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It might seem a bit cheap to moan about what’s not in an art exhibition devoted to invisibility, but the current exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, Invisible: Art about the unseen 1957-2012, is a bit, well, lacking.  This is not because the works it contains and/or alludes to are in any way weak – far from it – but because the exhibition itself does so little with the fine examples of nothingness and absence it contains.

Although there have been some predictable oohs and aahs about the boldness of an empty exhibition, such things have, of course, been around for a long time.  Invisible is not just another empty gallery though, it is a retrospective of empty galleries and artworks.  Such an enterprise is certainly worthwhile, emptiness and absence having been a feature of the visual arts for a very long time, particularly for post-war contemporary artists such as those included here.  But this is not the first such retrospective, following in the wake of the ‘Voids: a Retrospective’ exhibition co-hosted by Centres Pompidou in both Paris and Metz and by the Kunstahalle Bern in 2009.  Surprisingly, perhaps, this huge and highly significant retrospective is not mentioned anywhere in the Hayward exhibition or catalogue.  This is all the more surprising given that the catalogue essay by Ralph Rugoff is very similar to the one he wrote for the Pompidou/Kunsthalle in 2009 which itself was reproduced from his exhibition A Brief History of Invisible Art at the CCA Wattis Institute in 2005-6.  I raise this issue not just because it suggests a puzzling coyness in referencing (and I’m a pedantic academic and it matters, so there), but because it begs the question of why this exhibition doesn’t go beyond those that have come before.  Indeed it does far less, both in terms of the (non-) objects it covers and in terms of the analysis it provides than the Pompidou/Kunsthalle show.

There may be perfectly good practical reasons for this, of course, to do with the seasonality of art exhibitions, the gallery itself and so forth.  That said, this exhibition runs through the heart of the tourist season in a year when the Olympic hordes are in town and there is a ‘cultural olympiad’ going on.  Indeed, during my visit the South Bank Centre was heaving with people – despite the weather – but the Hayward itself was more or less empty of visitors.   So what’s wrong with it?  There are several interlinked problems.

First, the exhibition is, frankly, a bit of a mess.  Like many retrospectives it groups disparate objects, artifacts and events together because they share a particular feature – in this case ‘invisibility’.  Quite apart from the fact that they are not all invisible (of which more below), many of the works here were not produced with invisibility as their primary motive or, if they were, for very different reasons.  To take three very contrasting pieces as illustration, its hard to see what Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth and Horst Hoheisel’s Aschrottbrunnen and Jochen Gerz’ 2146 Steine – Mahnmal gegen Rassismus monuments have in common at all.  The former is undoubtedly fun – I spent a very happy half hour or so wandering round one of the Hayward’s main galleries wearing a strange headset that vibrated whenever I hit one of Hein’s invisible walls – but not much more than that.  The latter two – represented by six easily overlooked photographs in a corridor – are poignant and (in the best sense) serious monuments to the effects of fascism, murder and racism.  All three may make a feature of absence and invisibility, but for such different reasons and with such different purposes that to group them together in this way – as though their ironic engagement with the non-visual was the main event – seems trite at best.  Beyond that, the fact that so many artists engage with nothingness as a way of commenting on the highly repressive regimes in which they live gets barely a mention here.

Second, as suggested above, not all of these works are invisible.  Certainly they all play around with our visual expectations of art works and disrupt them in various ways to raise questions over commodification, visual culture, the nature of the artist and of art itself and so on, but all are manifestly ‘exhibitable’.  Even where they are not, because the artists have worked hard to try and ensure that they are not, the exhibition does it anyway.  So, we have drawings and photographs of holes in the ground, pictures of landscapes in which invisible things happened, air-conditioning units, an energy field generator (which was hidden in Robert Barry’s original, but is now an ‘objet d’art’), etc.  In other words this is a retrospective of empty art works that manages to be just like any other connoisseurial, object-related, market driven art show.  Indeed one almost weeps for those of these artists who expended so much effort not to be drawn into this kind of art-historical/sale-room culture, only to find themselves represented by bits of stuff that were entirely incidental to complex, long-term performances.  Indeed, one of the ironies of this particular show (unlike its Pompidou/Kunsthalle predecessors whose catalogue gave them due consideration) is that those artists who managed to achieve true invisibility and ephemerality are not represented at all.

Third, the curators clearly expect the show to stand for itself, and in so doing reproduce (to me) the worst of high modernity’s exclusionary self-referentialism.  The various works included are described and contextualized by small didactic panels, though these are minimal.  They are also printed on the walls in very faint type (so as not to disrupt the whole ‘emptiness’ schtick, presumably), which makes them irritatingly hard to read.  Quite what anyone with any degree of visual impairment is supposed to do was not at all clear.  The catalogue contains more information but, aside from Rugoff’s essay, is little more than a biographical list of the artists.  There is, in other words, very little in the way of thematic contextualization, analysis or engagement for a public who might not have the necessary art-historical or philosophical literature to hand to make sense of it all for themselves.  The danger is that, except for the cognoscenti and the critics, this very important aspect of modern and contemporary art and culture is going to come across as just a bit self-satisfied.  That Rugoff’s essay should be entitled ‘How to look at invisible art’ to me simply underscores the misplaced didacticism of the whole thing.

Fourth,  if you do happen to have the relevant literatures to hand, confining the show to Yves Klein and beyond and, indeed, to ‘art’ (i.e. curatorially-defined, comfortably Art-Historical, visual, etc.) simply makes no sense at all – at least no sense to anyone outside the narrow confines of the ‘modern’ art world that is.  Not only does the question of the representation of absence have a very long and fascinating history indeed – achieving perhaps its highest expression in the aesthetic and political turmoil of the late-middle ages and early Renaissance – but it also has an urgent contemporary relevance far beyond the art world.  In a world dominated by increasingly ephemeral and distanciated facts and objects – digital media, virtual spaces, imaginary money, and so on – how we engage with the absent, the invisible and the fleeting really matters to all of us.  Yet none of that is present here because this is ultimately an exhibition about the limited art of exhibiting and, ironically, nothing much else.

The result is a missed opportunity.  There are only three events associated with the show (gallery tours by the curators) and little or no outreach or engagement activities and nothing to draw the teeming public outside into the themes and concepts underpinning the objects in the show (if not the show itself).  It was particularly noticeable, for example, that the upper storeys of the Hayward were shut off – they were not part of the exhibition of invisibility.  This seems extraordinary given that that the Hayward is simultaneously playing host to the  ‘Wide Open School’ which consists of all sorts of interesting (and free) activities.  Now, either the curators are doing something very clever here – keeping half the gallery really empty whilst the rest of it is full of nothing that isn’t really nothing – or they’ve missed a trick; which would be to have filled all that ‘empty’ space with people doing, playing with, exploring and otherwise enjoying nothing.  That would have been something worth doing.