Richard Wilson reflects dark world through immersive oil installation in 20:50 at Saatchi

By Celia White | 26 March 2010
A photo of a dark installation in a dimly-lit gallery

(Above) 20:50 (1987), used sump oil, steel. © the artist, Saatchi Gallery,

Exhibition: Richard Wilson, 20:50, Saatchi Gallery, London, until May 7 2010

Two powerful sensations meet the viewer when encountering Richard Wilson’s 20:50: the overwhelming smell of sump oil, and the sense of staring down into a fathomless abyss.

Following the Saatchi Gallery’s move from County Hall to a larger location at the Duke of York’s HQ in Sloane Square, Richard Wilson’s oil-filled room, bought by Charles Saatchi in 1987, has recently been opened to the public.

The white cubed space of its new home contrasts with the wood-panelled austerity of County Hall, but the unusual nature of 20:50 allows it to transcend the specificity of time and location.

As a room-sized installation, its effect is intense and often vertiginous. Looking down from a balcony into what should be a full view of the room below, the eye is met by a perfect reflection of the ceiling.

While the smell of the oil indicates that there is some kind of chemical at play, the oil itself gives the appearance of both depth and surface. This is disturbed by occasional vibrations passing across the oil’s sheen.

The totality of the ceiling reflection is disrupted by the dark nature of the mirrored image; though the oil seems colourless, it has the power to reflect back a dimmer, greyer image of the surrounding room and the viewer’s face.

A photo of a dark installation structure inside a dark room

Gallery 13 was custom-built for the piece. © the artist, Saatchi Gallery,

On the left, spiking out into the otherwise undisrupted surface, is a gangway cut into the oil. The original intention – and, for some years, the actual function – of this walkway was for viewers to enter the depths of the oil below surface level, resulting in a far more immersive experience of the piece.

A rope, however, now prevents visitors from passing into this space from the balcony. Having viewed 20:50 from the walkway at County Hall, it seemed to me that it was essential to the aesthetic experience of the work, but further enquiry revealed that one visitor had recently sued the gallery after some of the oil had transferred onto his jacket. “Insurance reasons”, then, were the catalyst for the walkway’s closure.

This unlikely turn of events reflects a problem lying at the heart of many installation art pieces. While 20:50 relies on our proximity to the oil, many viewers fear this proximity, and the effect of the installation is consequently lost.

Alongside the powerful sensual effect of this installation, it bears a further message that is as potent as its odour. 20:50 brings us into contact with the stuff of life, the fuel which powers the modern lifestyle.

Our factories, food production and transportation all rely on machines, but their driving force, the oil, remains largely behind the scenes.

In a time of increasing anxiety about climate change, the dark version of the world reflected by Wilson’s sculpture comes to symbolise the possible environmental consequences of our continuing reliance on oil.

The statements of alarm emitted from most viewers when they first sniff the intense smell of the oil indicate that its fundamentality to our lives is a distant concept, but one brought closer by the enveloping effect of 20:50.

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