Published  22/07/2012

Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957-2012

Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957-2012

Hayward Gallery, London
12 June–5 August 2012


Eduardo Paolozzi famously scripted a twelve-minute film in 1961-62, which he entitled The History of Nothing. In fact for him it became a history of everything and nothing. He described it as a "homage to Surrealism". This was a random juxtaposition of collaged images with a music soundtrack plus other extraneous sounds, recorded at varying speeds. The fantastic yet everyday images were composed as if indeed nothing there encapsulated the actual thought process behind (completed with the technical support of Denis Postle at the Royal College of Art).

Paolozzi would of course have been aware of the work of Yves Klein who, in l957, inspired philosophically by the encouragement of the late critic Pierre Restany, created The Void. This is featured as the main introductory item to this exhibition, and accounts for the stated time frame from 1957. These precedents indeed can be said to infuse the contemporary interest, in the notions of “Nothingness” and hence the “Invisible”, in a manner which has perhaps escaped the attention of artists such as Damian Hirst. This exhibition could not therefore be more timely, set against the current art market hyperactivity and focus on the object and its value.

Hayward director Ralph Rugoff has produced an excellent guide/catalogue. He contextualises his exhibition here in considering the appropriateness of the contemporary extravaganza of art fairs, as well as art sales and signature architect-designed buildings for new museums: his point is that all this makes actual exhibited or displayed art the more invisible as it forms increasingly "a mere backdrop for flamboyant displays of social capital". The exhibition indeed offers a subliminal corrective, conditioned by plausible philosophies instead of the flow of usually uncritical press and media comment. Sensationalism is seen to rule, and yet it is the historical genre of Invisible Art, which can invoke all the senses by contemporary perception. This exhibition in the lower Hayward Galleries, within the in-situ concreted materiality of their architecture offers a convincing challenge to the wholly visible. And yet nor is it by any means entirely compatible either, with conceptual art. This is because perception here as such also allows for physically tangible, auditory and olfactory senses in contrast to the blank and immaterial offerings of Yves Klein. For example, there is here the apparently metaphysical work by Tom Friedman, which involves a supposed haunting spell by a witch hired to affect a hitherto abstract space comprising the air above an empty plinth, which some have claimed gives a chilling feeling.

The Chinese artist Dong Song celebrates invisibility by inscribing his diary in water, run across pebble stones, themselves visible proof of the invisible. The unseen, as every classics pupil knew, is set as a blind study prior to what is actually then to be construed from the text. The unseen cannot therefore exist in isolation. This here is then borne out by Taiwanese artist Lai Chih-Seng's massive drawing: but probing behind the balustrade with a bare hand transfers a sliver of chalk from the real drawing, proof of its existence, however itself is invisible. Bruno Jacobs also works on sheeting, creating undefined “imaging” that leaves open to speculation any idea of form.

Another voided room is by Teresa Margolles, called “Kir”, which has only the phenomenon of an air-conditioning system that chills the room by means of water supposedly with a prior use in running over and cleansing the corpses of murdered people in Mexico City's morgues. As a contrast to the well-lit voided rooms, there is also recreated the entirely darkened space, The Ghost of James Lee Byars (l969). It seems impossible to escape from the persuasively perpetrated ideas of Yves Klein. But Claes Oldenburg's Placid Civic Monument (recalled here by photographs) offers that sanctuary, the Monument being a creation in New York's Central Park whereby gravediggers were to excavate a deep hole and this proposal was to take a massive upended bronze of assassinated President Kennedy viewable via a small hole left for that purpose with an invisible space left. Unsurprisingly this work was never actually realised.

One is left with the imponderable question, what is oblivion? As a mental experience, it must be invisible, free of materiality. But the invisible space or object must also be “of nothing”. Both Oldenburg and Paolozzi grasped this fundamental. But for Klein, the invisible became somewhat compromised. All told, contemporarily a creative philosophy of the Invisible provides an essential polarity in the objectified art spectrum of today.

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