Sight, the least reliable of the senses.

I have no idea what evidence the statement in the title of this post actually has, but it was proudly included in the introduction to the Light Show at the Hayward Gallery. To be honest, given the bright sun outside (in which my friends and I had been lounging, sprawled on a small astroturf island on the sea of the South Bank Centre in the peculiarly British habit of sunbathing violently the moment there is a single clear day), it might have been more sensible to call this the Artificial Light Which Isn’t As Alluring As Outside Is Right Now show, but we had tickets and the Hayward is often good for the weird and the interactive. It is also probably a car park with delusions of being an art gallery, and I refuse to rescind my belief that it and the rest of the South Bank Shambles are some of the ugliest buildings ever created, but that’s not relevant to the content.

Leo Villareal’s Cylinder II kept us entertained for a while, resembling both a cloud of glittering abyssal beasts with their bioluminescence winking in the water, and in shadows a kind of “phase-shifting sea urchin”; Ceal Floyer’s Throw, while uninteresting as an installation, did at least keep the theatre lighting student/practitioner among us happy identifying the gobo in use. The first piece – but not the last – to induce the kind of hypnotic rapture that art which changes must bring about was Cerith Wyn Evans S=U=P=E=R=S=T=R=U=C=T=U=R=E. In this, three columns, floor to ceiling, of perfectly clear glass tubes containing tiny filaments lit up and darkened again in slow “breaths”, at their brightest radiating a lot of heat as well as light. The three columns light up entirely, but do so in different orders. We might have taken in the pattern of their fading and dimming but instead we hung over the wire separating us from hot light bulbs and discussed in four-year-old terms the effects of light and heat on the emotions.

The exhibition is classically Hayward in the sense that a lot of the pieces require going into a small room and looking at something, or interacting in another way with it: the first one that did so in a fun way was Anthony McCall’s You and I, Horizontal, which in having patterns of smoke swirling through what the exhibition guide calls a “solid-light” installation, led to the three of us lying on the floor underneath the beams of light and watching the patterns move as if “we’re lying at the bottom of a pond”, (as Maud explained to the stranger who joined us: soon several people were lying on the floor). After a while we discovered if we stuck our legs up into the beams, they looked as if they were being pulled apart by a cold and penetrating blackness. Possibly not “art” in any real sense of making us think about ~society~ or ~death~ or ~big questions~, but it was fun.

A lot of the works also required the viewer to be in a specific place in relation to them in order to understand them: Jim Campbell’s Exploded View (Commuters), for example, looks like an endearing forest of randomly off-or-on berry-like bulbs of light hanging from the ceiling, until you stand behind it and realise the patterns of extinguished light are not random but outline the shadowy forms of passing humanoid shapes, some near, some far, moving fast. This is deeply unsettling, and gives the room a sense of being inhabited by unseen presences. Other works in this vein like that by Brigitte Kowanz, whose dangling fluorescent tubes only elicited a scoff of “Stairway to Heaven again”, were less successful.

An unintentionally fine performance addition to James Turrell’s ambiguous and not especially impressive installation Wedgework V occurred while we were viewing it. The three of us sat and discussed, quietly, how the lines of the room caused shifts in perception, and then what would make the business more interesting (“giant black reflectionless tentacles rounding the corner”, “a viscous dark fluid dripping from the ceiling”); the small baby behind us expressed his dissatisfaction with the weird colour scheme in a more voluable and, I suspect, honest fashion. And then someone along the row from us uttered the immortal phrase How am I supposed to experience the art with that going on, which kept us all going for some time: we made fun of him until he left, and for a little while afterwards. After all, the experience of others in a group viewing is a factor in the overall understanding of an installation piece.

Sometimes, the reactions of the audience to a piece lead to expectations which cannot be met: Conrad Shawcross’s Slow Arc inside a Cube is a fascinating piece both in the mechanism of how it works, the end result of geometric patterns moving and “changing shape” across the walls of the small room, and in the artist’s source of inspiration (for once), Dorothy Hodgkin’s description of examining diffraction pattern of X-rays bounced off insulin atoms as “decoding the shape of a tree from the shadows cast by its leaves”, which actually makes sense as an inspiration for this work. Unfortunately while queuing for the disappointing Turrell installation I overheard one of the people in front of me claiming he’d been unable to remain in the room for long because it made him feel nauseous, and was subsequently so scornful of his queasiness that I wasn’t able to appreciate the work in isolation of that.

The remaining work on the ground floor of the exhibition which ignited any emotion was Carlos Cruz-Diez’s Chromosaturation: we enjoyed examining the effects of the different colours of light (blue, red, green) on each other’s faces and hands, comparing notes on which made us look more mottled and which more smooth, and on our minds (blue bored me, red energised me, and green made me feel content). The way the light seemed to “pile up” and become more intensely coloured when we’d left it and looked back on it was also impressive.

Upstairs contained works that were both a good deal less interesting and one which was the highlight of the entire exhibition. The greatest confusion was probably caused by Ivan Navarro’s Reality Show (Silver), where none of us could work out what the point was supposed to be, and even inside found the effects described by the notes weren’t as clearly-defined as expected. Personally I mostly found that I didn’t like standing over a yawning abyss, even illusory, and got out again very quickly.

I shall pass with reasonable grace over my intense dislike of Jenny Holzer, as we had to pass through a room containing her work to get to (and back to, for a second visit) the high water mark of the exhibition, Olafur Eliasson’s Model for a timeless garden.

A brief description of it to a friend on my return home: a black room with a black foam bench at roughly chest height, several metres long, full of a variety of sprinklers throwing out water in different patterns*, light by strobe lights.  * Some of the flow of these interfered with each other, but I didn’t include that in my description. The effect of the strobe light on the falling water was utterly mesmerising, because it turned what is usually a continuous motion into a series of still images, ever-changing, often slightly-repeating, but never truly-identical. That these images were three-dimensional and clear but highly-reflective gave the impression of a garden of beautiful abstract sculptures in ice or brilliant crystal (some like flowers, some like impossible hanging diamond rain, some like huge glass spiders whose bodies disintegrate on a loop) somehow animated by Harryhausen-esque stop-motion. It felt a little as if Swarovski had been commissioned to create a horror movie, or Yves Tanguy to advertise an ice-maker. We cast around for a while, trying to work out what about it was so soothing, considering how otherworldly and alien and profoundly unnatural-but-organic it all felt. I’ve had to fall back on saying that it was beautiful, but it wasn’t beautiful in the manner of a glacier so much as beautiful in the manner of highly cultivated orchids or bizarre and delicate hanging sculptures knocked by the breeze: utterly without function, and only there to dazzle.

On a side-note, the strobe lighting completely threw off my depth perception so I’m sorry to the several people I bumped into!


3 thoughts on “Sight, the least reliable of the senses.

  1. This is a marvellous descriptive piece which actually promotes the feeling of having seen and understood something I haven’t, which, in conjunction with your title, is quite wonderful, I think.

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