11: Thousand Hour Stare

On Saturday, at the Hayward Gallery's Invisible show, I saw one of the most incredible works of art I've ever seen.

'Invisible' displayed works of art dealing with the unseen. Tom Friedman's 1000 hour stare was hung in a room with several works, all of which were blank white sheets of paper of different dimensions. I once read about an imaginary exhibition of red squares that would draw attention to their subtle differences. This room did something similar with what appeared to be (and was sometimes physically indistinguishable from) empty sheets of paper.

Out of the works on show, the one that moved me most was Friedman's. The information for the work described the medium as "Stare on paper" with dimensions of 82.6 x 82.6. It had been carried out between 1992 and 1997.

The work is part of a series of works Friedman carried out on 'the invisible'. His work, A Curse, also in the show, is a spherical space above a pillar that has been cursed by a witch. According to Friedman, "one's knowledge of the history behind something affects one's thinking about that thing." Does this knowledge transform empty space, or a blank sheet of paper? 

A thousand hours is a long time to spend doing anything. Had the labour Friedman put into staring at this paper changed it? Unless the handling and storage of the paper over the five years of the work had changed or damaged it, a scientist could not distinguish between this work of art and another blank sheet. If I took the work from the wall, put it into a pile of similarly sized paper, it would be lost forever, all that work wasted. In what way had Friedman changed this one particular piece of paper?

And then there was the claim that Friedman had actually had performed that magical thousand hours of staring at this sheet. To put things on crass economic terms, was this sheet now worth a thousand hours of an artist's time? If I hired someone to reproduce it, paying minimum wages for every hour of their time, it would cost £6080. Yet the resulting 'work' would still be little different to any other piece of paper.

Or maybe Friedman was lying. The artist explicitly decided not to document the process, because of the tension that added to the work. Was he lying or not? Did it matter to me or not?

I stared at the work myself, trying to puzzle it out. Which raised the question of how the stares of the passing visitors affected the work. If I stared at it too long, maybe came back day after day, would I taint it in some way? Would my stare somehow be mixed in with Friedman's?

I'm certainly no expert in art theory, but I found 1000 Hour Stare provocative and approachable. It raised obvious questions and was also, in its own way, very moving. There was something incredible about the thought of the artist coming back to this blank sheet day after day. Or that he might have lied to me. All this, from what appeared to be a blank sheet of paper. Whether Friedman had put a thousand hours into the work or not, he had done something magical, transforming the empty paper into 'art'.

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