Richard Wilson

Matt's Gallery / Arnolfini / Museum of Modern Art

Richard Wilson’s sculptures contrive, at their best, to make a show of the space in which one finds them. In the sense that they do focus one’s attention on the particularities of a space, they are site-specific. Yet in most instances, the idea behind them seems quite a mobile one, suggesting that if the piece were executed in any other space it would work just as well. Following a period of three or four years in which his reputation has grown considerably, Wilson’s latest project has involved setting up concurrent exhibitions in London, Bristol, and Oxford.

The London venue, Matt’s Gallery, is a space Wilson has worked in twice before, most notably with his piece 20/50, 1987. On that occasion the entire gallery became a tank which appeared to be filled to waist height with used sump oil. Walking out into the middle of the room by means of a narrow gangway, one could see the upper half of the room so perfectly reflected in the oil that the whole space seemed to dematerialize. This was particularly so because of the large window running down one entire wall. Thus, whether one looked up or down, one simply looked at light. This time, at the same gallery, Wilson showed She Came in Through the Bathroom Window, 1989. He acknowledged the importance of the window, making it the work on display. Three-quarters of it, with panes still in situ, had been removed from its setting and pulled at a slight angle into the middle of the gallery. It was supported on a steel frame which had been boxed in, top and bottom, with lining panels removed from the ceiling, and, on either side, with soft, white, plastic fabric. It was as though the world outside had been dragged into the space, distorting one’s notion of inside and outside.

By contrast, the disturbances produced by Sea Level, 1989, were as much physical as perceptual. The Arnolfini gallery, which housed the exhibition in Bristol, is situated on a quayside, overlooking water and ships. Here Wilson constructed a false floor from heavy-duty steel grid. From here, one could look down on the water outside. Under a circular opening in the mesh, a heater blew out hot air, the idea being that the atmosphere would shimmer slightly, accentuating one’s lack of balance. Because it was angled away from the doorway in both directions, the line of the slope continued into the adjacent space for a short distance. This area was clad in solid steel plates which had not been fastened down securely, so they sprang back and forth, producing loud crashes which echoed around the otherwise empty room. In this second space, the walls still showed evidence of the previous exhibition, making the room’s emptiness seem like something that was waiting to be filled, rather than an essential, still counterpoint to the physical disorientation one experienced in the previous room. The blunt harshness of the materials made the work striking, but they could not hide its hollowness. The heater didn’t achieve the desired effect, either; the atmosphere didn’t shimmer, it was just uncomfortably hot.

At the Museum of Modern Art in Oxford, High Tech, 1989, comprised a square-sectioned concrete pillar reaching at an angle from the floor to the roof. It appeared, though, as a beam which plunged from one of the skylights to the floor below. (Ideally, one supposes, it should have plunged through the skylight, but the idea was clear enough.) Passing through it at right angles to each other were two lengths of lighting track, both of which seemingly had been bent toward the floor by the force of the beam. The strong pool of light around the base of the pillar caused one to read it as the crystallization of something insubstantial, rather than as a massive presence, making one feel the silence of the gallery as something palpable. This was the most impressive of the three installations. It used space and silence, and integrated interior and exterior, more completely than either of the other two works.

Michael Archer