'our creation is that guru; the duration of our lives is that guru; our trials, illnesses and calamaties is that guru. There is a guru that is nearby and a guru that is beyond the beyond. I humbly make my offering to the guru, the beautiful remover of ignorance, the enlightenment principle that is within me and surrounds me at all times.'
Guru Stotram

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Occasionally I go to an exhibition so pertinent I'm agog to tell everyone about it. Phyllida Barlow at Hauser & Wirth Piccadilly is one such. Previous encounters with Phyllida's work have left me a little cold, grasping at straws, but this week I had my Phyllida epiphany. I feel now I get it a bit, what the Phyllida fuss is about.

As you enter the gallery you walk straight into a forest. Not the conventional kind but thus inspired. The viewer is jostled about the ugly feet of a cacophony of tripodic monsters whose spindly, jointless metal limbs support vast concrete blocks over which rest delicate beautifully coloured silk veils, like sheets over a bird's cage, to hide or to protect, we know not which.

The feeling as I walked below this weighty platform was anxious and awe-filled. Ms Barlow may have captured something of what Christopher Wren was after when he built the dome at St Paul's. Automatically, spontaneously, my gaze was drawn upwards. The pressure from above was immense. There was a sense of being below, amid the foundations that hold aloft something greater, something mightier; of being in the gutter but looking at the stars. What was happening up there and would such skinny legs hold it, whatever it was, or were these entities about to crash down at any moment? Not rational of course, health and safety being what it is, business being what it is, but the human organism is not, whatever we may like to tell ourselves to the contrary, a ration entity. Gods or monsters I wondered. But of course, always, both.

From the balcony the landscape is different. Here we're in dialogue with the cloaked heads. We're on their level. The view is less daunting. Now we can study them closely and discover finally that they're not concrete but polystyrene. The sense of weight was an illusion. Empty after all. The thing I had looked up to, feared, held in esteem, proved, upon close proximity, to be nothing special. Distance and my own irrational projections had lent it a weight it did not, of itself, possess. It was a reminder to me of an important lesson I've been lately learning - strength is within, never without.

The work in the basement is quite the opposite experience. Here we meet a colony of lemming like beings, perhaps those tiny bi-pods whose individuality is subsumed to the greater collective authority, who move like a sea amongst the feet of the giants above. Fellows meaningful en masse but inconsequential alone. Fellows like you and me, projecting our weight on to those above.

The higher up the building we go the more celestial the atmosphere becomes until we reach the attic. Instructed by the invigilator I pottered through the tiny kitchen and up the narrow fire escape stairwell until at the top I peered through a small hatch into a cramped loft containing a rainbow of entrancing coloured spheres hanging from the ceiling like celestial bodies. An incidental sign reads: 'Caution, Electrical Hazard'.

The title of the exhibition is Rig. One presumes the word alludes to the construction of these works, that range from the ambitiously monumental to the delicately ethereal, in situ and in response to the architecture of the gallery space. Another, perhaps more niche meaning for the word is that of a gelded male horse who inexplicably continues to exhibit stallion like dominance type behaviours. I doubt this is the association the artist had in mind but to me it seems curiously fitting. Appearances, so often, are deceptive.

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