The smell of engine oil lingers sharply in my nostrils, hours after I have left the vertiginous room of Richard Wilson’s 20:50, the final coup de théâtre in the Hayward Gallery’s Space Shifters exhibition. My mind keeps returning to the glassy, treacherous surface of the oil, which fills the room to half-way up the wall (and even out of a side door), creating in its perfect reflections the impression of a huge space, with me standing precariously on a spur in its very middle, looking into the depths below.
Much of the interpretation which accompanies Space Shifters uses words related to body movement, and it is with my whole body that I experience the 20 or so artworks. As someone who works in and with dance, I expected to notice the way in which my movement affected and was affected by the work; but I didn’t anticipate how even the inside of my body would react to the multiple shifts in perspective elicited as I go around the exhibition.
Jeppe Hein’s 360º Illusion V is formed of two huge mirrors at right angles, attached to the ceiling and rotating slowly. Invited to sit back on beanbags and watch the progression of multiple reflections, I feel faintly nauseous as motion sickness creeps into the pit of my stomach. It is compounded by encountering the distortions of Anish Kapoor’s Non-object (Door), where the concave surfaces of a reflective cuboid recall times when I have only been wearing one contact lens – the world sways and you can’t focus on anything with both eyes open. The use of reflection in both these introductory works invites us to open up our visual perception, to slow down and take note of the choreography emerging from the play of everyday movement intersecting in unexpected ways.
Like the Kapoor, several other works come into being as the viewer moves around or through them. Helen Pashgian’s small spheres of transparent epoxy resin are almost swamped by the grand gestures of other works around, but the delicate lines and shapes on the inside are brought to life as I move up and down and around, watching the surprisingly fluid motions of inverted reflections within. Larry Bell’s Standing Walls is described as a ‘perceptual environment’; as I walk between the large glass panes of varying shades of grey, my ghostly reflections merge and overlap with real figures on the other side, until I am no longer sure what is real and what is reflected. Like Hein’s piece, this transforms scattered groups of strangers in the gallery space into a theatrical part of the work – in seeing our reflections interact, the spectators have become an aesthetically pleasing element of the very exhibition we are attending.
An elaborate labyrinth of double-sided mirrors questions our understanding of what is ‘real’ and what is merely a reflection.
Apart from the Wilson, the other stand-out piece for a movement-oriented viewer like myself is Alicja Kwade’s mind-boggling interactive installation WeltenLinie. This elaborate labyrinth of double-sided mirrors and frames placed at right angles to one another contains a series of carefully-located objects designed to question the viewer’s understanding of what is ‘real’ and what is merely a reflection. I have always loved a good trompe l’oeil based on mirrors, and I’m enthralled like a child by the visual play going on here. Unsure which frame contains a mirror and which you can step through, viewers mumble of disorientation with incredulous grins, watching each other disappear unexpectedly and tentatively extending a hand to test whether it will go through into clear space or whether it will be repelled by cold, hard glass.
The artist is quoted as saying ‘I hope that this is more like a feeling or an experience than a solid sculpture’, emphasising the centrality of the viewer within this whole exhibition. With no moving people in and around it, this installation would lose all of its power. I experiment with being in the space, and then watching others negotiate it from the outside; in both positions, it is my choices of focus and perspective that enable me to experience the work. I feel like I am engaging in a one-to-one interaction with the artist – she has set out the board, and I make the moves to play the game. This invitation appeals to my inner 11 year-old reader of C. S. Lewis, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman: like their characters, I can imagine myself entering a portal into a parallel, fantasy world. It’s hugely pleasurable.
Some other works in Space Shifters, by comparison, do not invite me to share the joke, and lose my attention. Kapoor’s second piece of the exhibition, Sky Mirror, Blue, sits on the terrace outside like a large blue satellite dish. Like some other pieces, it feels more selfish than the interactive works; almost arrogant in its glassy beauty embellished by inverted and blue-tinted reflections of London’s South Bank skyline. The actual sky of the winter sunset beyond is more interesting.
I am intrigued by the way in which Robert Irwin’s Untitled (Acrylic Column) appears to create a solidity out of thin air, and I really want to touch Roni Horn’s glass cylinder Untitled (‘Everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake’) – its tantalising textures include a finish so smooth and transparent I am sure that the cylinder is filled with water – but no touching is allowed. Fortunately, my desire for tactility is satisfied by Félix Gonzalez-Torres’ golden bead curtain, which we swoosh through with camp delight, the melodramatic clacking noises making a performance of our everyday movement.
This takes us, finally, to Richard Wilson’s famous 20:50, for which we queue for a while, the pungent smell of oil encroaching ever more. When it’s finally my turn to enter the space on the narrow pathway created into the middle of the room of oil, I hesitate. The work creates a sense of insecurity in me, compounded by a cold, industrial disregard for the comfort of a human viewer. I have no place in this world; I must not disturb the too-perfect reflections. It evokes, perhaps, a darker perspective on the exhibition’s otherwise playful or aesthetic responses to shifts in our perceptual experiences of the world. What lurks, Wilson asks, in those depths of space around us which we usually cannot perceive? What happens if our familiar, comfortable spaces change, grow, and become impenetrable?
What happens if our familiar, comfortable spaces change, grow, and become impenetrable?
The introduction to Space Shifters states that the sculptures ‘direct attention to the space around them’ and ‘enable us to see our environment in new and unexpected ways’. Visiting with my architect friend, we found ourselves noticing how the building of the Hayward itself had become uncompromisingly involved in the perceptual experiences of the spectator. With its differences in levels, open staircases, rough concrete textures and triangular skylights, our negotiations of and movements around the building give us new opportunities to encounter both the older work, and the new commissions made in response to the gallery.
A view from the staircase juxtaposes several reflection-based installations in a pleasing surprise glimpse. Charlotte Posenenske’s Vierkantrohre der Serie D and Monika Sosnowska’s Handrail both reimagine the boundaries between building and artwork. The former poses as an unremarkable air conditioning duct, before a closer look reveals its Escher-like impossibility; the latter begins as a modest, ordinary-looking stair handrail trailing the building’s own, before forming mad, joyous loops across the wall, leaving the burden of functionality behind. Perhaps this expresses the desire we have for the Hayward building itself to break free of its brutalist chains and join in the freedom of its space-shifting inhabitants.
The oscillation of attention and inspiration between work, building and its human visitors make for a rich and multi-dimensional gallery experience, ranging from unremarkable, to playful and thought-provoking.
Space Shifters is at Hayward Gallery, London until 6th January 2019.
Image credits (from top):
1. Installation view of Richard Wilson, 20:50 (1987) at Space Shifters, © copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2018. Photo: Mark Blower
2. Installation view of Jeppe Hein, 360° Illusion V (2018) at Space Shifters, © copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2018. Photo: Mark Blower
3. Installation view of Alicja Kwade, WeltenLinie (2017) at Space Shifters, © copyright the artist, courtesy Hayward Gallery 2018. Photo: Mark Blower