I feel vaguely uncomfortable visiting an exhibition where there is no spark of recognition, where my mind does not automatically say ‘Oh yes, that’s so-and-so, who was part of that movement, but he’s using a different style suggesting the influence of so-and-so… How Interesting.’ And it was thus I entered the Hayward show, with no preconceived ideas or knowledge on which to judge anything. Consequently all my brain could come up with was ‘oh how pretty’ or ‘oh how clever, I wonder how that works’ (not out loud, thankfully) which irritated the pride of my intellectual bit of brain who kept telling my intuitive brain to shut up.
I did enjoy the show, however – once I had adapted myself to thinking of it as a ‘show’, a sort of son-et-lumiere fairground, or a ‘perceptual experience’ (as the catalogue reiterated). In the theatrical sense, the effects were literally incandescent. And the concrete severity of the Hayward, which doesn’t necessarily lend itself to more traditional 2D artwork, was an ideal space. The series of interconnected areas allowed ‘installation’ works room to take effect, while maintaining a unity between the exhibits. In addition there was many little dark alcoves which one entered through a black curtain. These held an entertainment value well beyond the extraordinary light effects that they contained; people, in close proximity and thrown into pitch darkness, became strangely over-excited. It was like an enormous game of sardines with total strangers.
A word of warning: unless your aim is to distract your own children, do not attempt to visit such a ‘family-friendly’ show in the middle of half-term. It is telling that my companion’s most memorable moment – related as we attempted to leave without colliding with any of the small bobble-hatted torpedoes – was her experience of Carlos Cruz-Diez’s ‘Chromosaturation’. As she stood in this trio of ‘colour chambers’ lit in luminous blue, red and green (incidentally, one is requested to wear plastic shoe covers, which adds a oddly farcical element to the already trippy feeling of being inside a disco light) a mischievous child discovered an ill-concealed cupboard door and slipped inside. Soon it realised it could not get out, and a series of sharp yells pierced the serene ‘perceptual environment’. No more contemplating of colour’s ‘material and physical existence’ then.
In runner-up position was the scathing assessment of James Turrell’s ‘Wedgework V’: as we sat, contemplating the angled planes of red light in reverent silence, a family quietly shuffled into the darkened viewing space. After a second’s pause the child said in a considered tone, tinged with contempt, ‘It’s very… Red’ – and left. I couldn’t help but agree. For all the reviews of mystical hallucinations appearing if one persevered in staring for the recommended 15 minutes, for me it remained just red light.
I liked Doug Wheeler’s installation best – it turned the room into a painting, rather like the effect of a Rothko, with blurred edges to the subtle colour fields. And it was quiet and hypnotic. It was also a bit like those slightly sinister blue-lit institutional corridors in morgues when everyone has gone home (or how they appear in murder mysteries anyway). Peaceful, verging on terrifying. I also enjoyed Jim Campbell’s starry cluster of lights suspended in space, in whose twinkling one could discern the shadowy figures of commuters endlessly passing by – the essence of dark winter evenings in London. And the effect of strobe lights on fountains in Olafur Eliasson’s ‘Model for a timeless garden’ was mesmerising, seeming to freeze the droplets of water in mid-air.