Blind Light- get them involved

The best art show I went to last year was the exhibit “Underground Surrealism” at the Hayward Gallery on London’s South Bank. Check out the view I had last year here.

Assembled and currated with care and insight it was a show that was more than merely a collection of interesting works of art, but a compelling and thought-provoking exploration of a world of ideas and a moment in art history.

Given how much more compelling that show was than anything I’ve seen at the Tate Modern since Matisse Picasso, or anywhere else for that matter in quite a while, I wasn’t surprised to hear that this summer’s show at the Hayward had become a huge hit, the most successful show in the gallery’s entire history. Someone at the Hayward is doing something right.

This year’s show, “Antony Gormley: Blind Light” is a major retrospective on the work of British sculptor Antony Gormley. The change in focus from an entire creative epoch to the life’s work of one man represents a huge change of emphasis, and yet, literally, there is so much at work in this exhibit that the gallery alone cannot contain the entire show.

As one approaches the South Bank Centre, one becomes aware of solitary human figures on the tops of buildings, along the bridges and across the river. It is as if the entire area is haunted by these strangely enigmatic forms. This is an installation called Event Horizon, which spreads over much of the area around the South Bank on both sides of the Thames. Right away, one is engaged, even before you’ve entered the show. You’re asking questions, you’re seeking out information- how many figures are there? Are they all to the same scale? Are they all made from the same model (as a matter of fact, they’re all the artist himself. Doest that change the meaning of the installation?)”

Even with extended hours in this, its final week, tickets are scarce for this show. We arrived at 2:30 and got some of the last tickets available for all of that day (the show closed at 10 PM). It’s great to see this kind of demand for a show of works by a living artist, and it’s clear from a look around the courtyard that the show is attracting a mixture of art lovers and tourists, with quite a few kids around.

Once inside, the clear star attraction is “Blind Light,” with an extra 30 minute wait to enter. The idea seems blindingly obvious: Gormley has built a giant glass tank, filled it with clouds of dense water vapour and flooded the entire space with blinding bright light. Punters are both viewers and part of the exhibit- you go in and walk around (visibility is less than 2 feet) and become disoriented. There is light, but there are also elusive shapes, sometimes ghostly, sometimes close enough to register as ordinary faces. You may bump into the glass walls, in which case your own form becomes something observed by those in line outside until you disappear back into the fog.

What was remarkable and refreshing about “Blind Light” was the sense of play, even joy it brought out of those there. There was laughter, and yet there was a genuine effort to understand, to contemplate- passive viewing is replaced with active engagement. Interestingly, the many children present were some of the quickest to see the many possible metaphors. One young boy of about seven looked in from the outside at the ghostly shapes appearing and disappearing and said “mommy, it’s all the dead people in heaven.” Another said “the people look lonely when they disappear in the fog,” and so on.

The musician in me couldn’t help but want to look for ideas that could be taken to concerts. After all, Gormley’s work is doing exactly what we say we want classical music to do- engage, involve, challenge and awaken the audience. To me, most of the ways of doing this in classical music end up being trite and awkard, but is that the difference between presentation and content? Perhaps the lesson of this show is that we have to find answers in the content we present, not in how we present it.

In a certain sense, Gormley’s work is about as simple as it gets- his subject is the body, and we all have bodies. We can look at any of his pieces with a view to seeing echoes of ourselves in them, so even though his medium is basically rather abstract, there are pathways in. Where so much moderninst music can be alienating for listeners, Gormley’s ideas are instantly accessible, even though the language he works in is abstract. Perhaps too much so- time will tell if this is great art, but at least it is great for art.

c. 2007 Kenneth Woods

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About the author

American conductor, composer and cellist Kenneth Woods is Principal Conductor of the English Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the Colorado MahlerFest and cellist of the string trio Ensemble Epomeo. He records for the Avie, Somm, Nimbus, Signum, MSR and Toccata labels.

Learn about Kenneth at www.kennethwoods.net

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