Text by Regina Papachlimitzou
Setting the haunting installations of Berlin-based Korean artist Haegue Yang against the shimmering undulations of the work of late Cuban artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres, The Sea Wall presents an intriguing conversation between the two artists’ distinctive practices. Employing domestic materials stripped of their everyday use is a common thread running through the works of both Yang and Gonzalez-Torres, unexpectedly obliterating the demarcation between the artistic and private realms.
Gonzalez-Torres’s work Untitled (Water) (1995) proliferates throughout the galleries of Arnolfini. Upon entering the ground floor gallery, the visitor is confronted with possibly the largest of the work’s manifestations in the exhibition: a towering curtain of iridescent beads powerfully evocative of the sea, serves as a permeable boundary which the viewer is invited to appreciate on a visual, tactile, and auditory level. Dividing the gallery space about a third of the way in, the work half invites-half commands the viewer to experience it by walking through it, by running his or her fingers along it and listening to its constituent beads softly murmuring as they rub against each other. In the process, the personal becomes the social and eventually the political, when the work is considered through the filter of its position inside the Arnolfini, the Arnolfini’s strategic location in Bristol’s Floating Harbour, and the socio-historic connection between Bristol and sea-trade.
In contrast to Gonzalez-Torres’s invitingly sensual work, Yang’s 186.16m3/372.32m3 sharing the same gallery is forbidding in its near-intangible frailty. Consisting of equally-spaced threads so thin they almost disappear into the background work, this seemingly vulnerable installation nonetheless commands the gallery space by restricting access to it; and even though the threads could easily be torn apart by a careless visitor, the work nonetheless exudes an air of latent violence, reminiscent as it is of barbed wire enclosing space, forcibly keeping people out or in.
Several of Yang’s works showcased as part of The Sea Wall share this quality of quietly dividing, enclosing, and predicating space. To a significantly higher extent than other artists exhibiting at the Arnolfini, Yang very much inhabits the gallery spaces with her works –works in which the previously empty space they are situated in is as critically a part of the work as the material it consists of. The main gallery of the first floor is entirely taken up by Yang’s VIP’s Union, 2001-2011, a piece for which she personally contacted a number of VIPs belonging to the Bristol artistic and cultural sectors (including Nick Park of Aardman Animations, Arnolfini’s own Nav Haq, and even the Mayor of Bristol), to request for a temporary donation of a piece of their own furniture. This ragtag assortment of tables and chairs, arranged in small groups, thus transforms the gallery space into a silently heaving congregation: the furniture used is both pointedly empty and strangely animated, the close proximity of the chairs implying intimate conversation which is nonetheless countered by the obvious absence that inheres in the work as a whole.
In the smaller gallery to the left, Mirror Series plays with a similar, though inverted, use of space. The series comprises a number of mirror works that stubbornly reject passive reflection in favour of active response, while offering unanticipated alternatives in place of reflected image. Works such as Eyes Off, 2007, Back, 2006, and Ulterior Thought, 2007, each in its own way, defy the space they are situated in by either presenting their own, entirely unrelated image, or by refusing to reflect any image whatsoever. Consequently, the viewer expecting to see their own reflection is thus confronted with an abandoned room dotted with origami flowers, or with a mirror that seemingly prefers to reflect the wall. None of the mirrors in the series quite does what a mirror is expected to do, thus creating an unsettling feeling of doubt in the viewer, an impression of his or her presence being somehow called into question – the very validity of the viewer’s presence in the gallery challenged.
The Sea Wall brings together two artists who, through works of varying interactivity, invite the viewer to explore the role liminal spaces play in the subjective construction of identity. The space occupied by absence or defined by transience thus becomes as much a function of the viewer as a creation of the artist.
The Sea Wall: Haegue Yang with an inclusion by Felix Gonzalez-Torres continues until 4 September.
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Felix Gonzalez-Torres “Untitled” (Water) (1995)
Blue, clear and silver plastic beads, metal hanging rod.
Rue Saint-BenoÎt, 2008
Installation of eight sculptures
Installation shot, Arnolfini 2011
Photo: Jamie Woodley