Space cadet DEMETRIOS MATHEOU
By Michael Archer et al.Merrell, 2001. £29.95 The notion of installation art is a somewhat nebulous one, embracing anything from the confessional, solipsistic work of Tracey Emin to Tatsuo Miyajima's rooms of LEDs or the cultural game-playing of recent Turner Prize contender Mike Nelson.
But perhaps the purest manifestation of installation art is to be found in the work of Richard Wilson, not least because of the vigorous way in which he involves himself with the exhibition space. Wilson's art really is installed, utilising or changing the physical properties of a site to the point whereby it becomes integral to the piece at hand.
His installations, often sculptural, play with the viewer's perceptions and experience of space; they make us think about where we are, and how we see. As such they are witty, thought-provoking, often viscerally exciting.
20:50, Wilson's best-known work, is widely regarded as a defining example of installation. But that piece is merely the tip of the iceberg of his prolific and challenging career.
This first monograph on Wilson features 50 installations made in the past 20 years.
Born in 1953, he studied in London and Reading, exhibiting while still an undergraduate. His first one-man show was in 1976, but it was his works at Matt's Gallery in London in the 1980s that established his reputation. Among these was 20:50 (since permanently installed in the Saatchi Gallery), a piece that epitomises the way in which, in Wilson's hands, the exhibition space becomes the art.
A shallow metal tray was constructed across the gallery, at waist height, rendering the space inaccessible but for a narrow, upwardly sloping walkway, reaching out into the room from the door - and into this tray, Wilson poured sump oil.While the oil's density made it impossible to gauge its depth, its smooth, reflective surface perfectly reproduced the ceiling and upper walls. The sensation of moving, dangerously, into an unfathomably deep well from which there might be no way back, the visual fascination of standing amid the reflected room, the sense of disorientation, all made 20:50 a memorable experience.
In one of three essays in the book, writer and curator Simon Morrissey says: 'Wilson's work represents an attempt to take a place apart, then reassemble it to allow the ordinary stuff of the world to say something more about where we are and what we see, than it did before.' Another piece at Matt's Gallery illustrates this perfectly: For She came in through the bathroom window, a section of gallery window was removed from its housing and relocated inside the gallery space itself, while still attached concertina-fashion to the walls. The result was the feeling that the outside had began to push itself into the gallery - calling into question where the outside ended, and the inside began.
The apotheosis of this interventionist side to Wilson's work comes in Over Easy, from 1999. This consists of a section of glazed curtain walling placed within a purpose-built bearing on The Arc, a newly built performing arts centre in Stockton-on-Tees.
Functioning as part of the structure of the building, rather than an addition to it, the piece oscillates through 300 degrees, slowly revealing the activities of the space inside.
The artist worked in close association with the engineer Price & Myers, whose Harry Stocks contributes an informative essay on the process.
Presented chronologically, the book is well illustrated, including photographs of the process of Wilson's art (he shows a remarkable facility with building methods and materials) as well as the end product. It also reveals elements of performance art in his work and, in later pieces such as Slice of Reality and Set North for Japan (74infinity 33' 2'), a leaning towards cultural and sociological themes. But overall, the thrill of the book is in re-living what the third essayist, art critic Michael Archer, calls Wilson's 'provocative spatial dislocations', ones that suggest the 'treacherous promise held out by solid ground'.
Demetrios Matheou is a freelance journalist