Tagged along this weekend on one of Paul Carey-Kent’s art walks – which are always exhaustive and exhausting (but in a good way) – on this occasion around some of the West End galleries. Paul’s encyclopaedic knowledge of contemporary art and his personal Baedeker of London galleries ensure that his walks are full of surprises; there are always new artists to discover and secret galleries, often hole-in-the-wall locations without a sign or a window to the street, like the speakeasies of old.
I especially want to talk about two shows we visited which are currently on at Hauser & Wirth’s two London outposts, and which focus (very differently) on space. As readers of this blog are no doubt aware, I am a huge fan of Gaston Bachelard, whose theories of how to consider space in poetry, how to “read” a room, both emotionally and contextually, have influenced my ideas of how a poem should occupy the space of the page. I am currently working on a sequence of ‘concrete’ poems to accompany a new sequence of woodcuts by Linda Karshan; it’s the first time I have consciously tried to work the poem into a predetermined shape (which has been dictated by the size and scale of the woodcuts) so this issue is very much in my mind at the moment.
Phyllida Barlow’s sculptures occupy the whole of H&W’s Piccadilly site. I should mention that the building is one of my favourite art spaces in London because it was once the headquarters for a bank, and so it retains the ornate wood panelling, the elaborate plaster ceilings, and in the basement, the actual vault. It follows Bachelard’s theory that certain spaces retain their past, a “geometry of echoes”, as he puts it. There is something austere and old-fashioned about the space that effects the work that is shown there. When you walk through the door of the gallery, you are immediately confronted by a series of tall structures: styrofoam blocks covered with colourful fabrics, which give the impression of square flags, teetering on wooden stilts sunk into blobs of concrete. Strange totemic towers, which are formal (and therefore match the formality of their setting) yet appear to be constructed from junk (Barlow is famous for recycling her materials, using bits of other sculptures she has scrapped to make new ones). They look like objects which might have had some function or meaning, now lost in the passage of time. I found these structures moving; perhaps because they appear handmade, a bit precarious, as if they might topple any minute. I felt small surrounded by them; they crowded me, it was hard to navigate around them. Barlow talks about ‘sensations of physicality’, an effort to capture the urban experience ‘like something wild or feral.’ And all contained in that slightly stuffy , officious space. The other piece that really made an impression on me was in the (scary) basement, a grouping of plywood and cement hoops, like a crowd huddled in the doorway. Barlow’s sculptures are like three-dimensional versions of Prunella Clough’s paintings (full of the detritus of urban life). There is something poignant and intimate about all of us (city dwellers, that is) squeezed together into these man-made spaces.
Down the road at Hauser & Wirth’s Saville Row site, a huge pristine cube of a space, were Roni Horn’s new sculptures, ten discs of “solid cast glass with as-cast surfaces on all sides (fire-polished top)”. The media is a poem in itself. They are beautiful, inscrutable structures, like rounded blocks of ice, cold and perfect, apart from the scarred sides, which show the viewer the cast of their making. They are isolated, distanced from each other in the enormous empty room. Their glassy tops are pools, circles of nothing, still and impassive. Bending over one to find myself reflected in its surface, I was reminded of the Sylvia Plath poem ‘Mirror’:
I am silver and exact. I have no preconceptions.
Whatever I see I swallow immediately
Just as it is, unmisted by love or dislike.
I am not cruel, only truthful –
The eye of a little god …
But there is another literary association attached to the work which had us puzzled. Although the piece is untitled, its ‘subtitle’ is an excerpt from a letter (which may be from Anne?) relating the story of a “nasty-looking” comb that belonged to Emily Brontë. The comb accidently fell into the fire the moment Emily died and was retrieved by Charlotte: “There it is to this day, a bit burnt. One of the most horrible things I ever saw”. So how does this emotional, dramatic account relate to these cool, controlled sculptures? I’m still puzzled, but what strikes me is how those glass discs are ‘sealed’, solid, as if they are preserving something inside that we can’t see (only the reflection of ourselves on the surface). So maybe both the letter and the sculptures themselves tell us something about the act of preservation. I’m still trying to work through it.
One thing I do know is that both Barlow and Horn have a deep connection to poetry. Barlow is married to the poet Fabian Peake (their daughter Clover is also a poet). Horn is a fan of Dickinson and Stevens; both poets have been referenced in her work. A connection between them, and back, once again, to Bachelard.
Paul Carey-Kent's blog: http://paulsartworld.blogspot.com/)
Hauser and Wirth: http://www.hauserwirth.com/