John Cage begins his collection of essays and lectures, Silence, with the following: “wherever we are, what we hear is mostly noise. When we ignore it, it disturbs us. When we listen to it, we find it fascinating.” It was the immateriality of sound, its visibility and framing which most interested Cage. Materiality plays a key part in the meta-narrative of artistic practice; it shapes its public presence and delineates a nomadic and fluid, yet present boundary between art and life. The dominance of materiality – despite evolving discourses surrounding presence, normative practices and the dialogue between space and body – has promoted the assumption that art is reliant on material presence for its existence and consecration. As a witness, our mode of engagement is conditioned by normative models; in Cage’s case, a simple formal shift recontextualized a sonic experience – and it is this shift which marks itself as the main cultural currency in Invisible: Art about the Unseen 1957-2012.
Invisible charts the chronology of immaterial practice, looking at the ways in which artists have sought to play with the boundaries of art not only on a formal level, but also in the development of subversive political and social discourses. Using action as the key device and framework as lens, the exhibition attempts to link a network of practices that engage with a process of re-contextualisation and re-enactment, seeking to blur the differences which normative practices delineate between art and life, politics and citizenship. It’s a star-studded exhibition, with works from artists including Andy Warhol, Chris Burden, Yoko Ono and Yves Klein, navigating that grey territory between historical performance art practice and visual art.
These formal distinctions, however disputable, do hold the works to account: performance pieces are present through documentation and objects which are conducive to a process of re-call, whereas Yoko Ono’s Invisible Paintings or Bruno Jakob’s The Third Hand (Invisible Drawings) engage in a different kind of present, providing both backdrop, artwork and archive. Both Ono and Jakob’s works hold an intrinsic and embodied relationship with the title of the piece, which flags up a performative action either in the visual field of an constructed space, or in the imagination of the viewer.
Alongside these, there are works that cross both thresholds – material and formal – such as Robert Barry’s Energy Field (an apparatus that transmits radio carrier waves, which are the focus of the piece in their invisibility) or Tehching Hsieh’s invisible durational performances, present only through a simple document. During the period of thirteen years, Hsieh produced performance pieces only in secret- their content was only revealed at the end. Engaged in both institutional critiques to do with modes of production and reception of work, but also questioning materiality, presence and the conditions of human existence, Hsieh produced both an extreme durational performance and a number of individual pieces, all tied together by their nomadic and nonhierarchical presence in day to day life. This theme is an undercurrent throughout the works in the exhibition, signalling the philosophical undertones of such artistic practice that seeks to provide a language and structure for that which has no agency or visibility.
In the visible and perceivable emptiness of Hayward’s galleries, as the absence of the artist is so strongly felt with few objects to act as conducive to any such encounter, something else becomes palpable; not only our own presence as visitors embodying some of these practices, but also the discourses which they are attempting to shape. Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth is an apt example- an invisible maze whose configuration changes daily, which visitors can experience through a headpiece connected to infra-red signals. The visitor can view an image of the maze once, and attempt to cross it from memory. Where the gaze fails, a perceptive control ends- it’s a playful flirting with concepts of failure in our engagement with the perceived world. Whereas Hein’s work is embodied, Art and Language’s Air Conditioning Show, an empty white air-conditioned room, at the entrance of which resides a long text questioning models of exhibiting art, makes a point about the autocratic nature of space and language as essential structuring conditions not just for our artistic experience, but our day to day life.
Whether the term ‘invisible art’ is the best descriptor for the range of work presented, with such fluctuating tones from humorous to philosophical, from canonical to accidental, the framework does conjure a palpable history, networked with references to Conceptual Art, Fluxus and Dada, influenced by visual artists from Pollock to Rauschenberg. Although absent in the exhibition, these referents are strongly anchored in the works presented, and provide a plural discourse through which to view the collection of artworks, documents and critical texts which form tangible presences. It seems the gallery space itself is held in visual suspense, with the different strands of work- the participatory, speculative, philosophical, existential and formal imbuing a collectivity that serves as spectator and site, witness and consecrator.
According to Ralph Rogoff, the history of the invisible art began on May 14th, 1957 with the opening of Yves Klein’s exhibition Void, showcasing an empty room “crammed with a blue sensibility within the frame of the white walls”, as the artist outlined. This developed into the actual sale of “zones of immaterial pictorial sensibility”- the artist would ask for a certain quantity of gold in exchange for a certificate-receipt. If the buyer accepted to burn the receipt, Klein would throw the gold into the Seine. The seeming redundancy of this gesture, but the importance of a transaction echoes throughout some of the works on display that negotiate a dialogue between presence and absence, corporeal and conceptual. In this manner, the most public pieces are also the most overtly political. Claes Oldenburg’s Placid Civic Monument, an underground monument in Central Park in which the process of construction provided the meaning of the monument itself, is an apt example of politics at play. Earth was dug up, removed, replaced and covered by a group of hired grave diggers- the only visible aspect lost in the visual landscape of the park itself; an anti-war tomb responding to the Vietnam War and that period of intense political protest in the US in late sixties.
The work might conjure nostalgia, recall cultural and political memory in the public arena, play with the conventions of materiality and temporality central to art and subvert theoretical discourses surrounding the production and reception of art. Given this range, Invisible is surprisingly un-engaged with the contemporary, despite the subversive and discursive political undertones which the works in the exhibition echo; projects such as True Riches,a collaboration between Tim Etchells and Ant Hampton that created a whole invisible and inexistent programme of live art response to Ekow Eshun’s decision to close the ICA’s live art department, come to mind as a central part of this chronology. This is perhaps more symptomatic of the problematic presence (or lack of) of such contemporary performance art pieces that function outside of the immediate remit of visual arts in major institutions.
Nevertheless, Invisible manages to surface an otherwise ostracized history of performance practice that, in its engagement with social and political rituals, with formal boundaries and discursive frameworks, reminds us of the assumptions we’re conditioned to make about the role of artistic practice in society, and the multitude of ways in which this can provide agency to otherwise urgent yet inaccessible ideas, thoughts and percepts.