From afar, it looks as though the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in Gateshead has replaced its industrial glass frontage with an extravagant, art-deco style stained glass window. Closer to, it becomes apparent that the colourful geometric shapes that tumble down its full length are semi-transparent vinyl, connected by vertical white stripes. They are exactly 8.7cm wide - a sure sign that French artist Daniel Buren is in residence.
The approach is a good preparation for Buren’s exhibition inside. ‘Catch as catch can: works in situ’, delights first with how bright colour fills the huge white rooms of the Baltic, and second with its satisfying sense of scale – a result of the famously unwavering stripes that have been fundamental to Buren’s work since the 1960s. Although the exhibition is called in situ, and Buren is best known for site-specific work that responds directly to a space, it is a very rare mix, the artist told me, of new work and pieces made within the last decade.
In the first rooms, for instance, there are luminous, fibre-optic works from Buren’s 2011 ‘Electric Light’ series that unfurl from white metal boxes like strips of radioactive wallpaper, and there are examples from his 2007 ’Zigzag for Two Colours’ series. This is a simple, effective optical illusion, where columns of alternating, rainbow coloured squares, painted directly onto the gallery walls, appear to stretch in a straight line from floor to ceiling. From the side, however, they expand as though the wall itself has been folded like a paper fan. And there is the vertical stripe, carving a straight black line down the side of each zigzag, emphasising the previously hidden depth.
There is a playfulness to the trompe l’oeil which is at odds with how controlled the scale and positioning of each work is. Every measurement is strictly related to the 8.7cm unit, and also to the wall on which it is displayed. I asked Buren, who is now in his mid-seventies, whether the stripes were a way of maintaining control over a new, unpredictable environment. “The stripes are a visual tool.” He tells me patiently. “By definition a tool never changes. If it does, it is not a tool.”
So the stripes, as the constant in his work, are in effect his medium? “Yes, you can really take that comparison, and with that you can do anything you want. It is very strong and inflexible, but it can do anything. It has a double use, as something fixed, and as something that can adapt or show something completely special, depending on what I want to do. Here for example, it is kept to an absolute minimum. I am not sure many people will even see it.”
This is particularly the case in the top gallery, where Buren has kept his intervention to a minimum while creating a maximum impact. He instructed the Baltic to reveal the skylights in the ceiling, in order to cover them with the same jewel coloured vinyl that currently clads the front facade. They beam down bright patches of vivid colour that are refracted by large, freestanding square mirrors, pitched at a gentle angle from the floor so that colour skates across the room, intensifying or disappearing as the light changes and clouds pass overhead. It is a clever, mesmerizing exploitation of the room’s potential; an intervention that makes the most of the room’s scale, light, and space, as well as “playing with what’s happening outside, and what you cannot control,” as Buren says. “It is completely up to the time that you are there, if you want to come back and see more, a day with no sun is another exhibition…another piece”.
Although Buren is often described as a conceptual artist, ‘Catch as catch can: works in situ’ is chiefly a visually stimulating exhibition that depends largely on the subjective choices of the visitor, such as the time of day, or how you might choose to move around the space. Buren emphasises this aspect to his work, describing it as if it were a gift. “I even refuse to have any idea of what the people will think [of the show],” he tells me. “I just made everything in order for the people to be very free to do whatever they want, and after that, they make their choice.” It seems an appropriate way to describe the exhibition, which is a generous, uplifting surprise, predicated on a careful understanding of the gallery’s best qualities.