The artist Martin Creed once wrote about visiting the Capuchin catacombs in Palermo with some friends. They had arrived minutes before closing time, and Creed remembered “running at top speed…looking desperately left and right at all of the dead people hanging on the walls in their best clothes, trying our best to see it all.” The catacombs are not exactly a museum of art, but they might remind us of one. Sometimes those fine old paintings in their gilt frames do look like luxuriously dressed corpses, after all, and even when we museumgoers are not rushed—when we’re taking our time, looking carefully, standing still—we pass through those great whispering galleries a lot faster than the works of art do. They’re there for the duration.
Before long, Creed took the opportunity to put the art lovers in the position of being raced past. In 2008, at Tate Britain in London, he exhibited Work No. 850—a sequence of runners sprinting at set intervals through the museum’s Duveen Galleries, the building’s long, neo-Classical grand central hall. The work was extraordinary: a new way to express not only the simple idea of an intensely rendered line but also the idea, I couldn’t help but feel, of the extraneousness of the viewer. The runners passed by almost before you could see them; you felt like an afterthought, something left in their wake. “I think it’s good to see museums at high speed,” Creed reflected after his visit to Palermo. “It leaves time for other things.” Because art is longer than life, time is what we need more of.
The temptation is maybe not to run but to glide past the works Creed is now showing at Hauser & Wirth London, Savile Row (through March 5), or the ones Gabriel Orozco is exhibiting in his midcareer retrospective at London’s Tate Modern (through April 25), where it concludes a long tour that began at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in December 2009. Both artists, neo-Conceptualists in their 40s, make a point of reducing the artistic gesture to the smallest effective intervention into reality; even when the resulting objects are huge, they embody a simple perception, an almost nugatory transformation. Creed and Orozco are widely admired for their subtlety and lightness of touch. Isn’t viewing their work a matter of quickly registering an implicit idea, like a seed that can grow in one’s mind in retrospect, rather than of the deep looking and extended contemplation one might accord great works of traditional painting and sculpture? To a large extent, yes, but be careful: you might be skating past the point of the work.
It would be impossible to walk by Orozco’s La DS (1993), without at least stopping for a double take: the sculpture is an automobile, a Citroën DS, that has been sliced from bumper to bumper into thirds, with the middle slab removed and the remaining two pressed together. It’s a bit like the mutant car images Peter Cain was painting around the same time, but right there in the flesh. However big and imposing Orozco’s sculpture may be, once you start looking at it, its presence recedes. La DS is an object that seems to be trying to turn into an image. It’s as if the act of looking at it, whereby you intellectually understand what it is that you’re looking at and why it looks that way, can do nothing to convince some other, less conscious part of the brain that it’s seeing what it’s seeing. It’s hard to stop looking, and the car becomes what Roland Barthes in Mythologies said a new Citroën was meant to be, “a purely magical object.”
Something similar might be said of another of Orozco’s best works, Black Kites (1997)—a human skull on which the artist has drawn a checkerboard grid in graphite. Of course, to draw a grid on a complex, irregular surface like that of a skull is strictly speaking impossible, so the squares that make up the grid get distorted into all sorts of stretched-out shapes, mostly but not always four-sided—kites, as the title has it. Again, a double perspective is forced on the viewer: any given shape has to be seen both as a shape in its own right and as a distorted square, a square in anamorphic perspective. Black Kites is also a brilliant twist on art history. In his 1533 painting The Ambassadors, Hans Holbein famously used anamorphic perspective to insert the image of a skull into a symbolic double portrait; Orozco uses the skull as a device to disfigure the supposedly rational structure of the grid.