In an international art market driven by high art and high profit, we see no rest from the gathering momentum of brand-artists such as Damien Hirst, fuelled by the clever P.R. of individuals like Charles Saatchi. Other, mostly dead artists are also increasingly being profited from. Take for example, Rothko's 1961 Orange, Red, Yellow, which recently sold at auction for a record-breaking $86.9m – yet another contributing factor for the art market growing faster than GDP.
The antithesis to this lies within the walls of the Hayward gallery. Invisible challenges not only our perception of objective and scientific truths in regards to what we can and cannot see, it also throws our concepts of monetary and materialistic conditioning into question.
The show opens with the father of invisible art, Yves Klein, whose passions lay in helping the viewer overcome the habitual act of personifying or architecturally placing works of art. His practice led to a ritualized sale of so-called 'zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility' where a buyer exchanged a quantity of solid gold for a receipt declaring the ownership of a non-existent space. However, if the buyer was willing to burn his receipt (the only material proof for his purchase), Klein would agree to throw away his gold payment into the Seine river in Paris (see above).
The buyer was given the choice to keep the receipt and remain attached to the material realm, or to claim freedom from it by destroying any attachment to an invisible possession. Here Klein offered the ownership of something truly eternal, as opposed to a piece of physical ephemerality. His work caused a stir – people could not and did not want to believe in anything more than a physical world. Despite this, he set the Invisible stage for artists worldwide, and this is their retrospective - 55 years of invisible art from 1957-2012.
A Fear of the unseen
Within the exhibition, I push aside the plastic dividing doors, entering Teresa Margoles's white, open space. I do not linger too much on the title Aire/Air, dated 2003. The left side corner comprises only of a water-fed air conditioning system, blowing out a cool steam. Unsure of how I should absorb the space, I take in a deep breath and pace around the small room. This is probably a follow up from a previous installation artwork, yet it seems to make no sense at all. Reluctantly, I give in, making my way slowly to the written description on the wall:
"Aire/Air, 2003...Installation consisting of two cooling systems filled with water that was used to wash the bodies of murder victims before autopsy...Dimensions variable...Courtesy the artist and galerie...[...]" I was clearly reading much faster than I was processing the words. Furious, distressed, utter repulsion took over this deceptively docile atmosphere – I blocked my nose with my fingers, held in my breath and ran out the room in an attempt to flush the particles of Mexico's drug trafficking fatalities out of my lungs. Right in this moment, I have confirmed any doubts: My fear of the unseen proves very real indeed.
Welcome to the most relevant art exhibition of the year
The early 20th century saw forward thinkers such as Rudolf Steiner and Albert Einstein opening up the scientific and spiritual dialogue concerning the integral role the invisible plays in the structure of everything we perceive. Around this time, Walter Benjamin began studying man's obsessive attachment to the physical world. He named cityscapes the dream-worlds of modernity, with commodity fetishism throwing humanity into a collective unconsciousness. Through man's modern mentality, arose the idea that he was able to immortalize himself through his possessions.
While most of us will scoff at the idea of invisible art forms, immediately dismissing them as yet another conceptual farce from the contemporary art world, I ask you to put down your weapons – after all, we are made up of the invisible, it holds us together; it is the air we breathe, the thoughts that we think. Some with a trained sensitivity claim to see it, some do not – regardless, Invisible focuses on that which is present and all around us, without it being visible to the human eye. Instead the viewer is forced to look within, exploring one's own trust in that which forms our surroundings, but which does not fall into the category of the immediately understandable.
A personal favourite of mine is the playful Writing Diary with Water by Chinese artist Song Dong, who as a young person was unable to afford the inks necessary to practice calligraphy. Since 1995, he has kept a private diary written in water on stone. Not only is this an example of Taoist concepts and meditative exercises, it is also more importantly, a diary capable of surpassing the traditional risk of exposure usually associated with hand-written diaries. Furthermore it is not a diary concerned with the ego, or the man made desire to forever be remembered. He beautifully states:
"After a while the stone slowly became a part of me. That means I could say anything to it. Although it is just a stone, it actually has become thicker day by day, with my own thoughts added on it."
The time is now
Crucially, this exhibition comes at a time when a particle-level understanding of our material world is developing, harmonizing the boundaries between scientific and spiritual worldviews. The synchronicity of the discovery of 'God particles' at the Cern Hadron Collider in Switzerland, with the release of Gaia Education's new book The Song of the Earth, combined with other worldwide developments is of no coincidence. Conceptual or representative, visible or invisible, this exhibition forms a crucial part in a dialogue teaching us a more acute understanding of our environment including the 'invisible glue' that holds it all together. I suggest you don't dismiss this exhibition for the lack of things to see, instead surrender to the idea that there is more to your environment than your eyes let you believe.
If I haven't convinced you, perhaps Klein's words may be of service:
"We absolutely must realize – and this is no exaggeration – that we are living in the atomic age, where all physical matter can vanish from one day to the next to surrender its place to what we can envision as the most abstract."
Invisible runs until 5 August 2012 at the Hayward Gallery, London.
Sebastian von Holstein is an art history graduate. He is currently working as a freelance artist consultant. His book on sustainable cultural issues in Havana, Cuba will be available in 2013.
Links: Hayward gallery link:
Hadron collider guardian article link: http://apps.facebook.com/theguardian/science/2012/jul/04/higgs-boson-cern-scientists-discover
STOP PRESS: 50% off tickets to 'Invisible: Art About the Unseen' at Hayward Gallery (offer ends Monday 16th July 2012).