Real experiences are hard to come by in art. I mean, it's not often you happen to properly, actually live something at an art show. Usually, though, you can tell where an experience is advertised by the queue outside. I remember waiting some forty-five minutes to visit James Turrell's white-clad, edge-free room at the last Venice Biennale. As soon as we stepped out, a couple – too lazy or too considerate to sit down themselves and crawl their way in – stopped me and my girlfriend and asked us, all excited, is it true you feel like you're leaving your body. Not really, no.
There were no queues when I visited Giorgio Andreotta Calò's show at SMART Project Space. Still, timing was indeed critical to my experience of it, and not only because the exhibition's title coincides with its beginning and ending date, emphasizing its own duration.
After removing my shoes, I ventured into a gallery space I had visited countless times, only now ninety-nine percent dark and empty. Holes through the boarded up windows projected silhouettes of the vegetation surrounding the venue on the floor and walls, sometimes at unreal angles. The corners furthest from the light were literally wrapped in grayish fog, a combination of darkness and possibly some artificial vapor that also produced a particular smell. I found myself grabbing for walls that seemed to have disappeared.
The humming, mechanical sound accompanying my visit gave it a vaguely sinister atmosphere, yet the familiarity of the exhibition space provided the right amount of control over my walk through the thickening obscurity. Shoeless, I felt like a child who is at once afraid of the dark and thrilled by the chance for adventure.
The last room was the real treat. As I entered, and I think this is why the timing was perfect, I could see nothing but darkness around me. No ghostly greenery waving lazily on the room's surface, no romantically-cast window frames stretching across the floor. Just black space, a pale strip of light in front of the door I came in from and, creepily enough, what sounded like another visitor trapped in the same hole (I didn't hear any closing or opening of doors before the sound stopped, so I guess I must have imagined it).
I admit that, for a second, I was tempted to walk all the way back through the whole exhibition, to the entrance hall. Then I proceeded to systematically grope my way all around the room, increasingly unaware of its borders. I hit wall, wall, wall, then patted some textile barrier blocking the way – a soft obstacle that I, as a consenting exhibition-goer, implicitly agreed not to remove – then wall again. As I turned to see where the light was, I had a moment of disorientation: it seemed like the entrance from which I had come in had moved, as the strip of light that first faced it had now revolved counter-clockwise to light up another door. The exit, to which I had been completely oblivious the whole time.
Had I come in at a different moment, had other visitors been there to spoil my inspired solitude, or had I started my wall-tapping the other way, the timing would have been different. Maybe my heart would not have jumped like it did, when the way out manifested itself right where it had to be. Ok, I admit I might have not-so-subconsciously left the best for last, but still, the instinctual recognition of the exit made the entire wait worth it. Even though I am a space-obsessed kind of guy, for once time was a crucial part of the equation for me.
The whole thing reminds me of a trip to Scotland a few years ago. A friend of mine and I were exploring the countryside around his parents' house near Aberdeen, climbing fences and entering abandoned churches he had sneaked into since he was little. As the afternoon faded into evening, we were walking through a forest, one he once knew by heart as a kid. After a while it became so dark I literally had no other visual point of reference apart from him, the rest being a black mist. I wasn't really worried of getting lost – I trusted my guide – so I started becoming more aware of the soothing sound of a creek flowing somewhere nearby, entering a feeling of spaceless relaxation. At some point, as I turned my head, out of the darkness emerged a short wooden bridge, crossing the stream I had listened to the whole time. Standing out of the surrounding dimness, the bridge resembled a whitish object hovering in a dimension of its own. As small as my adventure was – mostly in my head – to see it was a quasi-enlightening moment of relief.
By now I guess you can tell: from its cautious beginning to the childish thrill and the almost epiphanic closure, the exhibition at SMART felt something like that. Perhaps it's not much of an adventure, but inspiring child-like awe in grown-ups without administering them drugs is no small achievement to me.
(All images: Giorgio Andreotta Calò, 08.09.2012 – 21.10.2012, installation view; Photos by Niels Vis / Courtesy of the artist and SMART Project Space, Amsterdam.)