label, however, the materials include: “Invisible Paintings/Brainwaves, Energy, Light, Touch, Air, Hot Steam, Water, Time, Seasons, Worries collecting and releasing, Unknown techniques on yellow primed (unseen) canvas and paper roll.” In this way the viewer becomes necessarily intertwined with the work, no longer a passive observer but an active, albeit perhaps unwilling, participant.
Many of the pieces in the exhibition have a somewhat playful character, but others were much more sinister and eerie. Particularly challenging is ‘The Ghost of James Lee Byers’ (1969/1986) by James Lee Byers. Contrasting with the intensely white whiteness of the rest of the exhibition, this work is an empty and very, very dark corridor or small room. Within the space one is confronted with the idea of commemorating absence with absence, but the space is not really empty – it’s filled with patterns and illusions created by the brain. Regardless of beliefs on the existence or non-existence of ghosts, Byers’s void is eerie and disconcerting, making the reemergence into the light a welcome experience.
Two works in the exhibition, one at the beginning and one towards the end, are basically identical in appearance. ‘The Air-Conditioning Show’ (1966-7) by Art & Language and ‘Aire/Air’ (2003) by Teresa Margolles both feature rooms mostly empty with the exception of air-conditioning units. The cool temperature of the space separates it from the rest of the gallery. In Art & Language’s work, the change of temperature is meant to make viewers aware of the space they inhabit. When confronting Margolles’s work, it is presumed to be a similar concept, but after reading the label, viewers learn that the cooling systems are “filled with water used to was the bodies of murder victims before autopsy.” Suddenly everything changes. The simple act of using water associated with death alters the entire perception of the room.
In keeping with the minimalist aesthetic utilized is many of the works, the display of the exhibition is barely visible. Wall labels utilize faint gray lettering against the white walls and plenty of space exists between works allowing each to stand on its own. In this particular exhibition, object labels are essential to understanding the work. To a certain extent the labels tell you what to see, but it is up to the viewer to actually see what is or is not there.
Traditionalists might scoff at Invisible: Art about the Unseen as a new rendition of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, but, as cliché as it might sound, there is much more to the exhibition than meets the eye. This exhibition is not easy despite the appearance of lightness and simplicity – each work requires active participation and contemplation.
Words/Photo: Emily Sack @ArtLyst 2012