Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Cildo Meireles at Tate Modern

Cildo Meireles, Through (detail), 1983-89/2008, copyright courtesy the artist, photo: Tate Photography

A worthwhile addition to a visit to the Rothko exhibition at London's Tate Modern is an exploration of the work of Cildo Meireles.

Numerous installations by this pioneering Brazilian conceptual artist offer the viewer many different levels of experience. Even if you don't normally like contemporary art, there is a lot to choose from here. And the experiences vary from thought-provoking to surreal to just plain fun to, well... I shouldn't spoil it for you, if you go, but at least one of the installations is bound to provoke strong reactions, and without the use of sex, violence or swearing. More on this later.

Don't despair, reluctant contemporary art viewers, if the first room seems a little hardcore (documentation of art 'happenings' from the 1970s which appear to be moving bits of earth into boxes, and photographs of the results, Coke bottles with varying amounts of Coke, etc.). Even here there are details to amuse, such as the currencies for zero dollars / pesos, etc., in one case poignantly displaying a member of one of the dispossessed native peoples. And it is here that one begins to get a feel for what Meireles is about: he is passionately concerned about the exploitation of these people. The more you read of the exhibition labels, and watch the video documentary at the exhibition exit, the easier it is to understand the work. Whether or not great art should need contextualisation (especially if created within living memory), or should be able to convey meanings and emotions unaided, is another debate.

Moving into the next room, the visitor is confronted with a large number of installations, and doors leading to still more. Of these, Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals) (1987) is accessible and powerful without further contextualisation, though I did have to speculate as to what material was used to form the central shaft - even my erroneous first guess did not detract from the piece. (Answers to this and other spoilers at the bottom of the page.)

Through (1983-89/2008) was also very powerful, and people seemed to be enjoying walking through it. It is set up as a kind of maze created by all kinds of fences and barriers (shower curtains, barbed wire, velvet ropes from cinemas, etc.), at the centre of which is a brightly illuminated ball of cellophane of superhuman proportions. The way through the maze involved walking over a large expanse of multiple layers of broken glass, not for the barefoot or stiletto-clad! The experience was reminiscent of walking through Lucas Samaras' Mirrored Room - that glass-green light, that fear of falling through the floor. I suppose I could have read about Meireles' intentions, but it didn't seem necessary: to me, the piece seemed like a metaphor for the human heart, trying to protect itself, fearful and easily broken, ultimately transparent and gloriously illumined. I suppose there is a large range of other meanings one could attach to it, including ideas about the ubiquitousness of barriers in modern life, the proliferation of street furniture, etc. At any rate, people seemed to enjoy two of the barriers in particular: identical fish tanks, populated with translucent fish. My metaphors and meanings begin to fall apart when I try to integrate the fish into my interpretation of the piece, so I'll leave that to you.

There was a bit of a queue to enter Red Shift, where only six persons are allowed in at a time. Most people responded initially with surprise and delight, at entry to the first room. (I didn't realise until later that I could have looked into the refrigerator.) Does anyone else remember red 45s? My parents had one kicking around, which fascinated me as a child. Many similar delights await, in this room beyond even Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen. The second part of this installation is more disorientating. I found it not unpleasant to lose track of distance and perspective. Some might be slightly offended by what you find at the end of the room; to me, it seemed in keeping. The whole thing, in the end, will be washed away.

Pleasant disorientation, however, is not how I would describe the effect of the final piece, Volatile (1980-94). After a very long queue (one of those folding seats came in very handy) we were allowed in, in groups of four, after warnings about pregnant women, etc. wanting to think twice about going in. Shoes and socks off, okay. Wellingtons were provided in the anteroom. The only pair left were men's and much too big for me. This was not a problem.

The problem, for me, was that I found entering the installation proper absolutely terrifying, on a level I hadn't expected. Suffice it to say that this piece, though simple, is quite powerful. Other people seemed to find it a pleasant experience. They went in barefoot. Do not, I advise, wear clothes that you mind getting a little messy. And I wouldn't bring toddlers or small people with respiratory sensitivities to this one. If you are going to the exhibition, stop reading here.

Cildo Meireles, Babel, 2001. Photo: Tate Photography

Spoilers, now, and for those who know they won't be in London before 11 January, when the show closes.

Mission/Missions (How to Build Cathedrals) (1987) had a central shaft formed from communion wafers.

And now for the Volatile experience. After the shoe-changing antechamber, you pass through a door into a room so dark that you can barely see that the floor is completely covered in at least eight inches of talcum powder. The powder is stirred up into a smog.

Although I had a sock clamped over my nose and mouth, it was almost impossible to breathe. Although I have grown up in what they call the 'snow belt' and am used to lurching about like a penguin, I found it almost impossible to walk.

Clutching the partition wall, I peered round the corner. A single candle, upright, burning, on the floor, barely visible through the smog.

I found this utterly terrifying. Not because I might fall over. Not because I wasn't sure whether talcum powder was flammable. Not because I really couldn't see. I was prepared for all this.

What I wasn't prepared for was the overwhelming feeling of claustrophobia. Not from the walls outside me. A sickening closing in from inside myself.

My own lungs were the location of my claustrophobia. And in that moment, I wasn't sure if I'd be able to draw enough breath to get back out the door.

Of course I played down my fears to the guard, who probably hadn't seen anyone bolt out so quickly all day. He asked me quite a lot of questions. I assured him that I was all right, just startled (and by implication, unlikely to sue the gallery).

Some people said it was quite a nice sensation, talcum powder between the toes. And so it might be. I didn't miss it. For me, it was beyond an experience of the sublime, the comfortable feeling of being scared but knowing you are safe, as on a roller coaster, or as people of the eighteenth century confronting a mighty waterfall.

This was an experience of the terror of not knowing whether I had gone too far to come back.

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