Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Top Ten Pieces Of Art: 1 - '20:50' by Richard Wilson

Spoiler Alert: 20:50 (original installation, 1987) by Richard Wilson,  is an experiential work of art and relies, at least in part, on replacing an initial perception with another one. If you are unfamiliar with this piece of work or hope to have an ‘unsullied’ primary experience, please be aware that this short personal critique gives away key aspects that will irrevocably alter your engagement with it.

In his book about the artist, Simon Morrissey described this piece as having a chameleon effect, and Wilson himself has referred to it as being like a conjurer’s illusion. I recall my first experience with this installation very clearly. This is another work that I enjoyed before I was teaching any subjects related to art and so I approached it with an open mind and with no structured critical preconceptions, and I was rewarded with a good old fashioned ‘wow’ moment…

It was the early 1990s when I saw 20:50 at the Saatchi’s Boundary Road gallery, which was more like an art warehouse and had been converted from a huge paint factory. I had made the journey there with two very special friends: my brother, and a fellow writer-artist who later became my wife. We had seen lots of art, some that was needlessly ‘boundary’ pushing, some that was spectacularly original. There was a room that was so cold that your breath turned to ice dust in the air in front of you and glittered with crystalline rainbows, there was sculpture made from a column of cloud, there was a self-portrait bust made from frozen blood, and towards the end of our tour, through an unremarkable doorway, we entered a very remarkable room.

As we entered the room, the gallery attendant cryptically advised us not to touch the sides. We found ourselves walking along a metal, industrial sort of catwalk that appeared to be suspended in a large clinical warehouse-type space that seemed to have perfect horizontal symmetry. The skylights above were mirrored down below and the room had an airy feeling of space and emptiness... but something was not quite right. It felt like walking into an etching by MC Escher. It looked believable, but yet not quite real. Then I noticed a fine, gossamer-like network of what I took to be filaments catching the light, spreading from the edge of the ‘catwalk’ to the walls. I deduced that it must be the surface of a mirror, though it was almost invisible.

It was about this moment that the gallery attendant approached us and theatrically twisted a piece of white paper towel. He then dipped the tip of this paper towel into the reflective surface and raised it, black and glossy and dripping with… oil. Then the smell that had, of course, been present throughout – a smell of late night garage forecourts and their prismatic puddles – revealed itself strongly to the senses and my brain did a wonderful back-flip: It seemed that instead of being suspended in a white airy space, we were actually waist deep in thick viscous oil that, visually, filled half of that space.

Richard Wilson had taken a potentially hazardous, environment threatening waste product and made an elegant installation of beauty and revelation. All art deals with perception, this art played with it and then turned it on its head. It did not matter if the viewer knew about art, or even thought it was art – the effect was there and directly engaged each individual, man woman and child. In some ways, 20:50 reminds me of the monochrome paintings of Malevich in that it is minimalistic, using only black (oil) and white (gallery walls) for this installation (it has been reconstructed in various environments since) and like Suprematist paintings it is intended to elicit a pure response and does not have any given meaning beyond.

So 20:50 makes it to the number one spot in my top ten pieces of art for a number of reasons, but mainly because of that moment of primary experience when my mental pancake was flipped. A moment at the end of a challenging and entertaining show, shared with two very important people in my life when we were emphatically instructed that art could change the way you see the world and the world may not always be quite what it appears to be. Theory and intellectualising could not alter or challenge the effect, the response was experiential, emotional, undeniable – like most profound moments in life.

That attendant must have enjoyed their job.

You can take a look at the  Saatchi Gallery website  ...

This work also features in the book Evolution of Western Art

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