Upon entering the Hayward Gallery’s latest and much-praised exhibition ‘Shape Shifters’, my heart, in a small way, sinks. The huge 20 artist curation explores 50 years of perception-changing minimalist art. Time Out describes it as “an eye-bending journey into the brightest recesses of minimalism” but at first glance, with Jeppe Hein’s huge, slowly rotating mirror ‘Illusion V’ and Anish Kapoor’s funfair mirror-maze-like distortion cube ‘Non-Object (Door)’, it appears to promise more of a paid-for photo opportunity for the hundreds of visitors pouring through the doors – all weaponized with front-facing phone cameras and selfie sticks. Prejudiced, my fears at first seem to confirm themselves, though in a way there is a self-fulfilling irony in selfie-takers being distortedly mirrored back at themselves in hundreds of reflective silver balls or purple fish-eyed glass.
However, by the time I come to Helen Pashgian’s untitled translucent pieces, I realize that I had decidedly missed the point. Disregarded by the selfie-warriors, these three pieces of bent shapes encased in spheres of transparent polyester resin seem to swallow rather than to reflect their environment altogether distorting the features of the room. The spherical shape ensures that the onlooker’s own image is always at the centre of the reflection; looking in as you move around them means seeing yourself transported into an alternate-reality that transforms kaleidoscopically around your own reflection. The more I watch the world inside the spheres change, the more I realize the exhibition is about using the simplest things – the nature of a material, the shape, texture, colour of an object – to transmute the perception of its audience of the environment immediately around them. Literally, to shift the space.
This was the eye-bending minimalism aforementioned, but as the Hayward press release describes “not a geometric, austere, serial minimalism, but one with a more alluring, elegant and playful sensibility.” Intentionally chosen as the final exhibition for the Hayward’s 50th anniversary year, it seems a fitting juxtaposition to the geometric and austere beauty of the building’s brutalist architecture, a beauty that is often overlooked through its sheer utilitarianism. One of the most fascinating aspects of the exhibition is the way in which the artworks interact with and transform the gallery space itself, refashioning hallways or roofs as exhibition spaces, or disguising themselves as part of the architecture, such as Posenenske’s Square Tubes Series D constructed entirely out of galvanized steel ventilation pipes.
At the same time as engaging the architecture, however, the artworks also bounce off their fellow exhibits and even the visitors themselves. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ piece Untitled (Golden), a floor to ceiling curtain of golden beaded strings, jumps into a dazzling swaying motion when a visitor steps through it, transforming for a moment into what looks like silk. This phenomenon, reflected in the pool of glass that looks so convincingly like water filling Roni Horn’s Everything was sleeping as if the universe were a mistake (in itself a beautiful piece, an extraterrestrial caldera of, in the artist’s words “Super-cooled liquid”), seems to change the nature of both pieces, turning them both, intertwining gold and purple, into something indescribably sensual.
The star of the show, for which at peak times there is an internal queue of over an hour, is inarguably Richard Wilson’s 20:50. Despite the wait, the intense serenity of this silent pool of used engine oil is quietly overwhelming. Viewed from a walkway that slices into the middle of the jet-black pool, the surface perfectly reflects the room around it as the dark-alter ego of itself. With this piece Wilson wanted to “generate a whole new way of understanding your place in the world” for his viewers by subverting their preconceptions about architecture and space. The unconventionality of his medium uses something socially considered ugly, a waste product, and turns it into beauty. It is in many ways the perfect counter-piece to the Hayward gallery itself given the negative perception of brutalist architecture. There is an unexpected and simple beauty of the newly refurbished upper gallery being suspended through its reflection in utter blackness.
The exhibition is not so much a collection of artworks as a carefully curated series of subtly interlocking experiences and Wilson’s words ring in my ears as I head for the exit, through the first room with the rotating mirror. It still reflects the throngs of iPhone-bearing tourists persevering through the opening doors, but those on their way out leave with their phones tucked away, and glance at the strangely angled mirror-images before leaving this reality and space into another.