Featuring work from over twenty artists, this final show of the Hayward’s 50th season hopes to alter your perception of space, sometimes dramatically, sometimes subtly. But, as objects in a rear-view mirror may in fact be larger than they appear, the reflective experience can be diminutive. Absorbing, yes. Engaging, yes. But shallow. Just ask Narcissus.
The claims this exhibition makes are bold ones. If it succeeds, it does so only by turns. One thing it proves beyond doubt, however, is that people will never tire of the alchemy, the magic, the false-depths of mirrors. We’ll never tire of being shown ourselves.
One of the best depictions of the silliness and profundity of mirrors is the famous scene from the Marx Brothers’ ‘Duck Soup’ (1933). Harpo, dressed up as his brother Groucho, runs through a mirror, smashing it to pieces. When a grouchy Groucho arrives to scold him, Harpo has no choice but to mimic his brother’s actions to pretend the mirror is still there. Of course, the routine becomes impossibly complex, jazzy, insane. Groucho’s disbelief is everyone’s disbelief: is that really what I look like when I laugh? Walk? Dance? It always both is and isn’t.
Presumably to avoid a situation like Harpo’s mirror-smashing, I’m asked out-loud by a doorman to “please refrain from touching any of the artworks” as I enter. Visitors are greeted by themselves, redoubled in the mirrored surfaces of Anish Kapoor’s ‘Non-Object (Door)’ (2008), one of Josiah McElheny’s ‘Interactive Abstract Bodies’ (2012), and the enormous, slowly revolving, windmill-mirror of Jeppe Hein’s ‘360˚ Illusion V’ (2018).
Critic Michael Fried suggested that modern art “defeat or suspend its own objecthood” to open up new kinds of thought. ‘Non-Object (Door)’ tries to do just this. It’s a column made of a mirror flexed back on itself through a complete circle, more like ‘a glitch in space’ than ‘a thing’, a portal rather than a sculpture. The problem is that it risks being too physical a trick, too much a hall-of-mirrors sideshow, to disappear completely.
As vast and impressive as it is, the bulky machine of Jeppe Hein’s revolving sculpture seems to pose more logistical problems than existential ones. Likewise, the thinking behind McElheny’s piece is there like a child’s working out in the margins, but with the solution left blank. Performers wear the mirrors and glide round the gallery reflecting viewers, rooms, ceilings to no clear purpose. It’s lo-fi stuff, shifting through space rather than ‘spaceshifting’, the piece itself moving rather than moving you.
Alicja Kwade’s ‘WeltenLinie’ (2017), on the other hand, is a neat apparatus of tricksy world-building. Walking through its various frames and rocks is like being inside a half-loaded video-game landscape. Somehow, maddeningly, every stone magically lines up perfectly with some differently coloured counterpart of itself, reflected from somewhere else in the room. It’s hard to believe, and even harder to explain. ‘Weltenlinie’ means ‘world line’, a concept described first by Einstein’s teacher, Hermann Minkowski. An object’s world line is its path through space-time. Kwade calls attention to your strange reflected passage through a four-dimensional universe.
Helen Pashgian’s acrylic totems and spheres hold light within them, whilst Larry Bell’s screens remove you from light by degrees. Visitors eye each other through Fred Eversley’s ‘Parabolic Lens’, toying with doubleness and immediacy. “If you go back that way, there’s actually two of you, and I can see the ‘real’ you!”, I overhear one couple saying to one another.
The exhibition moves upstairs by way of Monika Sosnowska’s ‘Handrail’ (2016-18), which you are fooled into following up the steps until it buckles and snakes onto one of the gallery walls.
When Groucho starts dancing manically, boggling his eyes and swinging his arms, running back and forth towards the ‘mirror’ and away, Harpo matches him exactly. It’s a kind of horror-humour, especially because Harpo is the brother who would normally act so slapstick. Groucho’s enlightenment reserve slips into animalism when confronted with the exacting silence on the other side of the screen. Like Melville’s Bartleby repeating ‘I would prefer not to’ or Poe’s Raven’s ‘nevermore’, the mirror is unyielding in its repetition. We can never catch it out, not through guile nor attrition. The only choice is to either turn our backs or fall in love. Either one seems like madness. If there’s a piece of modern art in existence that exemplifies and occupies this mad, impossible choice, it’s the final piece in this exhibition: Richard Wilson’s ‘20:50’ (1987).
First installed at Matt’s Gallery in London, and quickly acquired by Charles Saatchi, ‘20:50’ has infuriated and enthralled enough to achieve infamy. Like Carl Andre’s bricks or Martin Creed’s light going on and off or even Duchamp’s readymades, Wilson’s piece is so physically simple and so psychically open-ended that it can incite actual hatred. Especially when you have to queue for an hour to see it, which it turns out I do. It’s just a room filled waist-high with oil.
Because of the queue behind me, I’m allowed only around 45 seconds to walk along the iron gangway until I’m completely surrounded by the sump-oil, so flat and reflective that it doubles the universe.
The sheer and absolute fact of it is ridiculous. Huge and silent. Implacable. Un-placeable. Stupid. I’m reminded of how Douglas Adams describes the spaceships hovering over Earth before blowing it up at the start of ‘The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy’ (1979): “The ships hung in the sky in much the same way that bricks don’t”. Wilson’s work fills the room in much the same way that oil doesn’t.
I can’t help but also think of Tom Hardy’s face half-consumed by black liquid on the poster for ‘Venom’ (2018), which I saw on the side of a bus on the way to the gallery.
Out on the gangway, you feel like you’re dangling above the opposite of the sky. As open and endless as air, but thick. Absolutely ‘there’. Materiality and your perception of materiality cleave impossibly, and you experience something like the exact opposite of vertigo.
In 2003, Wilson himself wrote in the Guardian about the first exhibition of his work. After describing the logistics of its installation, he recalls the first time he stepped back and looked at the thing. “And then we looked at it and we were really astounded. We thought it would be good - but it was incredible.” The old-testament language here – “and He saw that it was Good” – is not hyperbolic. It really is that primal. You really do feel like you’re on some pre-historic, pre-spatial precipice, like time has collided with itself.
I look into the oil-mirror at my Harpo-self, my Venom-self. It is as if, in the words of D.H. Lawrence, “The end cracks open with the beginning”, and you are somehow here at the end, and also at the start, “Rosy, tender, glittering within the fissure”.