I have spent at least an hour today queuing to experience art. Firstly, because I mistakenly got to the Hayward Gallery an hour before it opened, so I passed a peaceful 40 minutes in the National Theatre expresso bar watching a man stick lines of dots to the windows. This seemed to presage the second part of my day, at least in retrospect. There was a small line of people waiting at the door to the Hayward when we returned at 10:58am.
Then I queued because I waited in line twice to commune with pieces of art. The first of these was Richard Wilson’s 20:50. The work is so popular at the Hayward’s current show, ‘Space Shifters’, that the ticketing staff advised us to go straight to see it, before the queue built up. That they gave this advice to everyone entering the show possibly nullified its efficacy. None the less, we chose to follow it.
There was a queue of around twenty people on the first floor. We joined it. A series of tape barriers showed that the queue could be four times longer later in the day, when things get busier. Out on the roof garden a huge convex, blue tinted mirror by Anish Kapoor reflected the clouds. They never seemed to move while I looked at them. It was peaceful; the air was heavy with the odour of sump oil and anticipation. As we approached the work, laminated health and safety sheets were handed out. We needed to remove coats and bags (there was a pair of storage boxes, like those in theme parks, before rollercoasters). If we got vertigo, we should look out of the window, but definitely not grab the sides of the path into the work; the oil in 20:50 goes right to the top of its container; the edges curve in voluptuous surface tension.
I absolutely love this piece. I first saw it in the second incarnation of the Saatchi Gallery, at the former GLC County Hall building. There it reflected the Edwardian splendour of the top two-thirds of a high windowed and wood panelled room back to itself, darkly. The realisation that the surface is flawed, marred by tiny motes of dust, does not detract from its black splendour. How deep is it? You imagine it could engulf you. Surely the director of ‘Under the Skin’ must have visited it at some point and sublimated its darkness as a future image to use. The space at Hayward is truer to the first conception of this site-specific work, a white cube lit by a grid of skylights. On the far side of the room, the oil continues through an open doorway and out of sight. The path cut through the slightly more than waist deep pool of oil narrows as you reach the centre of the space. (Surely it’s only a few inches deep? Otherwise the weight would bring the building down.) Despite the queue, and the gallery assistant hovering, I felt awe. It is a rare man-made exemplifier of the sublime. I was sad to hear that Saatchi sold it to a Tasmanian museum in in 2015. Two versions can exist simultaneously, one there and one on loan. I wish the Tate had bought it. They could’ve filled the ground level of the Turbine Hall with it. Imagine it installed in the whale gallery of the Natural History Museum.
Later we went to Victoria Miro Gallery. Somehow I had managed to secure a timed ticket to see the Yayoi Kusama show. I’d originally had two but their website had crashed before they were processed. Kindly they allowed themselves to be persuaded to let my friend in too. We queued into the building and were handed dot-covered passes to the infinity room installation, ‘My Heart is Dancing into the Universe’; these were also laminated. We queued up some stairs. The top floor of the gallery is a reclaimed industrial space with grey concrete and exposed beams, supported by an iron girder. We agreed that it was like queuing for something at a squat party. It was a long queue, and we had a lot of time to talk.
I first came across Kusama at the start of the new millennia, at a big Serpentine retrospective, her first in the UK. She’s one of those artists who fascinates through living her art as much as making work, like Kahlo or Warhol. Her New York happenings, her now self-imposed seclusion in an institution; the way that she chooses to embrace her overwhelming hallucinations, covering her work (and her costumes) with a riot of seething dots, multi-coloured or black on crimson or primary yellow, undulating with the forms they engulf. The Serpentine show also had an infinity room (possibly a box rather than a room; I remember something smaller). Mobile phones didn’t have cameras back then, so no one was taking selfies.
When we reached the threshold of the infinity room at Victoria Miro we were shown a plan of the L-shaped space. We must follow the path, staying within the low barriers that delineated it. Rather facetiously (or hopefully) I asked if anyone had strayed off the path and become lost in infinity. No, but apparently a few people had blundered into the installation.
Inside it was a fairyland of black paper lantern spheres suspended in darkness. Each one was patterned with large dots that glowed through a range of colours, pink into purple or yellow into green. The colour changes were gradual. There seemed to be a whole universe of them falling away from us. We gawped and took some photographs (including, I’m afraid, the now obligatory ‘art selfie’). Seemingly seconds later the gallery assistant told us it was time to move on. We had to leave so the next person or pair could be entranced by it. Later I realised that another highlight of the Hayward show, the installation ‘Narcissus Garden’ was also by Kusama.
It was impossible for many people to get tickets to see the Kusama show, which is a pity. I hope she gets another UK retrospective soon, it’s been eighteen years since the last one and she turns ninety next year, still prolifically designing large scale sculptures and painting dazzlingly intricate, vivid canvases, examples of both of which were on show at the Miro. The Hayward show is well worth a visit; there are many fantastic pieces there, and they interact wonderfully. Perhaps queuing for these works intensified them; we live in an age of instantaneous gratification, and the novelty of waiting added to the experience. I would have liked to have longer alone with both works, without the pressure of a queue behind me, but you can’t have everything.
Space Shifters was at the Hayward Gallery, South Bank and closed 6th January 2019
Yayoi Kusama; The Moving Moment I Went to the Universe was at Victoria Miro, Wharf Road, closed 21st December.