‘2 x 2 x 2 x 2’ White Cube Bermondsey’s current exhibition of Robert Irwin, mixes contemporary light installations with some of the original sixties works that made his name.
Arctic in its whiteness, the first room contains two tall, slender columns made of see-through acrylic conceived by the artist in 1969. ‘Plastic’, said Roland Barthes, ‘is in essence the stuff of alchemy ... the magical operation par excellence’. Irwin gives us the material at its most slippery. Due to its transparency, to make a circle around the columns is to see them vanish, then return, then vanish again, like a dog chasing its tail. Then, the plastic patinas might throw up a reflection of something or a slight distortion of what’s behind. Plastic came into the twentieth century like something from another planet, a material capable of taking on any form. Irwin rejoices in this alien nature, producing a pair of plastic megaliths at neck-craning height around which we can do little but circle and wonder.
Irwin was born in 1928 in Long Beach, Southern California, a place of sunlight, ocean and oil. A major Ford production plant was built there in the 1929 and ran until 1958, providing a focal point for the area’s industry. Irwin was obsessed with cars and his biographer Lawrence Wechsler remembers countless journeys driving around the city in search of the finest soda stream – Irwin is strangely passionate about having his Coca-Cola perfectly carbonated. A strong feature of their trips would have been the abundance of neon signage lighting up the roadside, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. In White Cube’s North Galleries, Irwin has introduced tubes of coloured glass, echoes of those fluorescent advertisements but paired down and stripped of commercial connotation.
When art critics discuss fellow light artist Dan Flavin’s works, terms like a ‘religion of perception’ or ‘religious luminosity’ are repeatedly used, as are allusions to the stained glass of gothic cathedrals. It is difficult not to apply this reading to Irwin’s collections of strip lights too, each decorated with a choice of simple coloured gels. In conjunction with the Bermondsey space’s airy aesthetic, which hovers somewhere between post-Reformation church interior (as from a Pieter Saenredam painting) and ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’, these works elicit a strong Gregorian fervour, silencing all onlookers.
Also in the North Galleries, a diptych of reflective black panes intensifies the ascetic mood. Titled ‘Black Painting’ after Kazimir Malevich’s ‘Black Square’ of 1913, this is a clear reference to an artistic lineage. The suprematist painter’s early twentieth century puritanical formalism has been a major influence on Irwin and in this work he pays homage to the Russian modernist.
In his own words, Irwin’s aim is to ‘[turn] people on to the world’ with his art, specifically to ‘the human capacity, the human responsibility, for perception’. One of the pioneers of installation art, he initially prohibited all photographic documentation of his works. His conviction was that they required direct, rather than vicarious, experience. Standing in his most recent show, it is impossible not to feel that he was right. There is no way these works can be adequately photographed. As more and more art is produced simply to look good on a web browser, Irwin’s show is here to remind us that this superficial way of seeing fails to properly fulfil our human responsibility for perception.