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> > > Review: Hayward Gallery presents Invisible – Art of the Unseen 1957-2012
black and white photo of the back of a man in a suit in a white room

Yves Klein in the Void Room (Raum der Leere), Museum Haus Lange, Krefeld, January 1961. © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2012. Image courtesy Yves Klein Archives. Photo: Charles Wilp

The first UK exhibition of artworks which explore the invisible, the hidden and the unknown is at the Hayward Gallery until 5 August. Nicole Fordham Hodges went to look for the unseeable.

In large vinyl letters on the all-white walls is A Great Concern Transmitted Telepathically. It’s a work by Robert Barry, who moved from creating art using radio waves and inert gases, to transmitting art telepathically. He wrote: “There are a lot of things we don’t yet know about, which exist in the space around us.” There is certainly a strange atmosphere in these white rooms.

It’s not easy to speak of invisible artwork. Yet language becomes more important when faced with a white canvas or a plinth with nothing on it. This is evidenced by the careful attention being given by half-amused visitors to the accompanying texts.

Yoko Ono’s Instruction Paintings, later published in Grapefruit, use words to help viewers create their own imagined art. They point towards the things we can’t see:

Raise your hand in the evening light
and watch until it becomes transparent
and you see the sky and trees through it.
1961 Summer 

Bruno Jakob projects his thoughts on to ‘sensitised’ canvases. He uses ‘brain energy’ and natural forces, such as garden snails, to leave traces which represent the invisible.

His nearly blank canvases with faint stains, holes and marks are accompanied by poetic descriptions of their subject and medium:

"Breath, floating in color as well as black and white (Venice) 2011."
"Invisible Painting: Rainwater, Light, Touch, Air, Brainwaves and different unknown techniques on canvas."

The collective Art and Language (Terry Atkinson and Michael Baldwin) believe that “visual art is conceptually dependent on language.” Their piece, The Air Conditioning Show, is an empty room except for containing two air conditioners. This is exhibited alongside Frameworks - a long, unreadable treatise about the meaning of the artwork.

The history of invisible art arguably starts with Yves Klein, who exhibited a seemingly empty all-white room. This came to be known as Le Vide. Klein claimed the space contained "pictorial sensibility in the raw state." The exhibition was both controversial and extremely popular, due to huge press coverage.

Might Invisible Art be a version of the Emperor’s New Clothes? Yet there is no doubting the commitment behind some of these artworks. Beijing artist Song Dong keeps an invisible diary written in water on stone: Writing Diary with Water. He sees this as a meditative practice: “After a while this stone slowly became a part of me.”

Tom Friedman spent 1000 hours over five years staring at photographic paper. The resulting Stare on Paper remains blank, unmoved by his dedication.

However as a girl with glasses and an open face standing beside me comments: “It’s like therapy, to look at it. It makes me feel good.” She typified the enquiring openness in the gallery: half-amusement, a hint of joy, not mockery. This itself is something tangible.

In Tehching Hsieh 1986-1999, performance artist Hsieh pledged to make art in secret for 13 years, only revealing its content on New Years Day 2000. This, like much of the work here, seems a serious statement against show and showiness, an attempt in times of publicity and hype to return to a self-defined, inner source of art.

Still, I can’t help laughing as I experience The Ghost of James Lee Byars, a dark space with only a glimmer of light. I bump into another visitor and giggle my way to the exit. Was this how Byars intended to represent his death?

Horst Hoheisel’s ‘negative monument’, Aschrottbrunnen (Kassel 1987), is a stark contrast to the more self-conscious disappearing acts in the exhibition. It commemorates a pyramid shaped fountain presented to the German city of Kassel by a Jewish businessman in 1908 - and destroyed by the Nazis in 1939. The monument is a hollow inverted pyramid sunk into the earth, an inversion of the original. Only the sound of rushing water suggests what is underneath.

Hoheisel said: “With the running water, our thoughts can be drawn into the depths of history, and there perhaps we will encounter feelings of loss, of a disturbed place, of lost form.”

Here the unseen has been drawn upon in extremity to represent the unspeakable. This will remain with me from the exhibition.

I’ll also remember the open face of the girl with glasses. I’ll let her symbolise what it is to look without grasping.

Invisible: Art of the Unseen 1957 - 2012 is curated by Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, and runs until 5 August.