Squeezed for time, I barely had 5 minutes to spend at Antony Gormley’s recent opening at Sean Kelly before I had to catch a train downtown. But they were some of the most memorable 5 minutes I can–well, remember.
The guy who really turned me on to Gormley is W.J.T. Mitchell, easily my favorite contemporary visual theorist. His essay, “What Sculpture Wants,” is a brilliant meditation on sculpture in general and Gormley’s work in particular. One of Mitchell’s principle points is that sculpture necessarily risks being either too intrusive (an impediment to regular life, an unbearable eyesore) or not assertive enough (a monument that becomes indistinguishable from the rest of the landscape). Sculpture, he concludes, wants both to be a place–to have its own identity as a location–and a place to be, or a place where a sculpture feels both necessary and appropriate.
Funny, then, that the highlight of Gormley’s new show (in which he has several works) IS a place. The work, entitled Blind Light, is a glass-walled room-within-a-room completely filled with fog. Visibility is limited to two feet. When you walk into Blind Light, your entire visual field goes blank. Despite the fact that the gallery was crowded, I barely saw people at all. The only gauge of space in the room was the extent to which other people had color–at around two feet, they were dim grey shapes, then they became dark; once they were close enough that you might run into them, you could see the color of their skin and clothing. It’s easy to bump into the glass surrounding the room without seeing it.
There’s something childishly thrilling about Gormley’s exhibit. It feels like something you might find at a particularly quirky amusement park. But it’s loaded with ideas, many related to visual culture.
On a very simple level, I liked the fact that Gormley’s opening turned traditional openings on their head. Openings are as much about socializing, seeing and being seen, as about the art itself. Blind Light makes seeing and being seen next to impossible.
Maybe the coolest thing about Blind Light is the way it handles itself so allegorically without providing any easy answers regarding its purpose. Walking through the work–or even just hearing the title–conjures up all sorts of metaphors about blindness and sight, ignorance and knowledge, etc. There’s a very clear allusion to traditional notions of spirituality in the work (”go into the light”). But the work is more problematic than that. If walking into the bright white fog at first feels like some kind of entrance into the afterlife, the narrow hallway that surrounds the glass room changes things. From the hallway, it’s possible to watch people around the edges of the room, stumbling blindly (if giddily) into the walls and into each other. The hallway left me feeling like a sort of omniscient spectator, otherworldly in an entirely different sense from the interior of the work.
Blind Light is definitely a place, then–a place in which viewers can relish their inability to completely place themselves. But, following Mitchell’s criterion, does it have a place? Although the exhibition moves (it used to be at The Hayward in Britain), I’d tentatively volunteer a “yes.” Blind Light’s place is the gallery, a space that’s experimental enough to allow it to exist (albeit with a warning sign about the potentially dangerous and disorienting conditions inside) but serious enough to discourage horseplay and promote the kind of thoughtfulness that this piece deserves.