Installation View at Irish Museum of Modern Art, Dublin, 2008
A Certain Distance, Endless Light: A Project by Felix Gonzalez-Torres and William McKeown
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art
Middlesbrough, TS1 2AZ
5 March through 4 July, 2010
The North East of England’s AV festival, a biennial fiesta celebrating the best in electronic arts and encouraging critical dialogue, took the notion of ‘energy’ for its theme this year. AV separated the contents of this rather vague term, debated across the history of twentieth century art, into four groupings: ‘scientific, technological, environmental and spiritual perspectives’. These somewhat forced and regulatory divisions are reminiscent of those categories of the spiritual (or transcendent) and the empirical (or scientific) that Rosalind Krauss aimed to expose and to disrupt in her 1977 essay, ‘Grids’. In this paper, Krauss notes the ambivalent status of the grid as a modernist emblem or ‘myth’, its materialist surface suppressing a potential, metaphysical experience of release. Taking an historical approach, she explains, ‘under every modernist grid is a symbolist window parading in the guise of a treatise on optics’.
As part of the AV festival, A Certain Distance, Endless Light works with the theme of energy, with a focus on light that is apparent even before one enters the first gallery space. The porch-like entrance hall is draped with brilliant white strings of household light bulbs, an introduction to the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Lightstrings installation. However, in contrast to AV’s awkward premise, curator Gavin Delahunty manages to maintain the ambiguity inherent in the history of modernist engagement with light. Each of the exhibition’s four rooms are intended to produce very different qualities of light – from hard white to sickly yellow - yet this elusive element is presented within the exhibition as simultaneously, and equally, social, technological, poetic and political, as well as merely beautiful.
William McKeown’s first contribution, The Dayroom, is an approximation of a hospital or residential living or waiting room, in which, according to the wall text, one might receive pleasing or devastating news. Constructed cheaply and sparely in wood and board, the simple cubed space appears to make reference not only to commonplace social pressures (and the architecture that contains them) but also specifically to Krauss’ treatment of the grid, mentioned earlier. Looking through the makeshift room’s only window, a modestly sized blue-grey and yellow grid painting is visible directly in one’s line of sight. This viewing position brings to mind the symbolist window, with its desirous, metaphysical implications. Yet, like the painted grid’s materialist mapping of the canvas surface, the rough plasterboard and two-by-four supporting the window brings the viewing experience back down to earth all too soon.
This situation of longing and frustration is repeated in Gonzalez-Torres’ double stack piece, first shown at Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York in 1990. Two stacks of white paper sit alongside one another. Each sheet contains one of two typed, and seemingly opposed, statements: ‘nowhere better than this place’ / ‘somewhere better than this place’. The interplay between the material (this place) and the ideal (somewhere/nowhere) is again at work here. However, given what we know of Gonzalez-Torres’ practice, working as an openly gay and socially concerned artist within the traditionally authoritative conceptual and minimalist vein, this is not merely an abstract philosophical musing. Rather, a socio-political element is harnessed, which MIMA takes as a springboard to focus on ‘local aspiration’. The phrase ‘local aspiration’ perhaps invokes the problematic politics of regeneration entered into by a beautifully designed, glass fronted, young art museum in an area of the North East suffering high unemployment due to decades of industrial and commercial withdrawal.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (North), 1993
Light bulbs, extension cords, porcelain sockets
Overall dimensions vary with installation
Twelve parts: 22 1/2 ft. in length with 20 ft. of extra cord each
Installation view of “Currents 22: Felix Gonzalez-Torres” at Milwaukee Art Museum, 1993
Photography: Efraim Lev-er
© Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation. Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.
A couple of installation decisions grate a little. McKeown’s succession of seventy monochrome watercolours, The Daisy Field, is breathtaking, especially when one considers that the artist has employed the most basic of raw materials (Fabriano paper and masking tape) to produce the work. However, the curatorial and/or artistic move to include an imposing series of metal barriers around the entire display seems misplaced. Although the barriers arguably link to form a second ‘chain’, emphasising the daisy-chain analogy, they forcibly overstate the case that the most straightforward equipment may produce a valuable display. Secondly, and perhaps unavoidable, was the papering over of an industrially sized door within the final room with a delicately beautiful billboard image by Gonzalez-Torres. While the image’s puckering and bulging might be seen as a conscious indicator, or even a critical reminder, of the museum’s less than ideal environment; the market-driven migration of art works; or indeed of loss and decay more generally (a common theme in the artist’s oeuvre), the overall effect – as in The Daisy Field – was that of unnecessary disruption.
Despite these, few slip-ups, A Certain Distance, Endless Light is aesthetically and theoretically valuable. Significantly, however, the museum’s public interpretation efforts are also a standout quality of the exhibition. The gallery wall texts are printed in a gently comic, unorthodox font and approach their subject with a generous balance of art historical contextualisation, visual and emotive description, and an absolutely non-patronising focus on local community relevance. A simply bound paper booklet accompanies the exhibition. Produced through interactions with museum visitors and staff, including those in the café, gift shop and administrative areas, the booklet is a truly delightful compilation of poems, song lyrics and other texts inspired by the theme of light. In addition, billboards with an image of ‘a lone bird, photographed from below, floating effortlessly beneath an overcast sky’ were displayed outside of the ideal gallery environment of local cities, Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Newcastle, between 1 and 14 March 2010.
As a final note, for a reviewer with specific interests in the reworking of modernist tropes by contemporary artists, the show highlighted the socio-political, and queer, interests (of the 1990s to the present) that are beginning to be read back into earlier abstract works. I am thinking here of the recent work of David Getsy on David Smith’s sculpture, and that of Jonathan Katz and Anna Chave on Agnes Martin’s drawing and painting – for whom Krauss’ work on the grid’s mythical structure is particularly pertinent. In particular, notions of beauty, as rethought in both Gonzalez-Torres’ and McKeown’s installations, are beginning to be viewed again as enmeshed with the political, social and the everyday.
As Felix Gonzalez-Torres wrote, ‘Beauty is a power we should reinvest with our own purpose.’ MIMA, in conjunction with two outstanding artists, has executed this task with finesse.
view all articles from this author
Becky Hunter is a writer based in London and Durham, UK. She is Assistant Editor for Whitehot Magazine.