He stares and nothing. Zilch. Nada. The plain piece of paper on the wall acquires nothing more then a cursed voodoo energy. ‘A Thousand Hours of Staring’ (1992 – 97) is a typical work by the American artist Tom Friedman. The framed piece of blank paper seems both futile and playful – a Sisyphus of the stationary. Friedman is represented by three works in ‘Invisible: Art about the Unseen’ at the Hayward Gallery and his work sets the tone for an exhibition that presents myriad variations on the blank canvas, empty room and plain piece of paper.
The exhibition starts with Yves Klein’s ‘Sensibility in the Raw Material State of Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility’ or ‘Voids’ as it has become known. Presented at Iris Clert gallery in 1958, it consists of an empty gallery painted entirely white. Klein subsequently sold off measurements of air to collectors in exchange for gold that was then thrown into the River Seine in exchange for the collector’s burnt receipt. The circuit of economic exchange from nothing to gold and back to nothing again articulated Klein’s wish to envisage a new society in a ‘non-material’ world. From a contemporary perspective the ability to make money from thin air recalls the erratic logic of financial markets and its metaphors of virtual liquidity sold on confidence.
History is littered with figures whose disappearing acts have only heightened their visibility. Value never truly dissipates, it just mutates; something turns into something else. Warhol, represented by his ‘Invisible Sculpture’ (1985) understood more than most that significance is amplified through absence. It is no coincidence that both Klein and Warhol were devout Catholics. Warhol’s presentation of an empty plinth invested with the ‘aura of the artist’ tasks the artist as a kind of demigod, with the ability to turn water into wine and then back into water. These types of games make ‘Invisible’ a playful exhibition, full of blind alleys and tricks of the mind.
The Welsh artist Bethan Huws has paid an actor to pose as a visitor; is the person next to me a tourist or an artwork? We become diffident, there is a pervasive sense of uncertainty in ‘Invisible,’ are we standing inside or outside the cursed area? Lets move slightly just in case. That uncertainty seems like a negotiation with history, if modernism was defined by its convictions then the art of the invisible seems altogether beset by self doubt. If Paul Klee took a line for a walk then the literal and metaphorical erasing of that line can be seen to negate that journey. Where a mark establishes a territory and asserts a position, withdrawal and invisibility can be seen as an investment in new speculative topologies.
Jeppe Hein’s ‘Invisible Labyrinth’ (2005) consists of a virtual maze, we find ourselves walking around an empty room with a head set buzzing every time we bump into a dead end. Recalling the mid-Nineties television programme Crystal Maze – Hein’s maze is a game without incentive or end, just a group of curious exhibition visitors walking in circles grimacing to ourselves. Without real paths we find ourselves quickly bumping into imaginary walls.
There is a persistent anxiety throughout the exhibition about the limitations of form to memorialize the past. The collective trauma of two world wars becomes a type of memory without form – uncertainty about how to move forward is made manifest in more permeable, contingent and perishable forms and ideas. Much of the early work in the exhibition was created in a period of post-war reflection, and Horst Hoheisel’s inverted monuments can be seen against blown out buildings that reflected the certainties of fascism. Song Dong’s diaries written in water and Jay Chung’s film shoot with everything sans video in the actual camera are two projects in the exhibition that verbalize more personal anxieties in response to forms of historical amnesia.
The invisibility trope is a particularly durable one; getting lost, dropping out and withdrawing can be seen as part of a wider wish to become invisible. As our bodies become umbilically linked to the smartphone and regulated by satellite navigation we dream of disconnecting. In an online world where our memories are stored in clouds and our thoughts tracked by cookies the invisible hold a particular allure, to become lookers without being seen.