No doubt most people engaged in the visual-art scene will have encountered, in one form or another, some of the publicity surrounding the exhibition, Psycho buildings at the Hayward Gallery in London.  Displaying the work of such high-profile names as Ernesto Neto, Mike Nelson, Rachel Whiteread and Atelier Bow-Wow, to name but a few, the show is indisputably a must-see. Sponsored by a global financial communications company, promising “radical transformations” and “innovative artistic visions,”[1]  and accompanied by a profusion of flashy merchandise from glossy posters to a gallery publication of epic proportions, Psycho buildings represents an excellent example of the contemporary blockbuster exhibition .

Bow wow

Atelier Bow-Wow: Life tunnel, 2008; image held here

Blockbuster exhibitions, and their recent habit of blazing a trail across the international contemporary art scene, can be simultaneously wonderful and deeply contentious. The show’s subtitle, Artists take on architecture, suggests something aggressive and exciting, rather than applying other dour and predictable subtitles such as The relationship between art and architecture, for example. This instantly sets the viewer up for an energy and accessibility that far exceeds that which we traditionally expect to encounter behind the closed doors of art galleries and institutions.  Every facet of the organisation and production of the exhibition comes as a reminder of how the various manifestations of visual art and the ways in which it is presented have been subject to radical transformation over the centuries. In tandem, it emphasises the ways in which time has altered how we are expected to engage, perceive and respond to visual art, and how organisation and production are carefully designed to engineer these specific forms of engagement, perception and response. The blockbuster movie grabs our attention with a captivating trailer that isolates and amplifies all the most entertaining or pressurized moments in the film. The advertising campaign of theblockbuster exhibition is generally more enigmatic but no less subtly manipulative. Inside, the show will draw the viewers through by means of crafty curation, abetted by promotional literature. Behind the doors of the Hayward, Psycho buildings is an immediate onslaught of sensory experience, from Ernesto Neto’s giant fabric construction (complete with hanging pouches heavy with the aroma of cloves and cinnamon) to Atelier Bow-Wow’s Life tunnel (an abstract metal staircase through which viewers can negotiate floors to the booms and echoes of their footsteps).  Upstairs, the Viennese artist unit, Gelitin, and Tomas Saraceno have taken interactivity a step further, Gelitin with a rooftop pool for the viewer to paddle around in little wooden boats, and Saraceno with a giant, transparent, plastic bubble in which visitors can scramble and bounce or simply recline and admire the skies over London. 


Tomas Saraceno: Observatory, air-port-city, 2008; image held here

It is unlikely that the organisers will see any reason to pause for reflection before declaring the exhibition a rip-roaring success.  People queued patiently to row the wooden boats and lie in the two-storey bubble, kids thundered up and down the abstract staircase with delirium, and tourists and Londoners alike meandered through the various structures and cluttered up the bookshop. Including such talented artists and architects, Psycho buildings could not accurately be described as weak or disappointing by any stretch of the imagination. Each artist had engaged with the ideas driving the show and commented, through their work, on some aspect of the complexities that arise out of our human-made environment. The individual pieces were thoughtful and, in most cases, meticulously approached and constructed. If we consider that the role of architecture is to explore physical and tactile living experiences of space and structure, and the role of art as being more about sensory perception and contemplation, the show successfully merged these separate understandings throughout. 

So it was unfortunate for the work included that blockbuster exhibitionsspecialise in the playground effect, in which children romp happily and parents reassure themselves that learning is taking place.  Everybody else marvels at the spectacle, reflects fleetingly on the concepts outlined in the literature provided, and buys a big shiny book to prove to the world that the entertainment factor is not without substance, and will have an enduring effect. Visually impressed: tick. Important underlying issues considered: tick. Suitably entertained: tick. Unfortunately, every box ticked is a box considered and provided by the organisers, promoters, sponsors, institutions, etc. Bestowing viewers with a list of guidelines and a series of ‘nudges’ regarding how to navigate an exhibition and receive individual artworks allows very little room for opinions and perceptions to develop naturally. Instead, viewers tick all the boxes and go home seemingly fulfilled. Major themed shows that come adorned with elaborate advertising campaigns, forests of explanatory literature and promises of enjoyment across all classes of society, are intrinsically instructive and fundamentally didactic. 

