Wednesday, August 1, 2012


See “Invisible Art” before it disappears
Anna Somers Cocks explains why this Hayward Gallery show, closing 5 August, should not be missed

By Anna Somers Cocks. Web only
Published online: 26 July 2012

Anyone listened to the 1963 song “Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa” lately? Did you laugh? So why did it make us feel pleasantly weepy then?

How long can we understand a work of art in the terms of its own time? Fifty years? Twenty? Probably not more than five if it is contemporary art, which is as finely tuned to the mood of the moment as pop music, but usually with an additional load of more or less philosophical baggage that makes it even harder to penetrate after the theory has moved on.

Precisely because of this, I recommend catching “Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012” at the Hayward Gallery in London until 5 August. For starters, it’s excellent value for money according to a young friend of mine, a graduate of the Royal College of Art, because it forces you to concentrate and read the labels (in self-effacing grey on the walls), otherwise the mysteries remain a mystery.

As its curator Ralph Rugoff says in the catalogue (also printed in pale grey, and completely lacking in bullshit): “Art is about paying attention, and invisible art asks us to pay attention in a different way.” Good for him. This has been a gamble that has paid off and most of the critics have loved it. The show hasn’t got a sponsor—they don’t usually do immaterial—but Rugoff, who is also director of the Hayward Gallery, went ahead anyway. Maybe it’s because he comes from California, home of the whacky.

That old magus Duchamp should be the patron of the whole event, because none of the works could have been made without his influence, direct or indirect. It aims to explain the various reasons why artists have made invisible art, from the idea that art is in the eye of the beholder to the idea that the market has turned art into a mere commodity so you must purify it of substance, to the idea that you can make almost invisible art and play with people’s sense of space, to the idea that some political issues are so serious that you can only deal with them by absence and allusion. As you see, a lot of ideas.

Yoko Ono, enjoying revived popularity at the moment, made some of the “eye of the beholder” art with her instruction works, where you were given a sheet of paper with typewritten instructions—for example, Hand Piece of 1961, which says, “Raise your hand in the evening light/and watch it until it becomes transparent/and you see the sky and the trees through it.”

Another work in this category is Tom Friedman’s empty plinth, which he got an official witch to hex. The evil spell hovers just above it, we are told, and as the piece is in the last but one room, by which time I was well trained in perceiving invisible stuff, I felt real reluctance to put my hand where the hocus-pocus resided.

Rather more into the anti-market category, Gianni Motti’s picture frames around apparently blank paper, Magic Ink, 1989, were made for a museum exhibition in Geneva, where they hung with the permanent displays. The drawings on the paper are in secret ink that immediately becomes invisible. This is the same artist who in 1997 tried to make the awful president of Colombia, Ernesto Samper Pizano, go away by thinking very, very hard.

There are two rooms in this exhibition that are empty apart from air conditioning units. Do not be fooled, however; they are quite different. The early one, The Air-Conditioning Show of 1972 by the English duo Art & Language (boy, can they write a lot of language!) is about the way in which visual art is conceptually dependent on words. You are left to wonder whether the aerated room is the work, or the pages and pages of text pinned up on the wall.

By contrast, the air-conditioned room near the exit is quite a material piece. The air being blown out of the machines has been cooled with water used to wash the bodies of unidentified murder victims in the Mexico City morgues. Called Aire/air, this 2003 work by Teresa Margolles is part of her series about death, and violent death in particular. Famously, the Mexicans feel close to death, but this is also a political protest work.

“Invisible” could have been an obscure and tedious show, but it is just the right size and has enough sensory and intellectual variation in the kinds of invisibleness it offers (at one point, you, the visitor, become invisible as you edge around a totally dark room by James Lee Byars) for it to be instructive and often fun. It ends with an invisible maze by the Dane Jeppe Hein, which you walk around guided by vibrations to your temples, a completely new sensation.

Intelligent display and excellent labels have done a lot to overcome the cultural and temporal gap between ourselves and the works. I have the advantage of remembering the revolutionary fervour of the 1960s, the horror we all professed at “straight” society (which certainly included the art market), the convoluted, boxes-within-boxes philosophising that emerged from being stoned, all of which certainly inspired a lot of what you don’t see here. With this art, it certainly helps to have been there. But my RCA friend, who’s 40 years removed from most of it, still found this one of the best exhibitions she had been to for ages, so hurry along.

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