If a Wall Falls in a Gallery…
White Walls, Andy Goldsworthy, Galerie Lelong, May 8-June 16
In his sixth exhibition at Galerie Lelong, Andy Goldsworthy applies moist porcelain from his hometown of Cornwall, England to the walls of an enclosed room that covers a space about 40’x30’ and reaches over 13’ in height. As it dries over the course of the five-week installation, the porcelain cracks and eventually crumbles, falling in piles at the feet of the walls.
As always, Goldsworthy’s work is an exploration of our strange relationship with time. Seeing the piece for the first time it is impossible to tell how long it has been there, or how much change has happened before this moment, or even how much change could be expected in any given moment after. Finding the crumbled porcelain on the floor is almost like stumbling upon ancient, foreign relics with which one has no chronological relationship—no way of placing within one’s understanding of past or present. And that goes just as much for the relics in this gallery as it does for any of the other relics we encounter on the walls of other galleries and other museums in other times.
I saw White Walls on June 8th, close to the end of its run, when the remnants of the crumbled walls sat heavy and exhausted on the concrete floor of the gallery. Entering the gallery, I was completely absent of any temporal markers, and all of a sudden as I gazed upward, cracks would appear on the few pieces of porcelain that were left hanging on the walls. My heart would race, thinking that I was about to witness a chunk breaking off, but as some time passed, invariably I would realize that the cracks had been there for hours—probably days—and that I was just a visitor passing through. I remained engulfed by the great silence of the space.
Time concerns carry a somewhat different, but equally great amount of unpredictability for the artist: How long will the porcelain take to dry completely? How quickly will the pieces fall, and how expansively? Once Goldsworthy’s hands have left the piece, the walls and the porcelain take on a life of their own. The exhibit was given a five-week life span within the gallery, but in fact it took only three days for most of the porcelain to break into pieces on the ground. A professional photographer was hired to take pictures of the piece, but so little change happened after the 16th day, that no photograph was taken on the final day.
In fact, the people who have the closest relationship with the piece are the gallery workers who sit with it for hours every day, leading visitors into the room and listening to it groan from their desks at the entrance of the gallery. I couldn’t help but wonder about the quietness of the piece and the fact that at some point in time the porcelain had fallen and it had made a sound. Did it echo? Did it shatter? How big were the pieces when they fell? One gallery assistant described the sound as a “thud,” and said that most of the porcelain fell on the third day. Archivist Stephanie Joson explained that the pieces on the near wall fell first because the wall was temporary and made of sheet rock (in order to enclose the space). The porcelain did not adhere as well to the sheet rock, and therefore it ripped off in one big chunk. Indeed, the far wall looked the most decayed and the most bruised—looked the most like it had a story to tell.
But for the average visitor the encounter is brief, and the lasting impression is silence. A long window on the far end of the space lets some natural light in, and the white walls underneath the left side glow orange, while the walls underneath the right shade toward blue. The press release explains that the “work will, in the artist’s words, move from minimal to expressionistic,” and this is just what happens; rather than “building” texture and color as in painting, it is the decay that adds depth to the expressionistic quality of the walls. But from whom exactly does that “expression” come—the walls? If nothing else, we remember how deeply we as human beings read into the most accidental spaces and events. Like old buildings whose own walls (and the contents of their own walls) decay over time, White Walls captures the beauty of those relics whose chronology and history remain mysteriously opaque as we greet them and give them meaning in the course of our own unpredictable interrelations.
Marika Josephson writes about art and politics, and is a graduate student in philosophy at the New School for Social Research.view all articles from this author