 Gelitin: Normally, proceeding and unrestricted with without title, 2008; image held here

Interactive sculptures and installations have become the standard fare of theblockbuster exhibition . Surely allowing a more physical interaction with an artwork will precipitate a deeper theoretical, critical and emotional engagement, laying bare a multitude of possible interpretations?  This may be the case, except that interactive sculptures and installations generally also tend to be quite fun. An artwork that is fun is in every way relevant and permissible, so long as fun does not obliterate all the other aspects of a beautiful and important piece, smothering its meaning. Undoubtedly fun draws the crowds, but it should not be the responsibility of art to be crowd-pleasing, attention-grabbing or instantly gratifying. Little kids squeal with joy as they stomp through an Atelier Bow Wow architectural sculpture – the same squeals of joy emitted by the prospect of an episode of the Teletubbies .  Does a creation of two such talented, bright and accomplished individuals in the context of an exhibition that purports to be of visual art not deserve a little more dignity and respect?  It now seems as though the unshakable, desensitised MTV generation requires the engagement of multiple senses simultaneously in order to elicit any form of recognition or response, with paintings on walls and sculptures on pedestals simply unable to tick the viewer’s boxes anymore.  Participating in art is unarguably essential.  But why is it that observation and contemplation no longer appear to be worthy of classification as methods of participation, that seeing and thinking are no longer sufficient to be considered experiencing?

Mike Nelson’s rooms in Psycho buildings exemplified a good case of sensory suggestion without blaring instructions at the viewer. To the memory of H.P. Lovecraft occupied a gallery space that had been repeatedly hacked with a chainsaw in such a consistent and methodical way as to hint at visceral, ominous things that had since departed. Sometimes if all that an artwork offers is the bare minimum, viewers will gratefully fill in the gaps with imagination. On the other hand, Los Carpinteros’ installation, Show room, a series of sterile domestic spaces frozen mid-explosion,was spectacularly put together, but felt more like a remarkable reconstruction than a meaningful art work.  Visitors tended to diligently observe everything there was to see with prescribed fascination, but then to passively move on.

show room
  Los Carpinteros: Show room, 2008; image held here

In an essay by Jane Rendell in the Hayward Gallery publication accompanying the exhibition, she asserts that

Unlike architecture, art may not be useful in pragmatic terms, for example in responding directly to social needs, providing shelter or somewhere in which to perform open heart surgery, but we could say that art provides a place for other kinds of function – self reflection, critical thinking and social change.  [2]

In order to give art the credit it deserves, it should be reserved for these functions and not aspire to apparently ‘greater’ things by employing crowd-pleasing tactics and blurring the boundaries between several disciplines and genres all at once. Visual art is never going to revolutionise the world, but it is well within its remit to make subtle yet profound changes if it satisfies itself with simpler, more modest roles.  One stationary object or drawing should be powerful enough in its own right and on its own terms, to impact, to engage and to move without all the adornments and accoutrements of popular culture.  Art should be allowed to stay still every once in a while, and it should instead be our minds that are fizzing and whirring and active.

The great tragedy of blockbuster exhibitionsin general and Psycho buildings in particular is that their greatness will be lost on at least every second visitor to tramp a route through the Hayward between May and August.  This is not because the artists are missing the mark or the public are too stupid, but because the promotion and organisation of such shows consistently endorses entertainment and amusement over contemplation and reflection.

Sara Baume is an artist and writer.

[1] Sponsor’s foreword, from Psycho buildings: artists take on architecture, Hayward Publishing, 2008

[2] Jane Rendell, ‘Artist’s Use of Architecture: Place, site and setting’, from Psycho buildings: artists take on architecture, Hayward Publishing, 2008