Modern Art Oxford | KALEIDOSCOPE: 'A Moment of Grace'
The title for the next progression of Modern Art Oxford's 50 year anniversary series is 'A Moment of Grace'. A phrase taken an observation from artist Gustav Metzger, that "every step in nature is a moment of grace", the exhibition explores the reusing and reinterpretation of materials within art.
Concepts are scattered about the explanatory boards. Commodity and consumption, the global and the local. Ephemera. Values and norms.
The artists are themselves a collection of the old and the new. Returning artists include John Latham, and Yoko Ono. Immersion and encounter seem to be the buzzwords of the moment, and Ono's piece Painting to Hammer and Nails' (1961) invites this form of collaborative experience, asking the audience to experience the work by hammering nails into the canvas.
Of the contemporary artists, I found Njideka Akunyili Crosby's work particularly striking. Her brightly coloured experiments in portraiture are multi-layered combinations of printmaking, photography and painting, considering issues of identity and place.
Interestingly enough, Latham's 1991 piece, Drawer with Charred Material, was part of an earlier exhibition for Kaleidoscope, and has been moved to the Upper Gallery for this stage. This relationship between location and art embeds the literal building of Modern Art Oxford within the interpretation of the art, especially poignant for a commemoration of the gallery.
Metzger - whose piece takes up the entire Piper Gallery - also immersed before immersive was immersing. His returning 1965 show, Liquid Crystal Environment, at the very end of the exhibition, forces encounter from the moment you leave your shoes outside and step onto the soft desert-coloured carpet. The room is set with five panels, light projected through glass slides filled with heat-sensitive liquid crystals. As the crystals vary in temperature, the colour changes, creating patterns of light that spread around the room. An experiment in chemistry and physics, Metzger worked with scientists to perfect an all-encompassing sensory environment. The movements are governed by a computer system. Grace, manmade.
But does an inauthentic grace preclude real value? You can draw all matter of import from the five projected panels of light. They are reminiscent of a Rorschach test, an abstract painting, the slow fade from blue to black becoming day to night, life to death. The whirring and buzzing of the projectors create a jungle-like chattering. It is calming to the point of absurd, I lie on one of the large black cushions that litter the floor and watch the crystals slowly move.
Metzger is widely known for his conception of 'auto-destructive art': art automatically carrying the own seeds of its destruction. A demonstration of this idea was his painting with hydrochloric acid on nylon (1961), involving precisely that. Metzger applied acid to fabric, which corroded after contact.
Liquid Crystal Environment is, in contrast, an example of the antithesis of this idea. 'Auto-creative art': it enforces its own creation, a moment of genesis as opposed to the millennial. And hope is at the very core of this work. Warmth, joy and a certain innocence is exuded by the slow hypnotism of the crystals.
This sense of hope is reflected in responses to the piece. In an interview with curator Emma Ridgway, Metzger noted that
"Children love to be in the environment of Liquid Crystal Environment; they can go on for hours dancing in and out of the light"
In some sort of Blake-esque journey, perhaps an 'experienced' self-awareness acts to detract from the purely 'experiential'. The intrusion of my shadow on the panel wandering the room was shocking in its sudden invasion.
Metzger aims for Liquid Crystal Environment to be used as remedy, a therapeutic experience he plans to spread worldwide. Perhaps this inescapable self-awareness provides another element to the work's remedial qualities. We are educated to establish our own borders with art, a context drawn from red rope boundaries. But for Liquid Crystal Environment, immersion is inevitable. Next to a panel of light, you cannot escape your own shadow: like the liquid patterns created from kinetic energy, the encounter is necessitated.
Metzger unifies shape and self: the black mass demarcating your own body, set against a nebula of colour and movement (almost like a kaleidoscope, if you will) is raw, enchanting and frightening.
My only concern for the piece would be with the change in experience in, say, a fully crowded room, as opposed to being alone. I bring this up in the discussion post-exhibition. The response - that the atmosphere will change depending on the group type, and this is part of the process - seems fairly apt. I can imagine the experience could be heightened (kaleidoscipened) by a group of people wandering around: a panopticon of shape with shape.