The invisible something

One of William Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquies comes in the second act of the tragedy Macbeth, with the eponymous protagonist, manipulated by his wife’s duplicitous words, deliriously preparing himself to murder King Duncan.
“Is this a dagger which I see before me,” he says feverishly. “The handle toward my hand? Come, let me clutch thee. I have thee not, and yet I see thee still. Are thou not, fatal vision, sensible to feeling as to sight? Or art thou but a dagger of the mind, a false creation, proceeding from the heat-oppressed brain?”
Aside from being an interesting study on the harrowing effects of guilt, the passage highlights the manipulative power of the mind and how what we think we see can be entirely misleading. We can, by virtue of the mechanisms of our brain, see something that doesn’t exist. In Macbeth’s case, it’s his transgression into the murky world of immorality that induces the vision of a dagger. He cannot help but see it.
In an upcoming and ambitious new exhibition, the idea of the ungraspable is explored. Entitled Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957 – 2012, the Hayward Gallery’s summer show is literally about nothing, which is, as Macbeth would no doubt have conceded, a troubling feeling.
Comprised of work produced by artists over the last 50 years, including intriguing pieces by Andy Warhol, Yoko Ono, Jay Chung, Teresa Margolles, Tehching Hsieh and Maurizio Cattelan, this perceivably absent exhibition, thought to be the first of its kind by a major institution in the UK, exudes a certain sense of chutzpah.
Certainly, since modernism destroyed the orthodoxy of convention, art has never been bound by rules. After all, the very fact that some art confounds us is part of the joy and pain of this form of artistic expression. Wasn’t it the case that Susan Philipsz won the Turner Prize in 2010 for her “audio sculpture”? The idea, at face value, does beggar belief, but further investigation, as with anything, can always cast new light on what was once esoteric. Some things are not meant to be easy.
Needless to say, this show will be met with similar exasperation, the kind of frustration that is either brilliant or infuriating. However, with an £8 entry fee, visitors will, in all likelihood, be willing to explore the possibilities of the “annihilated something” and as such, whatever thoughts they are left with, have considered it an experience, if anything.
“I think visitors will find that there is plenty to see and experience in this exhibition of invisible art,” commented Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery. “From the amusing to the philosophical, you will be able to explore an invisible labyrinth that only materialises as you move around it, see an artwork that has been created by the artist staring at it for 1,000 hours, walk through an installation designed to evoke the afterlife, and be in the presence of Andy Warhol’s celebrity aura.”
Art isn’t about material objects, he added, it is about “setting alight our imagination”; the inference being that in many complex ways the actual object is a trigger, a means to an end. What is therefore important about art then is not the actual painting or sculpture, it’s the lingering impact of it that matters most. As such, when presented with nothing – though in the strictest sense this is a bit of a dupe given we have details like the artist who produced it – what are we left with?
“Many of the works in Invisible seek to direct our attention towards the unwritten rules and conventions that shape our understanding of art,” the gallery has stated. “Other works invoke invisibility to underscore the limits of our perceptual capacities or to emphasise the role of our imagination in responding to works of art. Some use invisibility as a metaphor that relates to the suppression of information or the political disappearance and marginalisation of social groups.”
In the cinematic interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, a composed study of the vicissitudes of life, of impossible love and existentialism, Benjamin Button, in one of his pondering moments, observes how our lives are defined by opportunities, “even the ones we missed”. Some may argue that it’s a pessimistic study, but if truth be told, it’s a simple truth we often wish away.
Life can often feel unrealistic and that’s what makes it a human experience. In a comparable way, this ethereal show comes to a similar conclusion. Absence can be an interesting thing. To see is to believe, as it were, and a leap of faith. Can anything truly be derived out of a white piece of paper that was gazed upon for 1,000 hours? Certum est, quia impossibile. It is certain because it is impossible.
Invisible: Art about the Unseen, 1957 – 2012 opens on June 12th at the Hayward Gallery.