Gelitin, Normally, Proceeding and Unrestricted with Without Title, 2008. Courtesy the artists. Photo: © Stephen White
Exhibition Review - Marian Cleary explores Psycho Buildings - at the Hayward Gallery until August 25 2008.
The Hayward’s 40th birthday celebrations involve investigating its own ‘brutalist’ architecture, inside and out, in the scarily-named exhibition Psycho Buildings.
Artists were called upon to mark the anniversary of the gallery’s opening in 1968 with works inspired by the concrete expanse that is its South Bank Centre home. In doing so, they also examine the human relationship with environments both built and personal - the worlds of body and mind.
Awareness of the Hayward’s huge spaces is realised by an installation of massive fabric layers in Do Ho Suh’s Staircase – V and Ernesto Neto’s Life Fog Frog…Fog Frog; Michael Beutler’s unnamed piece also brings perspective to the Hayward’s cavernous vaults.
In Beutler's work, a wire mesh structure becomes a retreat of light and colour – primary and bold outside, shifting and translucent within. Redundant areas like little dens suggest safety. Or the lack of it, because these walls are paper thin.
Rachel Whiteread, Place (Village), 2006–08. Courtesy Rachel Whiteread. Photo Stephen White
Associating human spaces with superficial security is again explored, viscerally, in To The Memory of HP Lovecraft by Mike Nelson. Nelson’s room is a lair of fear inhabited by who knows what. Strangely organised droppings, the height of the claw marks up the walls, and the size of the trapdoor keeping a hidden beast in (or out) prompt fight or flight reactions - or a Hammer Horror moment depending on your state of mind! Crunching evidence under foot adds sound effects.
Do Ho Suh struggles via Fallen Star with cultural insecurity surrounding habited space. The chaos of destroyed Western lives on one side of his 1/5 scale New York building is deliberately absorbing. Yet on the other is ‘home’ – a traditional Korean structure slammed into the corner of the brick one.
This is poignant despite the brutal impact.
Life Tunnel by architects Atelier Bow Wow and Showroom by Los Carpinteros are, however, the brutalist heart of the show. Life Tunnel is a metal tunnel that is beautiful but overwhelming as the noise of feet, voices and thoughts reverberate through unrelenting metal walls, floors and shafts.
Do Ho Suh, Staircase – V, 2003/04/08. Courtesy the artist and Lehmann Maupin Gallery, New York. Photo © Stephen White
Showroom is an enigmatic moment – what happened here? Shards of glass piercing a sofa produce a frisson of horror in what is a stunning snapshot of yet another disaster.
Vast in planning, realisation and scale, Psycho Buildings also deals in intricacies. Take, for example, Rachel Whiteread’s Place, made of dolls' houses. Each is unique, second-hand, constructed by anonymous men and women for long grown-up children; they are absorbing in their individuality and the tranquillity of a night setting. Then they repel in their emptiness.
The fabric spaces of Staircase V and Life Fog Frog…Fog Frog also revel in detail and deployment of skill and craft in construction. And the latter’s subtle smells of pepper and cloves makes this curvaceous, intimate environment as much about body and soul as it is about structure and space. As one visitor commented, “It’s the soft underbelly of brutalism.”
And this really is the wonderful contradiction between the Psycho Buildings in the setting of the Hayward. Cocooned and absorbed in Tobias Putrih’s Venetian, Atmospheric cinema you forget you are teetering on the top of a slab of massive concrete. But then we are all deluded while spinning through space on a blob of rock pretending our carefully crafted personal spaces are real and solid. As Showroom, Staircase V and Fallen Star explore, and the Sichuan earthquake proves, they are not.
Mike Nelson, To the Memory of HP Lovecraft, 1999, 2008. Courtesy the artist, Matt’s Gallery, London and Galleria Franco Noero,Torino. Photo © Stephen White
At the other end of the risk analysis, public art meets public safety legislation in two Psycho Building installations. This means they are great in theory but not so realised in practice.
Normally, Proceeding And Unrestricted With Without Title is a boating lake/horizon pool - one of the Hayward’s roof terraces filled with water. Height restrictions, and everyone getting a very restricted one minute experience, plus the custodian on duty in the water to stop people drowning, all add unintended dimensions to an intended pastoral idyll in the brutalist setting of the Southbank complex. No, it’s just like Alton Towers.
The utopian project of Tomas Saraceno’s Observatory, Air-Port-City, conceived as a floating, merging bubble space, feels frankly dystopian when standing on the inflatable's mirrored floor in even hazy sunshine.
It is also causing the Hayward a big headache. Rumour has it, there is a hole in its roof so the plan to have people walking on the air above while spectators watch below is currently a mere dream. Without this element, Air-Port-City is kind of just a giant greenhouse.
One of the custodians manning Air-Port-City’s ‘air lock’ said it brought tears to his eyes. Caused by the power of the art? The tragedy of the tear in the plastic membrane? No, the heat and the glare. Now, that is brutal.