The announcement by the Hayward Gallery that their new show would consist of invisible artworks couldn’t have brought more cynicism and heckling from the backbenches. Had the art world finally done the proverbial and (literally) eaten itself? Don’t worry - the director of the Hayward and curator of the show, Ralph Rugoff, has brought considerably more to it than meets the eye. “But that’s not hard,” you say? Forget the hype, this makes for a seriously enjoyable, laugh out loud exhibition, with some wonderfully thought provoking pieces. Who could have foreseen that?
On first entering the space you may be forgiven for thinking the Hayward is between shows; even the information signs are obscured, printed on transparent glass or blended into the walls. The show begins back in the days of Yves Klein (the father of the invisible, perhaps?) when people believed in art, so much so they bought into a room he infused with his ‘sensibility’: a God-given right to appreciate art. Perhaps more significant were his sketches of air architecture: furniture made from strategically placed air pockets to act as a solid structure. Onwards, the show exhibits over 50 pieces by artists who have dealt with the invisible or the absent. The exhibition covers works from 1957 to the present, and proves that this theme has been a sticking point for well over half a decade.
It may not be a new concept, but the show traces how motives have certainly changed. The Klein and Warhol pieces in the exhibition concern themselves with the cult of the artist and feel a bit old fashioned in contrast to other more interesting ideas. Maurizio Cattelan’s untitled police report from 1991 catalogues a stolen piece of invisible artwork, showing the absurdity of bureaucracy and taking a knowing dig at what artists can get away with.
Many of the pieces inevitably deal with death and loss such as Claus Oldenburg’s Memorial to Kennedy. I don’t think I have been moved so much since I saw the Berlin memorial to the burning of the books: a tiny glass window in the centre of the square revealing a white underground room of empty shelves. Take something away, and its value will be revealed, often too late. Claus Oldenburg’s memorial to Kennedy, no doubt the inspiration for the Berlin memorial, resembles just this: a memorial that only exists under the earth with a tiny hole by which to view it, echoing the void left by the loss of something so important. Other works along this theme include Teresa Margolles’ Air. This piece involves two cooling systems that fill a room with a fine mist, the water taken from a mortuary in Mexico.
Despite dealing with weighty concepts, the exhibition manages to strike a balance between dense philosophy and humour, making the show surprisingly accessible. Although art collective Art and Language may marginalise some with their semantic theory in The Air Conditioning Show, works such as Tom Freidman’s cursed plinth adds humour to the mix. The exhibition climaxes on a high with an audience participatory hidden maze that must be navigated having only briefly glanced at a map.
The exhibition was in danger of being a bit of one-liner, but thankfully this void is filled to the rafters with concepts and ideas. It may have sounded like a brave act for the Hayward - an art exhibition with nothing to see - but these bold artists that Rugoff has employed show that there is far more to art than a picture on the wall. Although that's not a new idea, it feels good to have it reaffirmed so succinctly.