13: The Art of the Unseen


Imagine if the first live gig you saw was the Flaming Lips. You might think that every performance would be as rich and spectacular as that and be sorely disappointed to find out most bands just shuffle about a bit on stage. Or if the first superhero comic you read was Watchmen: you'd imagine that they would all be that good (spoiler: not even close).

Back in 1997 I went to see the Sensation exhibition. It was the first big gallery show I'd seen and it blew my mind. It was a publicity-baiting show, featuring works like Marcus Harvey's Myra (removed after vandalism before our visit), Tracey Emin and Damien Hirst, whose A Thousand Years was amazing. The work was playful and fun and left me excited about art. 

The problem is that I've compared every subsequent exhibition to my memories of Sensation and few shows have come close. I wasn't sure if it was a problem with me or with art but I was certainly disappointed.

The Hayward Gallery's Invisible show has finally lived up to my expectations. The theme of the show was Art about the Unseen. I thought it might would be an austere show, appealing to the part of me that is currently ploughing through books of philosophy. Instead it was accessible and entertaining. People were laughing, enjoying the art and the games it played.

Early in the exhibition there is a piece by the Art and Language group that consists of an air-conditioned room. Patrons responded with amusement. What does one do when faced with what is, essentially, a cooled room? For me the piece also raised a lot of questions. How does one transport a work like the air conditioning? Does one have to pay royalites? Customs fees? 

I've already written about my favourite piece, Tom Friedman's incredible 1000 Hour Stare, but there were many other highlights. Another Friedman piece, Curse, consisted of a spherical space above a pillar that was cursed by a witch. Again, the piece raises questions – how was the piece moved to the Hayward and did the curse come with it? Did it have to be cursed again in the new location? What do I think a curse actually is?

Many of the works provoked a direct response. Roman Ondak's work More Silent than Ever, was a space which the label claimed contained a listening device. My friend and I read the sign and immediately stopped talking, the suggestion of this device enough to silence us, even though we couldn't be sure the device was present or if anyone was listening to our gallery-chatter.

The invisible works could also be moving. Later in the exhibition there was another room, similar to the air conditioning one. The machines here were humidifiers. Our first response was amusement until we read the label. Teresa Margolles is an artist who "works with the physical traces of death" and her piece Aire/Air used water that has washed the bodies of unidentified murder victims prior to autopsy. The piece's label stated blankly "The water vapour is harmless" which seemed against the spirit of the piece. It was strange to inhale this water vapour knowing its history.

The exhibition's final piece was a participatory one, Jeppe Hein's Invisible Labyrinth. The work was set in a large empty space. Visitors put on a headset with an infrared receiver and set off to walk through the labyrinth, the headset buzzing when one hit a 'wall'. It was strange to watch people navigate this space, their steps faltering despite there being no visible obstruction. When I tried I finally found myself stuck, unable to remember the way out yet resistant to the idea of simply walking through the 'walls'.

One of the most interesting works was From New York to San Francisco to… by Bethan Huws. The name refers to the manner in which people in exhibitions "tend to pass from one work to the next, as if the artworks were little islands, and the seas – white wall/concrete floors in between – go unnoticed. They pass from New York to San Francisco to…, so to speak, without noticing the surroundings". The work consisted of an actor moving among the gallery patrons "in such a way as to make the visible artworks disappear". Who was the actor? It might be anyone. What if it was my friend? Or could it even be me?

As the show's curator wrote "Whether visible or not, art ultimately comes to life in our memories and in our conversations with others…" I was excited to see a show of conceptual art that was as much fun as this, so that my memories of it are worth recounting. It's good to regain the feeling that contemporary art can be exciting, creative and moving.

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