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Into the labyrinth

review

Cristina Iglesias At the Whitechapel Gallery, Whitechapel High Street, London E1, until 18 May

Following on from 'Mies van der Rohe 1905-1938' at the Whitechapel, the belated debut in the UK of Spanish artist Cristina Iglesias continues the theme of architecture - or rather, its representation through installation and manipulation of materials - to produce a cohesive and thought-provoking show. By taking cultural symbols and forms out of context and combining them with another of her fascinations, nature, Iglesias reinterprets the way we experience form and space.

Most disconcerting is the power of the suspended, canopy-like Tilted Hanging Ceiling (1997) in the main room, which can only be realised by standing beneath its considerable expanse. The impression of sheer weight bearing down evokes a sense of vulnerability within the security of the gallery.

The underneath of the 'ceiling' is imprinted with plant forms, like fossilised stone, adding a heaviness through association.

On the surrounding walls, photographs of cardboard model buildings are enlarged and screenprinted onto big copper panels (below left). They are literally and metaphorically reflective - makeshift homes, cheap and temporary construction, shanty towns - yet through the narrow 'streets' formed by the models, a landscape is visible beyond. At this scale, the simple, raw representation is engaging, providing the opportunity to (visually) inhabit these illusory spaces.

In the next room are the inaccessible, intimate worlds of the Jealousies screens.

Reminiscent of Moorish architecture, these wooden screens create a barrier between exterior and interior. Messages are spelt out by letters incorporated in their trellis-like grids, while the holes in-between give glimpses of any viewers behind. This voyeuristic, investigative element is developed in the video, Guided Tour - a collaboration with Caterina Borelli - which adds sound and movement to the experience.

An opportunity to physically inhabit space is realised in the magnificent Ve g e t a - tion Rooms upstairs. Here, Iglesias' interest in nature finds expression in solid walls of repeated vines, stems and flowers, cast in resin, which envelop the occupier. These tantalising labyrinth-like spaces end abruptly, leaving you in an artificial, and disquieting, 'cocoon' (below right).

This juxtaposition of delicacy and fragility with strength is a recurring theme in the show, as in Iglesias' series of 'concrete' walls, which peel away from the edge of the room to reveal an historical tapestry, adhering to the cement and also mirrored on the gallery wall. It is rather like discovering traces of occupancy through layers of wallpaper, but the over-scaling and distortion of the reflected image make the experience more strange.

The main exhibition culminates with a ceiling of several woven raffia screens, suspended one above the other. The airiness of these canopies is a far cry from the solidity of the one downstairs, suggesting a cyclic transformation from heavy to light.

The continuation of Iglesias' installations into the surrounding East End is quite successful, taking the visitor out of the secluded gallery and into the inhabited city, to Behuliphruen. In a shop just off Petticoat Lane, a series of Jealousy screens are combined with more walls of vegetation to filter the light, layer the interior and make another labyrinth - the screen and veil having a particular resonance in this Islamic part of London.

As a play on architecture, distorting space and the familiar, this exhibition is well worth a visit. Individual pieces are fascinating, and, experienced as a whole, the sense of feeling small in a large, mysterious world is potent in Iglesias' comprehensive narrative of space.

Lis Ellston is a Part 2 architect working in London

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