Written in July 2008
Wandering around on the top terrace of the Hayward Gallery the other day I came across an odd-looking building made out of chipboard and plywood. Inside, a film had just started and some guy on-screen was saying that someone else had “always wanted to bury a building” and for that fleeting moment as my friend and I pushed past the other viewers and settled down to watch, I thought what a great idea that was. I could just see it; a small detached house like the sort that kids draw – perhaps one that had just been left for the day, washing-up still in the sink, clothes drying on a rack – you know the sort of thing. There it was in my mind, earth falling all around it, encapsulating it in a cocoon of damp darkness like a time capsule being left there sleeping to be discovered centuries later.
But that was where the daydream was brought abruptly to an end. The building in question was not a carefully chosen house, but just a crumbling wooden lean-to that happened to be redundant and on-hand in the grounds of Kent State University where Robert Smithson had been invited to create something. And he didn’t bury it either – just pushed a heap of soil over one end until it could no longer take the weight. Then he titled it Partially Buried Woodshed and gave it a price tag of $10,000 or so.
Now as someone who rarely finishes anything, I know an unfinished project when I see one. Did Robert Smithson simply run out of time or inclination? Who knows? What I do know is that if Smithson was just some random student, the shed project in question would never have been mentioned again, let alone have a gaggle of academics spouting verbiage about its importance in the history of the world and all that crap forty-odd years later.
In an effort to resist a Tourettish outburst and stop my arteries bursting open and spattering the carefully jigsawed woodwork, I let my mind drift off into the structure surrounding us and recalled one of my earlier visits to the Hayward Gallery. Back in the late 1980’s I was a first year art student, studying sculpture out in the sticks. Our tutors had declared it of ‘utmost importance’ that we do a group trip to London to see the Rodin exhibition. They marched us painfully slowly round the show, verbally masturbating all over each piece. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve never been into figurative works of art. To my mind, even the most boring live person is infinitely more interesting than one made out of bronze or painted onto canvas (although thinking back, perhaps my college tutors were the exception to that rule).
So anyway, sticky with pseudo-intellectual ejaculate and under the pretence of needing the loo, I escaped to the top floor to find out what The Boyle Family were all about.
Now you’ll have to forgive me if I get their thing a bit wrong but from what I gathered, The Boyle Family had thrown a dart in a map, then got a larger scale map of the area where the dart hit, then thrown another dart and gone to that place and picked a piece of the land to make an exact copy of it out of resin.
I wandered around looking at these casts and fell completely arse-over-tit in love. It was an epiphany. As a kid growing up in the countryside, I’d spent many a happy hour with my face pressed to the ground watching ants and daisies and stuff but not once had I actually looked at the land simply to see what it looked like – colours, textures, patterns, composition and all that. Now here I was, staring at it on a gallery wall like I was a just-landed alien looking at a planet for the first time and thinking it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
I skipped back to my group, high on my newly-discovered knowledge but when I tried to share it, my tutors looked at me as if I’d just smeared dog crap on their precious Rodin and whisked us all out of the gallery faster than you can spit.
Twenty years on and not a day goes by when I don’t look at the land beneath my feet and get something back from it. And it’s not just visual things either but history and sociology and so much more than my limited vocabulary can describe. Random stuff like reflections of trees in puddles and looking down at Oxford Street from the top of a bus, counting the numbers of gum spits per paving slab and noticing how much more concentrated they are at the Marble Arch end.
I don’t need art buffs or price tags to tell me what I ought to be looking at and neither do you. Art is everywhere we look and is everything we look at – but maybe we need to see it in a gallery once in a while to remind us.
Psycho Buildings is on at the Hayward Gallery until 25 August 2008. My favourite piece was Rachel Whiteread’s Place (village).