More to it than meets the eye?

Sabah Mathur of Saffronart on Hayward Gallery’s new exhibition ‘Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012’

London: The latest show at the Hayward Gallery about the art of the unseen makes for a fascinating visit. Although there is not much to look at, there is a lot to appreciate. Including works by Andy Warhol, Yves Klein, Yoko Ono, Maurizio Cattelan, and Robert Barry, this exhibition explores ideas related to the invisible and the hidden.

Invisible art seems to be a type of conversation between artist and audience. As we enter the almost empty rooms with blank canvases, unoccupied plinths, and nearly invisible labels, it seems at first that we are being sold the emperor’s new clothes, but we quickly find that in presenting things that cannot be seen, artists are ultimately asking us to re-imagine how we engage with art.

According to the curator, Ralph Rugoff, it is possible that the history of what may be called ‘invisible art’ began on May 14, 1957. On that date Yves Klein opened an exhibition in Paris that included a seemingly empty room. The artist argued that the white walls of that space were infused with the artist’s sensibility and nothing else. In the following year, Klein took this a step further and developed the immaterial room into an entire exhibition at Iris Clert’s Paris gallery. We get a glimpse of this through a vivid archival film of the artist striding about his empty gallery contemplating the bare (but curiously glowing) walls as if there really was something to see. This landmark work arguably kicked of a low profile tradition of invisible art that has spanned seven decades.

Since 1957, artists have been drawn by various motives to make work that engages with the invisible and this exhibition brings together the key moments in this history revealing that there is no apparent limit to the possible meanings of invisibility in art. Therefore, the fact that the whole exhibition is centred on the invisible does not mean it is repetitive. Among the surprises of the exhibition is the realisation that artists have used invisibility in so many different ways, says Richard Dorment of the Telegraph.

Klein himself went on to explore the unseen in numerous ways. He envisioned a new society in a non-material world. This led to the ritual sale of ‘zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility’ in 1959. He began to issue certificates for these zones in exchange for pure gold. Several sale ceremonies were conducted in Paris on the banks of the river Seine, and if, in the spirit of immateriality the purchasers agreed to burn their receipts, Klein would throw the gold (or at least most of it) into the Seine. The exhibition shows photographs recording one such transaction with Hollywood screenwriter Michael Blankfort.

The invisible can be engaging with works such as Yoko Ono’s ‘instruction paintings’ which consist of written statements asking readers to visualise in their own minds the actions, images and scenarios suggested by the text. Visitor participation peaks with Jeppe Heine’s Invisible Labyrinth, which has to be navigated equipped with digital headphones which vibrate (activated by infrared rays) every time we bump into one of the maze’s virtual walls.

The invisible can also suggest a mischievous attitude with works that make us laugh such as Maurizio Cattelan’s Untitled (Denunzia) which is a standard police report that officially documents the artist’s claim that an invisible artwork had been stolen from his car the night before he was to exhibit it at a group show in Milan. He exhibited this solemn police report instead. There is also Untitled (A Curse) by Tom Friedman who hired a practicing witch to curse the space above the plinth.

One of the rooms is devoted to all-white canvases including Bruno Jakob’s works which are a challenge to cynics, as they are made with not much more than canvas or paper exposed to the elements and creatures such as garden snails. Although at first these works appear to be blank, they evoke a range of images often suggested by their titles such as The Visitors where Jakob has exposed the paper to snails. The room also includes Magic Ink by Gianni Motti which consists of drawings sketched in invisible ink.

Another interesting but rather spooky work is The Ghost of James Lee Byars which is essentially an empty and dark room enclosed by thick velvet curtains. The artist spent most of his life contemplating death, and his own death was the subject of many of his works. Teresa Margolle’s work, which also deals with death, also provokes uneasiness. Upon entering her installation Aire/Air, we find an empty room with two working air-conditioning units. The slightly humid air is cooled by water from public mortuaries in Mexico City that was used to wash the bodies of murder victims before autopsy.

Also included is Warhol’s empty plinth, on which he had once stood to leave behind the ‘aura of his celebrity’. Other interesting exhibits include photographs of Song Dong’s secret diary written with water on stone, and Claes Oldenburg’s proposal for a memorial to John F. Kennedy in the form of a gigantic statue of the assassinated president buried upside-down in the ground, only to be viewed through a small hole while lying on the ground. Conventional memorials are designed to comfort future generations into thinking that the heroic figure somehow lives on. Oldenburg suggests that we should instead know what it is like to have had something extraordinary, and then have it taken away.

Pakistani-born artist Ceal Floyer shows her work, Plumb Line, which acts as a pointer to the unseen. It marks the dead centre of the entire space of the Hayward Gallery, including its depths, such as its basement storage area, plant room, library and offices, which are hidden from the exhibition visitors.

This novel show demands our attention and gives us a lot to think about. As the curator points out, the idea is based on the thinking of Marcel Duchamp who took exception to what he called ‘retinal art’ or art aimed at the eye. His 50 cubic centimetres of Paris air bottled in a glass ampoule is arguably more interesting to think about than to look at. Duchamp’s most profound impact on the future of invisible art was his notion that an artwork is only ever fully realised in the mind of its audience.

Although the conception of this exhibition proved to be interesting, I am not sure how long works with almost no visual interest can capture our imagination and keep us amused. This modern experimentation may have a prankish flavour, yet it is engaging and profound. As Jackie Wullschlager of the Financial Times has said, “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.”

Read more about the exhibition.

Watch this video.

Song Dong, Writing Diary with Water, 1995-present
Image credit: Exhibition Catalogue, Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, p. 64

Ceal Floyer, Plumb Line, 2004
Image credit: Exhibition Catalogue, Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, p. 72

Maurizio Cattelan, Untitled (Denunza), 1991
Image credit: Exhibition Catalogue, Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, p. 56

Yoko Ono, Hand Piece, 1961, Summer
Image credit: Exhibition Catalogue, Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, p. 36

Yves Klein, Cession d’une Zone de sensibilité picturale immatérielle á Dino Buzzati, Paris, 26 janvier, 1962
Image credit: Exhibition Catalogue, Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012, p. 34


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