Anthony McCall, Serpentine Gallery, London
Blinded by the light, deafened by the children
Sunday 09 December 2007
I hate to sound like Ebenezer Scrooge what with Christmas coming on, but do people really have to have children? And if so, must they take them to art galleries? I ask this having just been to Anthony McCall's exhibition at the Serpentine, a customarily interesting show made unwatchable by the whoopings of the Little Ones. God bless 'em, one and all.
One of the things that makes seeing McCall's work compelling is that we Brits so seldom get the chance to. Born here, McCall moved to New York in 1973 and has lived abroad since. With his algebraic rigour and interest in film, McCall has been more popular in France than here. Which makes the Serpentine's show - his first major one-man exhibition in London - both important and annoying.
Like all art, McCall's is interactive; which is to say that we have to finish it for him by looking at his works or moving around them or bringing our own experience to them. In 1973, McCall made the first of his so-called "solid light" installations, essentially projected beams describing solid forms - planes, cones - in darkened rooms. If this sounds vaguely like a description of going to the cinema, then so it should.
McCall is in love with the drama of projection, though with its normal outcome - a story told on a screen - left out of the equation. At one end of works such as Turning Under and You and I, Horizontal III is a projector, at the other the shape described by the light projected: a curve, maybe, or horizontal or vertical axes or a circle, morphing in glacially slow motion. In between the projector and the wall is the space McCall has made his own, occupied by a trompe l'oeil solid made of insubstantial light.
There is wonder in all this, and it comes from all sorts of places. McCall's love of the cinema is obvious and infectious. This show includes a handful of his early films - self-consciously avant-garde 1970s shorts in which actors bury earth in boxes or walk across ploughed fields holding sheets. There's the same apocalyptic feel to these films as there is in early Tarkovsky. This carries over into McCall's first (and most famous) solid light installation, Line Describing a Cone (1973) - a huge 16mm film projector whose beam slowly spells out a circle of light on the gallery wall and, in between, the cone-shaped beam that defines it. McCall's projector, running by itself, has the air of an infernal machine. It is both a maker of films and the star of its own movie, a cinematic version of Kubrick's Hal. Being alone with it in the Serpentine's East Gallery would be worrying.
Except that the chances of your doing so are small. McCall's installations work on various levels, and it is on the cusps between these that their cleverness lies. Questions such as where his art takes place - in the projector, on the wall or in the bandstanding bit in between - sound like intellectual navel-gazing, but you do really find yourself asking them. Equally, there's a sense that the word "cinema" means two things to McCall - both a collective term for movies, and the room or building in which they are shown. It's as though Turning Under runs these two things together, making a 30-minute film noir out of the distilled essence of watching film noir: black and white, Expressionist silhouette, the horror and joy of being in darkness pierced by light.
Somewhere in all of this is a nostalgia for cinemas gone by, perhaps for childhood. On the simplest level, McCall's installations work because, like sophisticated fairground mirrors, they defy the senses. Where the laughter of little children would add to the House of Mirrors experience, hearing wee Djuna shriek "Again! Again!", again and again, does not do much for your enjoyment of McCall.
I don't want to disappear up my own arts here, but these works are cinematic, and part of the experience of cinema is silence. Children wouldn't be allowed to run around screaming in Double Indemnity, so why should they be during Line Describing a Cone? Both are about time, resolution and outcome, about patience. It can't be beyond the Serpentine to run a crèche, or to do adults-only McCall days. I know Our Lord suffered little children to come unto Him, but there are limits.
Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020 7402 6075) to 3 February 2008
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