I’ve Been Better Entertained

I've Been Better Entertained

The composition of this painting uses a Simple Perfect Squared Square, which is a method of subdividing a square into other squares. Each square is a different size, hence the ‘Perfect’. The minimum number of squares possible for a Simple Perfect Squared Square is 21, which was discovered by Duijvestijn in 1978. That arrangement is used here.

James Turrell

Artworks increasingly have to compete for our already divided attention. Pause for a moment in any gallery to observe the other visitors and you will see that most media don’t manage to hold us for very long. A painting might receive a few seconds of looking – more for the caption, if there is one – before the viewer moves on to the next thing. The static medium of painting could be accused these days of not trying hard enough to get and hold our attention. Time-based media has it easier. The expectation that something might happen next may, if the artwork is fortunate, be enough to hold its viewer for a bit longer. But even then, narrative forms can struggle in a gallery environment.

In this respect, the work of James Turrell sits somewhere between painting and video. The materiality of painting is dissolved into pure light and colour. Planes of colour float in recesses at an indeterminate distance. Curious onlookers will peer around the edges to see the workings, but they are concealed from view. There may be a glass screen, the light may be projected, but what and how is withheld.

The immateriality of the work contrasts with Dan Flavin’s pieces currently on show at Tate Modern. Flavin’s signature fluorescent tubes are out in the open and become sculptural. The various arrangements of tubes against the wall is as much part of the work as the various colours of light employed. With Turrell, there is more mystery. The press release might mention sheets of glass and LED light sources, but all we can see is coloured light. And unlike the harshness of an uncovered fluorescent, Turrell’s light is both inviting and potentially absorbing of our attention.

A glance at one of these pieces might suggest that it is a static projection, however subtle. But all four installations are gradually modulating themselves, so the reward is only fully gained by remaining for a while. One colour dissolves into a haze. Another appears at the edges. A horizontal band appears, only to dissolve again. As one waits more subtle changes emerge, as do questions. How much of our experience is in the piece, and how much the retinal effects? Occasional interference patterns seem to emerge, some transitions seem more abrupt than others. Suddenly – or it seems so, once one has settled into the pace of change of each piece – there may be a flood of a brand new colour. If one remains long enough, one might start to wonder if there is repetition in the sequence or endless variation. With so little in the way of visual anchors, it is hard to say.

The nearest natural phenomena that works like this evoke is the gradual change from light to dark at sunrise and sunset. But that process is a linear one, whereas these just keep going apparently without end.

If there is a criticism to be made of this show, it is in the arrangement of the ground floor gallery, where the viewing bays have a busy atrium through the entrance doors behind them. This disrupts the opportunity for contemplation on offer. A single work upstairs is more sealed off and has somewhere to sit. It is here, in the darkened room, that you can allow the full richness of these works to unfold.

Ana Mendieta

Ana Mendieta was born in Cuba in 1948 and was sent to the USA by her family when she was only 13. It’s tempting to see that early displacement as a major – perhaps unspoken – theme in her work, with all its references to the presence or absence of her body in the landscape.

Much of Mendieta’s work was performance-based or made from rather transitory materials and therefore it remains only as photographs. But the themes run in quite a tight circle and she is such a powerful and consistent presence in the work, that it still feels raw and energised despite the mediation of photography.

Her own body is a constant theme. Early on she modified its shape by pressing sheets of glass against it, or altered its perceived gender by constructing a moustache for herself using trimmings from a male friend’s beard. That piece, redolent of fancy dress but going further than that, is both comic and disturbing.

But she really finds her theme with the siluetas, a series of around one hundred works. These might take the form of a body-shaped impression in the ground, left unmarked or partially filled with water or pigment. Other pieces use her outline, burnt onto a tree or formed of blazing fireworks.

In another piece she lies naked, face down on the grass, the lawn partially covering her body. That process of assimilation by nature is extended in her Tree of Life works where she stands against a wide-girthed tree covered in mud from head to foot as if camouflaging herself, her arms and hands raised in mimicry of the branches above. Later on she incorporated mummy-like figures, often placed in body-shaped impressions in the ground. There is an aspect of ritual here, especially when the figures are pierced as if some kind of totem. In another image she evokes sacrificial rites by lying wrapped in a shroud with a calf’s heart resting on her chest. Another photo shows her lying in a stone coffin-like structure, plants and flowers covering her and growing above her body. The image is redolent of ancient Egyptian images of the god Osiris with stalks of wheat growing from his mummified body – death and rebirth in one.

Later rooms in the show move on to her drawings and sculptures in mud, bark and stone, but it is the siluetas that remain most alive in the mind. The repeated – dare one say obsessive – theme of the body’s simultaneous presence and absence, the shallow impression in the ground, the blending in with tree or grass, all add up to haunt the mind and make me wonder what desires lay behind this wish to be both present and to disappear into the natural world, to be defiantly alive and yet to mimic death in so many ways.