Descending the stairs of White Cube's gallery in London at Antony Gormley's exhibition "Test Sites" is an unsettling plunge into darkness. By the time visitors reach the ground level and have snaked their way around a series of narrow hallways, they're completely blind. The effect creates an uneasiness in the viewer that's further augmented by a figure emerging from the gloom with a tiny flashlight aimed at the ground, encouraging visitors towards a faint glow. As the glow intensifies the hallway opens into an enormous cavernous room filled to the brim with Gormley's magnificent piece "Breathing Room III."
Having been somewhat disappointed by Gormley's recent "Event Horizon" in New York this past spring, (an installation of life size casts of the artist's body placed around Madison Square Park and on the roofs and ledges of tall buildings, prompting concerned citizens to place hundreds of 911 calls), I had low expectations for the show "Test Sites" of which "Breathing Room III" is a part. But the contemporary sculpture constitutes the best use of gallery space since Urs Fischer excavated a giant hole in the floor of Gavin Brown Enterprises for his breathtaking "You" in 2007. The enormous architectural sculpture, rising 16 feet in height and covering 55 feet in length, is composed of 15 interconnecting photo-luminescent "space frames," the total volume of which is equal to that of the internal gallery space.
What is immediately striking is that the sculpture appears to be some kind of Star Wars' inspired hologram, an effect that is so convincing that it causes disorientation. One-by-one visitors hold out their hands and literally grasp for air but are met instead with an unexpected and definitively solid structure. This three dimensionality also encourages visitors to enter the structure, carefully making their way through beams,marveling at the sculpture pulsating around them.
Meditation on eternity, time and space are interrupted every ten minutes by bursts of blinding light. Here Gormley's mission seems to be two prong: the first is to recharge the glow-in-the-dark paint that illuminates the structure and the second is to facilitate 22 seconds of uncomfortable staring as visitors suddenly become active participants in the work. According to Gormley, by unexpectedly flooding the gallery with light he intends to "jolt the experience from one of quiet meditation to intense interrogation." The transition is harsh but one which ultimately makes the subsequent darkness and glow of the work all the more effective. Recharged from the torrent of light, "Breathing Room III" glows especially brightly and commands increased attention and awe. Over the next ten minutes that resplendence fades to a ghostly outline, becoming increasingly ethereal as the particles lose their luster. The transition from the darkness of the descent to the glow of discovering the piece, followed by quiet contemplation interrupted by light, is a deeply satisfying journey and one that reminds the viewer why artists have been obsessed with light for centuries.
"Breathing Room III" encompasses the very best of conceptual art. The principles behind the work are exceedingly basic -- time and light, both universal abstractions that are made concrete by Gormley's precise hand. The construction is also simple and demonstrates great restraint on the artist's part. Gormley's piece is the antithesis of the ostentatious, self-aggrandizing work that is so ubiquitous at the moment. The best art is beautiful and thought-provoking and doesn't require a gallerist or a press release to explain it. In this, Gormley has succeeded beautifully and the work speaks volumes on its own. -- Bettina Prentice
"Test Sites III" is on display through July 10. Visit White Cube's website for gallery location and times.
Bettina Prentice owns and runs arts-related PR company Prentice Art Communications, Inc. A native New Yorker, she has organized many high profile philanthropic and cultural events throughout New York and the Hamptons.
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