ART / The secret meaning of snooker: Water Table is one of the simplest and oddest of all the creations from the installation artist Richard Wilson. By Andrew Graham-Dixon

Andrew Graham-Dixon
Monday 11 April 1994 23:02

I was in a large room waist-high in dark, viscous oil, moving through it untouched like Moses parting the Red Sea. But I couldn't get all the way across and I was marooned in the middle of a still, black lake that was also a liquid mirror: it was raining outside, I saw through a window, and I remember looking at the rain's dark reflection in the oily pool around me and noticing that, there, it was falling not down but up.

I was in the same room, on one of the upper floors of a warehouse in a run- down part of town, and there was no oil this time but there was still something peculiar about it. A long steel-framed industrial window running the length of one wall had been cantilevered into the middle of the room and suspended there. Gazing through the displaced window at the buildings and parkland which it still framed, I found myself wondering, curiously, where the inside of the room ended and where the outside began.

I was standing in a cage at the bottom of a tall and dark tower. It started to hail metal, great chunks of steel crashing to the ground a few feet away. Looking up, I saw hundreds of used car parts dangling from wires like huge silver bats in a belfry. Slowly, rhythmically, they fell, twisting and glittering.

THE WORKS OF Richard Wilson are as peculiar and inevitable as the things seen and heard and felt in dreams, and that is how they survive in the memory: vivid, enigmatically portentous, illogically logical, more like sleeping than waking experiences. The memory, in fact, is the only place where many of them survive, being ephemeral mises-en-scene, weird fancies staged for a limited time only. Of the three Wilsons imperfectly recollected above only the first, 20:50, now exists as a thing rather than as a trace in the mind. Usually referred to as 'the oil piece', it was bought several years ago by Charles Saatchi and reconstructed in the white cavern of the Saatchi Gallery in St John's Wood, London, where it may still be seen.

20:50 is impressive and disconcerting, but not as impressive and as disconcerting as when it was first made, for the warehouse space of Matt's Gallery in the East End of London, in 1987. Displacement has robbed it of many of its original and local associations. The long and battered window of Matt's Gallery originally mirrored in its slick black surface of oil, with, beyond, a melancholy view of scrubby urban wasteland, was once a part of its meaning. A quiet and still lake of sump oil in a building in a part of London once, but no longer, a busy centre of manufacturing industry, it was among other things a reflection on decline. Now, rehoused in Saatchi's art gallery in genteel residential NW8, it has also been subtly diminished and tamed - turned into a coup de theatre, made too simply entertaining. By far the most celebrated of Wilson's works, it has put him in rather an odd and unenviable position. Widely known as 'the bloke who did the thing with oil', he has become an artist whose reputation is founded on a work that only lives as the ghost of its original self.

But Wilson continues to dream his strange dreams regardless and his newest work, Water Table, is one of the simplest and oddest of all his creations. To visit it - particularly when there is no one else around - is indeed like wandering into a room that has been dreamt but made concrete and solid, so that you can inspect the architecture, puzzle over the peculiar fittings and fixtures and look out of the window. It is like being transported into one of the odder corners of someone else's mind and being free to look around.

The larger of the two spaces in the remodelled and relocated Matt's Gallery - still in the East End, still more or less in the middle of an urban nowhere - has been painted a stark and blinding white. Sunk into the floor of the room, its top exactly level with it, you find a snooker table, its edges flush with the cavity into which it has been lowered so that it has a peculiar, horticultural look to it, a garden of green baize set in stone. The accessories of the game are missing: no balls, no triangle, no chalk, no cues, no half- butt. No spider either, though there may be a rat or two. The table has been given a seventh pocket, between one of the two middle pockets and the baulk line, which takes the form of a large concrete drainage pipe plunged through baize and slate and wood, through the foundations of the building and down into the London water-table. Looking down into it as if into a well, you see and hear faint, unpleasant splashing noises in the wet murk. The rest of the room is bare. Out of the window, there is a view of a stretch of empty canal and three terminally depressed gasometers silhouetted against the sky.

Water Table's significance is opaque and indeterminate and the artist leaves it up to viewers to puzzle as much or as little meaning into his work as they like. The dream can just be dreamt but - like all the most vivid dreams - it invites interpretation. Among other things, Wilson's work amounts to a small and suggestive essay on the secret meanings of snooker.

Most games are metaphorical but snooker is unusually rich in this respect. To play snooker, however well or badly, is to enact a fantasy of control, because snooker - unlike golf, say, or football - is a game which it is theoretically possible to play infallibly. The snooker table is a controlled environment, a flat and perfectly even surface, evenly lit, which rules out the kind of natural disturbances - high wind or rain or the irregular contours of the ground - that affect games played outdoors. The balls are stationary between every shot, which means that, given sufficient skill, it should be possible to pot each and every one of them in the correct order without error. Control is everything, in snooker, and to play the game perfectly (it has been done once or twice) is to have been perfectly self-controlled in body and mind. Snooker is the perfect game for the Freudian ego to play.

But snooker is also, if less overtly, the game of the id, a game teeming with sexual suggestiveness. Played predominantly by men wielding large phallic symbols otherwise known as cues, the colloquialisms of snooker indicate that what is really being played out on the table is a kind of primitive battle to prove sexual prowess, like the rutting of stags: the kiss, the touch and the nudge, the soft or deep screw of snooker terminology reveal the obvious (on reflection, anyway) significance of a game whose entire point, after all, is to get things into holes.

This should make the meaning of Water Table abundantly clear. The work is a metaphor for human delusions of control. The snooker table is bare, and without the diversion of a game being played upon it, we see it for what it is: a fantasy of order beneath which - as that seventh pocket lavatorially suggests, reaching down into the dark well of the subconscious where sinister things dwell - lurk old and primitive impulses. The ruined and run-down landscape outside the window, with its pointless canal and defunct gasometers and barren land, has its own significance: another metaphor for things getting out of hand and out of control; the will of man defeated by entropy and decay; humanity snookered, perpetually, by the deeper and darker and more destructive force of nature.

At least I think that's what it all means - but then again, I could just be dreaming.

'Water Table' is at Matt's Gallery, 42 Copperfield Road, London E3; Wed-Sun 12-6pm

'20:50' is indefinitely on display at the Saatchi Gallery, 98a Boundary Road, London NW8; Fri-Sun, 12-6pm

(Photograph omitted)

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