When Museums Become Instagram Bait

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When Museums Become Instagram Bait
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LONDON — “No, not that way,” the young man behind the press table tells me as I head toward the usual entrance to exhibitions at the Hayward Gallery. “That door over there!” 

He points to the right of me, to a room called the HENI Project Space — written in mighty big letters over the door. “If you don’t go in there now, you might forget later,” he adds, helpfully. “You can go into the rest of the show after that.” Too true, I am very forgetful. So, compliant as an oft-shorn sheep, I nod, and push back the door, having clean forgotten to ask him who HENI is, or was. 

It’s pretty overwhelming once you’re inside the HENI. I later realize that quite a lot of this show, When Forms Come Alive, is on a VERY LARGE SCALE. That’s what’s so surprising about it. How can I best summarize what’s in this room though? 

Installation view of work by Eva Fàbregas in When Forms Come Alive at Hayward Gallery, London

Well, it’s a single form, gradating from pinkish to purplish, and squishily inflatable. Call it, if you like, a kind of entanglement of swollen udders and lengths of tubing, all of a piece, with valves that look like distended teats. It could be crawling. Is it? It looks vaguely predatory. It also engulfs the entire room.

Some sound is added to the mix too: random plinks and pulsings. You can even walk into the middle of it — if you step carefully. Someone — a brave young woman — is doing just that. Her friend’s camera phone is already raised and at the ready. One of the pair is smiling. Choose which.

Does all this make it sound beautiful, memorable, and arresting to look at?

I’m not quite sure how long to stay in this room — five seconds? Ten? I don’t want to insult the nice man who pointed the way in by vomiting myself back out too hurriedly.

This show is all about how restless sculpture has been over the past 60 years. On the move. Threatening to move. Suggesting movement. One entire gallery is taken up with a neon pink roller coaster ride, held up on an elongated wooden structure that rises and falls and rises. 

Installation view of work by EJ Hill in When Forms Come Alive at Hayward Gallery, London

As you enter the main gallery, your eye catches sight of what look like flower heads opening and closing. They are in motion in the air above our heads, behaving like a cohort of umbrellas responding to the onset of rain and shine and then rain again. In that same gallery, tiers of trays seem to be spilling out bath foam in very slow motion. The artist tells us that in time the foam will disappear altogether.

It is in the topmost gallery that I spot the man from The Economist moving at great speed in front of what is surely the exhibition’s largest work: a giant agglomeration of mylar glitter balls that wink at you from all angles. Why did he not stop to look a little closer, I ask myself? Why not spend some time in the presence of this work? 

I think I understand why. It is irredeemably superficial, as colorfully lightweight as they come, and I have already decided that, in common with so much else in this mediocre exhibition of glitz without guts, it does not pass my 10-second test. If a work of art is worth staring at for at least 10 seconds, it stands a chance of being taken seriously. Matthew Ronay’s tabletop fantasticals definitely pass the test. Many of the works in When Forms Come Alive don’t. 

When Forms Come Alive continues at the Hayward Gallery (Southbank Centre, Belvedere Road, London, England) through May 6. The exhibition was curated by Ralph Rugoff with Assistant Curator Katie Guggenheim and Curatorial Assistant Anusha Mistry.

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