Is it art if no one can see it?

As an art student, I was interested in the transformative power of the gallery and the simple mechanism of the plinth, literally elevating an object placed upon it to the status of art. I wanted to explore how these mechanisms affect the way people look at things and behave in the gallery. Artists are in a unique position, being able to play with assumptions and expectations, a certain state of perception, one assumes on entering the gallery space, a readiness to look closely and absorb. Potentially reading meaning into things they would otherwise consider banal.

Antony Hall – Plinth with unseeable object 1998

‘Plinth [with unseeable object]’ 1998 is probably my oldest if not the first, conceptual work I made at art school. A  paradoxical plinth device that was able to display an object, whilst also being able to automatically conceal it if anyone entered the room or approached the plinth.

I found this idea amusing, but the more I thought about it, and the more people said it would be too difficult to do, the more appealing the idea became. At the time I was studying sculpture and making kinetic work with mechanical and motorised elements. Enjoying this new found access to electrical and mechanical parts and metal working tools, this became my first real engineering problem. It was also my first plinth, made on a budget from cheap chipboard. It took days of sanding and repainting to get it perfectly smooth. [To this day I still spend hours making the most perfect plinths possible, the idea being, that ultimately the plinth becomes invisible, highlighting the work on-top, while in reality, the plinth is the work]

I devised a mechanism with a motor, a series of sensors, relays, and timing mechanisms, to open a hatch, through which an object could emerge. A movement sensor ensured that when anyone entered the space the object would rapidly retract, only to emerge later when no one was in the space. Perhaps on entering the space, one might catch a glimpse of movement, something retracting, or hear mechanical click and whine as the mechanism concealed itself.

I took dark pleasure in watching from a distance, people standing next to the plinth motionlessly waiting for something to happen, to see if it was possible to trick the movement sensors. The mechanism ensured that you would not see the object unless you waited motionless for 15 minutes, and no one else entered the room. The hidden object; a shiny abstract aluminium form chosen purely to gleam and capture attention from a distance.

Obviously many people walked past the work, perhaps perceiving only in a peripheral sense, the absence of a thing, or a space unoccupied.  I took away an important lesson from this work; what began as a simple investigation into the dynamics of the gallery environment and a technical challenge, led to a realisation of the subtle power of what is not shown. And how the viewer can unwittingly interact with a system and become part of the work, becoming an active participant.

What seemed like a rebellious act for me at the time, is a recurrent theme in art history; the archetypical void of nothingness, the absence of material objects; a powerful undercurrent in conceptual art, making the viewer reflect on their own role in the experience and perception of the work of art. For me, it instigated an interested in working with the environment of the art gallery, using this more like a laboratory of experience. I want to investigate this area and try to define this notion of ‘perceptual art’, artists working with pure experience, and illusion, work that is activated through human behaviour and interaction. Below I have listed some key works, early predecessors which built foundations for a movement towards more intangible, immaterial and sensory artworks:

See posts on Somaesthetics
See post on ‘Unseen by the artist’ [Lost work] 1999

Key historical works on the theme of nothingness:

Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Air de Paris’ [1919] ‘Ampoule of Parisian ether’, Robert
Rauschenberg’s White Paintings
John Cage’s silent music piece 4′33″ [1952]
Yves Klein’s aura-infused gallery space [1958].

Chris Burden concealed himself within a gallery space on several occasions for durational performances. The simple suggestion of a creative presence, substituting for the work of art itself.

Andy Warhol’s ‘Invisible sculpture’ [an empty plinth]  joke on the commercial art world perhaps?

Other artists/works:

Marina Abramovich, James Turrel’s light works, Tom Friedman’s ‘1000 Hours of Staring’

Notes and references:
The eloquence of absence: omission, extraction and invisibility in contemporary art

“Null Object: Gustav Metzger Thinks About Nothing” in which an object was created from his brainwaves whilst trying to think about nothing.

Life is an illusion. I am held together in the nothingness by art

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