The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
Walking through a compact passageway into Mason’s Yard from the streets of St James in a still, cold late winter, the White Cube Gallery appears as something of a tardis. It stands, out of time, offering a crisply detailed, minimal façade as a riposte to the surrounding buildings, most of which turn their masonry backs on it and the yard. The carefully composed building has a heavy base, lined in precast concrete panels. Above, a white rendered volume is punctured with precisely positioned window openings more concerned with looking out than allowing views in. This is crowned with an opaque glass box, set back from the main elevation. The column-free basement gallery space, which demands structural gymnastics not expressed by the building, is itself barely discernible from the yard. The building, an echo of the brick substation that once filled almost precisely the same volume it occupies now, stands inert, like a slightly diffident yet nonetheless intimidating gallery attendant, offering little.
I have come to see an installation by the Polish artist Miroslaw Balka called DIE TRAUMDEUTUNG 25,31m AMSL. I remember seeing Balka’s 2009 Tate Turbine Hall installation, How It Is, it too standing as an independent construction within a host space. Here though, you could walk underneath and within the steel framed volume, entering it via a steep, wide ramp, edging your way around the semi-darkness, senses heightened. I was prompted to pause, location and the crowds notwithstanding, to try and access what it was that the installation was trying to evoke. It is this pause, rather than the pronounced spatial affect of the installation that I remember when I think about the work.
On the ground floor of the gallery, we are presented with two objects formed in what appears to be concrete, one of which, a trapezohedron, references the 1514 Albrecht Dürer engraving Melancholia I. The other is a square shape, 20cm high that might be an empty plinth, its former occupant either unknown or long since forgotten. What interests me about both, as did Rachel Whiteread’s cast sheds in Detached, was the very impenetrability of the objects: they do not yield to extended looking and resist interpolation. As cast objects, however, they speak directly of their making; the now disappeared form-work (to disaggregate the technical description), the once formless mix, now set, fixing both constituent materials and small pockets of air in place. The surface of the trapezohedron itself is oddly inconsistent. Parts of it have a rough, matt finish that you might expect ordinary cast concrete to have, and yet others are highly polished, to the point where it resembles terrazzo and almost, but not quite, begins to approximate a valuable stone. This immediately brings to mind the tactile materiality of buildings which, repeatedly used (and touched) over time, develop a highly polished sheen – evidence that someone else once stood where you stand, touched what you now touch.
There is a, perhaps unintended, correlation with the materiality of the gallery itself, the floors and stairs of which are constructed of concrete carefully ground down to expose the aggregate. Eight years on from completion scrapes and scuffs, hairline and more substantial cracks are now clearly apparent. I retrace my steps through the entrance foyer and down the stairs to the basement; the rich, surface texture of the floors stands in direct contrast to the proverbial white cube of the gallery’s other surfaces. Searching it for signs of age and use proves quite a distraction, so much so that when you enter the space below grade, the immediate impact is as startling as it is powerful.
The pavement lights set into the ceiling, ordinarily a source of daylight for this space, have been closed up, darkening it. The weight of the building suspended above us seems even more apparent and indeed more oppressive. Balka has strung a chain-link fence across the entire room at 2.1m above the floor level, creating a false ceiling and exacerbating the sense of confinement that the space already provides. The directional lighting and the changed proportions of the space, along with a sound installation (the theme tune to The Great Escape, whistled by gallery staff) audible from an adjacent space, intensify this feeling. It seems clear, at this juncture, what the intention of the artist is.
But then, in circumnavigating the space a few times, deliberately crossing and re-crossing my paths, the effect wanes. I stop to examine the mesh and its construction closely, positioned only a matter of centimetres above my head: the edges and the joins, fixings to the wall, hangers from the ceiling. The links of the wire, the slight dip and sag in the surface and the way in which your perspective of the mesh fundamentally alters your perception of the space. It soon seems to be all too much artifice. You become increasingly aware of your location in a commercial gallery, in St James, replete with gallery staff and emergency exit signs glowing unseemly in the half darkness. I know what I should be feeling and how I should react, but standing in the space, a fundamental sense of disconnect emerges. I stay a little longer, but once it takes hold, this sense is difficult to shake.
I climb back up to the ground floor, this time looking up at the brick building opposite, through a view framed at the head of the stairs. I step out of the building emerging blinking into the daylight and am momentarily disoriented. The inert building stands behind me, unmoved. It is only as I walk through the passage back to the street that the immediate memory of my experience of the space reveals itself as the primary affect. Removed from the actual installation, where its artifice is all too apparent, what remains is an afterlife, an echo of the sense of claustrophobic containment.