Most traditional exhibitions are conceived to provide us with an expected detached viewing experience, and installations, while intrinsically more interactive, still generally follow suit. We come, in other words, to encounter art at a safe, respectable distance (no touching, no photos… sound familiar?). Yet, if breaking free of this mode of representation is the artistic equivalent of a jet breaking the sound barrier in aerodynamics, Anthony McCall is traveling at the speed of light. At the Hamburger Bahnhof, McCall’s Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture gives us something that could not be further removed from the above. We are as much part of the work here as anything else, and this sudden freedom makes his pieces empowering and addictive.
Upon entering the exhibition, we experience an initial uneasiness, having been plunged into apparent pitch darkness. However, as our eyes accustom to the room, our bodies naturally perform their first response to the work. In other words, it is not enough to step into the space, we have to physically readjust to it in order to proceed.
Anthony McCall, Between You and I, 2006, Installation view at Peer / The Round Chapel, London, 2006; Photo: Hugo Glendinning / Courtesy of the artist and Hamburger Bahnhof
This train-station-cum-contemporary-art-gallery is the ideal venue to hold what is the largest exhibition of McCall’s light works to date, bringing together pieces from the last decade. Returning to light installations after a hiatus of over twenty years, McCall took up the light-focused practice he initially experimented with in the seventies, propelled by the emerging possibilities afforded by new advances in digital projection and computer animation (read more about McCall's career here). While appearing essential, quasi minimal, these pieces are far more sophisticated both formally and conceptually than initially transpires. They are the result of the seemingly paradoxical conflation of cinematic, sculptural, and drawing traditions. The horizontal light beams that make up the first and last installations make the boldest reference to cinema. However, if we turn to look at the actual images projected on the floors and walls, we encounter clean geometrical compositions usually associated with drawing. Finally, in the central pieces on show, McCall creates what are effectively enormous “light sculptures” that take up the entire vertical space of the old railway hangar, towering over us like a glowing procession. Having been catapulted into a Gulliver’s land of giants, we, the improvised Lilliputians, cannot refrain from extending our arms and reaching up to these ethereal bodies. And while our logic tells us that, in fact, there’s nothing palpable for us to touch, this in no way mitigates against the impulse. As we do so however, we disrupt the light-beams, insert a foreign body—our own—into the works, altering their resulting form.
Time here is crucial. In may ways, McCall can be said to work with light, mist, and time, for it is through the latter that the former converge and evolve. What appear to be perfectly still installations, on closer inspection, reveal a state of perpetual movement. They are ever changing through our agency as well their own programmed sequence. Therefore, it came as a surprise to find myself, having stepped minutes earlier into a shower of light, suddenly thrown back into a pool of darkness. The piece had been imperceptibly shifting before me. Through McCall’s works, light and air are brought together to create the illusion of a palpable, magmatic form, which articulates itself through space in a state of continuous flux. The result is engrossing. In the most recent pieces, the inclusion of an auditory component adds the final element that subtly completes and adds a further dimension to the work.
Anthony McCall, Installation view at Hangar Bicocca Milan, 2009; Photo: Giulio Buono / Courtesy of the artist and Hamburger Bahnhof.
Five Minutes is a parsimonious projection; come armed with ample resources of time to spare in order to give in to the pieces as they slowly and hypnotically unfold. Ironically perhaps, through digital technology and animated geometries, McCall achieves a potent, somewhat spiritual atmosphere reminiscent of theatrical Baroque churches with shards of light piercing through their grandiose architecture. Indeed, both are conceived to produce an intense and enveloping experience. Expect to lie on the floor, waving limbs and staring dumbfounded into dark space broken by elegant spires of shimmering light. But best not reveal too much and leave it for you to see for yourselves.
(Image on top right: Anthony McCall, You and I Horizontal, 2006, Installation view at Institut d'Art Contemporain, Villeurbanne; Photo: Blaise Adilon / Courtesy of the artist and Hamburger Bahnhof)