Anthony McCall, Vertical Works displayed at Ambika P3 and Works on Paper displayed at Sprüth Magers
Public knowledge of contemporary artists is subject to much caprice: the few household names are known either for their enfant terrible status or because of their supersized pieces in the public realm. Think Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde shark or Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North.
So, despite a wonderful retrospective at the Serpentine in 2007-09, Anthony McCall has remained shamefully unknown. This will predictably change, given that McCall has recently won a commission from the 2012 Cultural Olympiad to construct the Projected Column in Liverpool: a 5km high swirl of steam and cloud rising above the city, visible from Lancaster to Llandudno.
Although the spectacle of the column will do much to raise McCall’s profile in the UK, this grand public commission will surely struggle to match the sublime works on show in Sprüth Magers’ exhibition of McCall’s drawings and vertical works that ran in March. The Vertical Works have been installed in the vast, industrial hangar that is Ambika P3 in London. They are simply incredible: animated line drawings projected onto the floor from 10 metres up, result in huge, conical tents of light. The shapes shift and vary in degrees of opacity, to create sculptures of solid light.
The four works entitled Breath, Breath III, Meeting You Halfway and You, the Vertical Works make visible Isaac Newton’s observation about the nature of light: it isn’t actually white but a mixture of colours where each shade corresponds to a particular wavelength. If you pass your hand through McCall’s beam, you will see the fat white line is actually edged with pink and green: a wonderful detail. Despite inevitable comparisons with James Turrell and Thierry Dreyfus, McCall’s work is different. Turrell and Dreyfus use light to transform an existing space; McCall uses
light to create space. And the difference is remarkable.
These are works to look at, but also to interact with. You can move in and out of the structures created by the light, or run your hand through the light wall. It’s as engaging to observe people interacting with the works as it is to observe the works themselves. McCall’s light pieces equally unsettle and fascinate. When I visited the exhibition, people spent more time peering at the works through their camera phones than looking at them purely with their eyes. This called to mind Susan Sontag’s observation that photography is often used as a defence mechanism and suggests that people feel uncomfortable in the face of the extraordinary.
I found it astonishing that light and haze could create spatial definition on this scale. Sitting in the dark looking at the works, I kept coming back to the world of pure mathematics and its favourite concept of ‘elegant simplicity’ - a work need not be complicated to be effective. The works also act as an exercise in the art of looking, or perceiving, what is present. There is a strange feeling that comes over you the longer you look at the works, a feeling that you can’t be sure what you are looking at: are the Vertical Works light or architecture, do they move or are they stationary?
Neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran offers a brilliantly irreverent take on this particular conundrum: ‘It is as if each of us is hallucinating all the time and what we call perception involves merely selecting the one hallucination that best matches the current input.’ In some cases, being reminded of how complicated and imprecise the act of looking actually is can be an overwhelming experience, even a bit depressing to the viewer.
But the wonder of McCall’s vertical works is that no matter how beautiful the sight of his light sculptures may be, the unsettling feeling of not being quite certain what you are looking at is even more powerful.
Anthony McCall Works on Paper, Sprüth Magers, London, www.spruethmagers.com
Anthony McCall Vertical Works, Ambika P3, London, www.p3exhibitions.com