Over the last six months, I’ve missed a certain feeling that being in a gallery or museum gives me. Before lockdown, I knew that looking at art made me feel calm and curious, slowed me down, gave me space. But my return to visiting a couple of places which house art (in London – Scotland’s major galleries are still closed for business) has made me realise what I particularly like about it. Experiencing art makes me remember I am part of something bigger than me.
This realisation hit home most clearly when I went to Gagosian Grosvenor Hill to see Crushed, Cast, Constructed, a show with a wholly grey palette, featuring only five works. These are sculptures made in metal by John Chamberlain, Urs Fischer and Charles Ray. The three works by Fischer dominated the show: they started out as lumps of clay moulded by the artist’s hand, and then were scanned, enlarged so each model was over 3 metres high, and cast in aluminium. It’s like they are the product of a kindergarten for giants, that have been dipped in a vast vat of bubbling of metal and then returned to our world as serious, grown up objects. They are alien, they are too big, the Guardian’s critic Adrian Searle found them overbearing.
But that feeling of being overbourne (not a word) is actually pleasant after being the biggest thing in your same four walls night and day for six months. It’s the same reason I like big skies, mountaintop views, the sea.
Even the mechanisms and processes that created these objects and made them possible as art – the ideas, the funding, the training, the supplies, the gallerists, the agents, the transportation, the curation and a million steps in between are too big and complex for me to get my head around – especially after being separated from this ecosystem for such a long while. We, the viewers, are the very end point, the final cog in the machinery of the art world. Sometimes it’s actually nice to feel like a cog, while at the same time knowing you are the privileged recipient of all the cumulative hard work of others. It takes you out of the mundane minutiae or dramatic highs and lows of your personal existence and allows you to just be, for a brief moment, an uncommitted observer. You don’t even have to like the art you’re looking at to get this feeling.
In an era where we’ve all had so much time to sit with ourselves, in our sometimes messy, sometimes directionless lives, it was somehow restorative to spend time in this clean box of a gallery. With its white walls and dark, smooth floors, architecturally it is the polar opposite of a home, where each object is imbued with personal meanings or tasks yet to be completed (laundry, cards to respond to, bikes needing a service). To be an anonymous person in this quiet room, looking at these weird objects, is to abdicate responsibility. I owe nothing to them, they owe nothing to me.
They are weird objects. Alongside Fischer’s gigantic clay-as-metal lumps, there is a crushed box cast in galvanised steel and zinc by John Chamberlain and an old tractor that was painstakingly taken apart by Charles Ray and each piece cast in aluminium before being put back together.
Some might say this kind of art is pointless: it’s difficult to imagine who might even collect such objects, once perhaps useful and functional, now rendered inept by their recreation. But here, in their very pointlessness, in their mere taking up of space for our perusal, they signify everything we’ve been denied in these serious Covid times: fun, playfulness and even a kind of detachment from the chaos of the world unfolding around them. That shift in perspective was like a tonic to me. In their metallic, alien coldness, these sculptures restored my understanding of the world as something far bigger than me, a realisation I often find reassuring.