The beauty of nothing


A gallery in London revisits the invisible works of modernism.

CARLOS FRESNEDA, London correspondent of El Mundo, 13 June, 2012


Step right up: the art of the unseen

One has to rub one’s eyes vigorously (and scratch one’s head) to appreciate the artistic value of a blank sheet of paper. The work is titled 1,000 Hours of Staring, and its merit comes from the five years its creator, Tom Friedman, spent staring stoically at its empty surface.

This is what is called «invisible» art and it’s no joke. We’re at the exhibition of the moment in London’s Hayward Gallery, a stone’s throw from the Tate Modern, where swims Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, a fearsome, tangible vestige of conceptual art from the days when we could still see it…

Here we have Playboy centerfolds erased by the ineffable Friedman until they are unrecognizably blank. As well as the invisible ink drawings of Gianni Motto, which disappeared a few minutes after they were made. And the canvas upon which the snails of Bruno Jakob have left their slimy trails. And the unseen labyrinth of Jeppe Hein. And the empty plinth supporting the aura of Andy Warhol. Even Yoko Ono’s instructions for blank painting:

“Raise your hand to the evening light / and watch it until it becomes transparent / and you see the sky and the trees through it…”

Of seeing, as we know it, there is little (especially for the ticket price of 10 euros). But Ralph Rugoff, curator of Invisible: Art about the Unseen (1957-2012), assures us that our investment is not wasted, as we have before us nothing less than the unseen.

The idea that art is something which is discerned or observed is here a thing of the past. “The best thing about invisible art is that it leaves so much to the imagination”, says Rugoff straightforwardly. “It’s like the power of radio, compared to television. When you listen to a radio program, the characters are in your head. The listener becomes something more than a spectator and in some way participates in the creative process. That’s the great virtue of this type of art, that each person sees what he or she wants to see”.

The show opens with Yves Klein, unanimously considered to be the father of modern invisible art, together with Robert Rauschenberg and taking the torch from Marcel Duchamp (the first to put his signature on a sculpture of air contained in a bottle).

It was in the year 1957 that Klein held an exhibition in the Paris’s Collete Allendy Gallery consisting basically of empty rooms. Where common mortals saw only white walls, Klein perceived the presence of «a pictorial sensibility in its raw form» (literally).

Klein’s obsession with exploring the invisible world would in time extend to all three dimensions. He was accompanied in this adventure by Jean Tinguely, and as the two strolled along the banks of the Seine, they conceived the idea of making air sculptures. Klein would also collaborate with a variety of architects and engineers in a utopian vision like no other: air architecture. Their idea was to create walls and ceilings from jets of air, so that “humanity could live in a state of grace, free from concealments and secrets”.

This reached its ultimate expression in an exhibition called The Void, in which every surface of the gallery was painted white. In their own words, “the space we created was so saturated that one could feel a magnetic force and many people felt that they were unable to enter the gallery, as if an invisible door were preventing them”.

The ghost of Yves Klein is a kind of invisible host for this new exhibition, “Invisible”, from which are missing Robert Rauschenberg’s famous white paintings, on the outer edges of the abstract expressionist movement that he himself spearheaded. Rauschenberg was also a pioneer of the erasure technique. In his case, however, rather than erasing his own work, he managed to persuade his friend Willem de Kooning to give him a drawing for this un confessable purpose, to be titled: Erased de Kooning Drawing.

All of this is recounted by Ralph Rugoff in his catalogue, written in nearly-invisible ink so as not to disturb the reader’s vision unnecessarily… And thus we come to Yoko Ono’s Instruction Pieces from the early 60s, with their deliberately imprecise instructions for exploring the world of the invisible…

“Hide until everybody goes home / Hide until everybody forgets about you / Hide until everybody dies…”

One such illustrious death, John F. Kennedy’s, would inspire Claes Oldenberg to propose the largest invisible monument ever built. Oldenberg’s design, reproduced here in a small-scale version is a likeness of the president the size of the Statue of Liberty, buried upside-down and underground (obviously, so as not to be seen). Seen and not seen. Andy Warhol would himself venture into invisible art in 1985. It was during a visit to the nightclub Area that he stood on a plinth bearing a label reading “Andy Warhol, USA, Invisible Sculpture”. Many interpreted this as presaging his own death…
All that remains on the pedestal now is the spectre of the artist’s silvery mane.

Intrigued, we spoke to one of the exhibition’s first visitors, who turned out to be an art teacher named Anne Sheffield: “I came out of curiosity, without knowing exactly what to expect. And really, I regret having paid eight pounds for this. Real art, even if it’s invisible, should be free and accessible to everyone, like it is in the National Gallery”.

In Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth (2005), an Italian couple, Gianni and Claudia, are chasing each other around what appears to be an empty room (white, of course). They cackle with laughter each time they smash into the labyrinth’s invisible walls, marked by infra-red vibration-emitting rays. Robert Barry’s photographs of inert gas and Jay Chung’s invisible film (entitled Nothing is more practical than idealism and filmed in 35mm, but without celluloid) lead us on to the installation Air, by Mexico’s Teresa Margolles: a white room with two humidifiers that operate with water formerly used to wash the bodies of Mexico City drug traffic victims… The chill still lingers!

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