‘There are, indeed, things that cannot be put into words. They make themselves manifest. They are what is mystical.’
A mystical look back spreads to the space of the Whitechapel Gallery at ‘the frisson of the togetherness’ by Portuguese artist Leonor Antunes. This installation invites viewers to navigate the gallery’s history without words but through the fully accessible, the common and even the residual, giving the latter a value. Weavings, geometric patterns, artisanal techniques and utilitarian designs are the material the artist manipulates in order to create an atmospheric narration led by its spatial disposition.
For this special commission, the artist has worked for years on collecting the history of the gallery and the area. For example, the title of the show comes from a description by architect Alison Smithson referring to how young people bring together elements of style to define their identity. The architect was among the participants of the landmark exhibition ‘This is Tomorrow’ held at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1956. Likewise, the installation is built with materials that conjure up the memory of the neighbourhood, its leather shops, its hemp rope factories, its stables. However, despite this apparent materiality, what the audience will experience here is an event, a mystical manifestation of time that disperses over the gallery space in different articulations. For instance, the visitor walks over a floor pattern made of linoleum and cork inspired by a drawing by artist Mary Martin (1907–69, UK) that unifies the area. Above it, groups of floor-based and hanging sculptures coexist with rope-built partitions suspended from floor to ceiling. All this is illuminated by lights designed by the artist, creating a scene where all the elements and the space have a relevance.
This invitation to experience time through space and material generates a dialogue with the audience. One can navigate the floor pattern, see through the rope walls and smell the leather sculptures. This performs an exchange of information that occurs in another area of our perception and gives the visitor a chance to grasp its meaning in an unsystematic manner; more anarchic, more precarious. This learning exchange also pays tribute to the work of two overlooked architects and designers: Martin and Lucia Nogueira (1950–98, Brazil). By showcasing their work and integrating it in the installation, Antunes questions the rhetoric of architecture, moving away from the grandiloquent gesture characteristic of the modernist movement. Antunes underpins here the vernacular as a legitimate approach to state reality and reinvigorates characters normally relegated to the margins of the canonical discourse. By doing so, she questions the modernist paradigm and gives it a different perspective that reflects on architecture but also expands to space, to measurement, to proportion. She does it with a subtle gesture that exists on the threshold between the second and third dimension, between reality and its representation. It is within this uncertain space that her work exists.
In an interview, John Cage characterised his long-time collaboration with Merce Cunningham by stating: ‘It’s less like an object and more like the weather. Because in an object, you can tell where the boundaries are. But in the weather, it’s impossible to say when something begins or ends.’ ‘the frisson of the togetherness’ reminds me of this wise sentence when experiencing it. For me, this show is about boundaries and how to run through them. Antunes conjures up here a ceremony for which other places and other times are invoked. It is a ceremony with no words but with a ritual performed by its objects and by all that occurs in their in-betweenness. This, like the weather, is ephemeral and like the mystical, is invisible but here together with us.