Fog and a hanging ball

October 21, 2011

I’ve been buzzing around quite a few galleries recently, two shows that I went to on the same day that couldn’t have been more different in medium, but rather similar in concerns were ‘Zee’ at FACT Gallery and the Magritte exhibition at Tate Liverpool.

‘Zee’ by Kurt Hentschlager at Liverpool’s FACT Gallery was an experience to remember. Essentially a room filled to the brim with fog you might think it a claustrophobic piece of work, but this was not the case for me anyway. Guided into the room in groups of no more than 12, participants must grasp hold of a tight red rope to give some sort of point of reference for the first few steps into the fog and towards a bright white light, then when comfortable, let go of the rope and wander tentatively around the room. A low rumbling of sound and a mixture of strobe and pulse lights of different patterns and swathes of colour envelop even more intensely than the fog itself, it is merely the conduit for the light.

The first time I went in with friends, we were astonished at the experience. We giggled and exclaimed how wonderful it was, there was a real sense of joie de vivre and I certainly felt the kind of giddy excitement I did as a child, when everything is new and emotions are expressed regardless of the social situation.  The second time I entered the space with more composure, ready to take the experience but more actively analyse it. As the work progressed I found myself smiling, unaware of whether my eyes were open or closed (the strobes work through eyelids), I felt that as I could see nothing else but the light and the occasional phantom shadow, that I was almost not there. During some of the more intense light patterns it occurred to me that if death is no more than a dissipation of energy back into the world, then this was something akin to what I believe death to be. I don’t mean to sound morbid, in fact quite the opposite, feeling as if on the cusp of existing and not existing was quite liberating and not at all scary. When asked whether I preferred the first or the second experience best, I think the first; because even though the second experience gave a certain epiphany, the first brought me back to existing in the same way that a child exists. A child takes in everything as new, just enjoying the experience and reacting directly through laughter and excitement.

Magritte 'The Secret Life'

Magritte 'The Secret Life'

A different medium, but for me, with similar concerns, was the excellent Magritte painting exhibition at Liverpool Tate. The exhibition was a comprehensive education in Magritte’s life and progression through the styles and concerns of his work, which should be credited to the curators, Christoph Grunenberg and Darren Pih, for their insightful and thoughtful layout of the work.

The walls were coloured grey/blue and particularly in the first room named ‘The Surreal Encounter’ the lighting was muted to the extent that it gave the impression of standing in one of his paintings, yet viewing them at the same time. This is a clever curatorial decision as many of his works play with the boundary of the painting, what is real and what is not.

From this large exhibition I could go on about so many of the paintings, but in an attempt at brevity I shall just note the piece I found most personally impacting after a day of considering the existence of things; this was ‘The Secret Life’ 1928 (pictured above). I stood in front of this painting for quite a while, I found the ball hanging in mid-air in this darkened bare room quite innocuous. This spherical ‘thing’ appears to be in a state of being/existing in this space whether we are there to view it or not. I looked at this painting in situ with many people around me, yet it felt as if it was very much alone and I had intruded on its quiet existence, a bit like coming across a ghost. Perhaps this painting is a visual version of the philosophical conundrum ‘if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?’ it is a question of perception and existence.

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