Yesterday evening, I visited the Hayward Gallery’s summer exhibition: “Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012”. I was somewhat sceptical about attending the exhibition as, to be quite honest, it looked a little…well it didn’t look like anything at all as there wasn’t really anything physical to see. The exhibition focuses on, as the title suggests, the invisible, and the imaginative. Despite this seemingly off-putting theme, I actually enjoyed myself quite a bit.
The exhibition starts off by looking at the artist Yves Klein who created the first truly ‘invisible’ piece of art in 1958, claiming that his ‘artistic sensibility’ was contained within a large cabinet in the Iris Clert Gallery space where he held the exhibition. Remarkably, he later sold shares in this ‘spirit’ for gold, in return for which the buyer would be given a certificate of ownership which, if they so wished, they could set fire to (leading Klein to throw half of the gold in the river Seine in order to restore the ‘natural order’ of things after the space had been ‘filled’ through its sale). Whilst this was all rather interesting from a psychological point of view, there wasn’t much aside from a few photographs and a video of the artist to really look at. Retrospectively though, it was a particularly good way to ease the viewer into some of the later pieces, which were altogether more bizarre than the simple case of a trapped soul. Indeed, the entire exhibition calls into question what it truly means for something to be considered ‘seen’. The majority of work on display requires a certain detachment that seemingly transcends an optical appreciation of an art piece, forcing the viewer to contemplate the work on a reactionary, pseudo-philosophical scale. It feels uncomfortable at times to view the pieces, as one must feel the work rather than witness anything physical.
A good example of this was with the late James Lee Byars’ performance piece, The Ghost of James Lee Byars. This piece was shown in a completely dark room that was extraordinarily unnerving, not through the suggested possibility of a ‘ghost’ but precisely because of the sheer darkness of the room itself. There really was no way of knowing if another visitor was in the room at the same time, creating a real sense of discomfort at the possibility of blindly walking into another person. I think in many ways this made the piece successful, in that the ‘ghost’ of the piece, taken literally, might well have been simply another person in the dark at the same time. This sense of paranoia occurs again later in the gallery when we learn that there may or may not be an actor walking around as if viewing the exhibition as any other.
All well and good you might say, but I paid good money for this! Where is the value in it all?
Whilst I did in fact find myself wondering this same question several times during the exhibition, I couldn’t help notice the atmosphere that this ‘invisible’ show created. I found it to be one of the most interesting things about the exhibition as the viewer is left to contemplate pieces of work painted in “Zurich snow water, thoughts and energy on imaginary primed green paper” (Bruno Jakob’s aptly named Philosophy Escaped, 1999) as well as the rather amusing piece, 1000 Hours of Staring (Tom Friedman’s 1992-7 work created in the medium of “stare on paper”). It is these fragmented moments that really bring life to an otherwise invisible world, as one finds themselves softly chuckling at what they have just been trying to comprehend.
But, that is largely the point of it all, to embrace an imaginative world in a light-hearted way that almost forces you into conversation with the other people in the gallery. In one of the rooms, populated by only two air conditioning units, I found myself holding the plastic curtain open for another young man who exclaimed as we walked in together “this is funny shit”. Not only was this comment amusing at the time, it somehow serves as a concise summary of the exhibition. The work on display was indeed “funny shit”, and the idea that the viewer is looking at a “witches curse” on a pedestal (Tom Friedman’s Untitled (A Curse)), is all rather hilarious to be a part of. The overwhelming temptation that follows to wave your hand through the curse adds to the invisible dimensions of the exhibition itself. It all becomes less of a stuffy, formal exhibition and more of a fairground show, complete with guards on hand to remind you that photography of the invisible works is strictly not allowed!