Mark Amery is spellbound by a Toronto architect's artwork that has slipped under the radar into City Gallery Wellington.
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Art doesn't always depend on a wow factor. It's magic can be in pricking your interest in plain yet odd ways, insidiously, subtly working its way under your skin.
Yet who also doesn't love a bit of spellbinding visual wonderment? Particularly when there's a surfeit of dry threadbare aesthetics in art about. Art that grabs you with a flashing lure needn't be shallow.
City Gallery has had a good run with magical immersive installation environments of late: from Israel Tangaroa Birch's glittering taniwha and Gabby O'Connor's Iceberg in the small galleries, to the mirrored worlds of Yayoi Kusama in 2010.
Now add Toronto artist-architect Philip Beesley's Hylozoic Series: Vesica. The Michael Hirschfeld Gallery is usually reserved for Wellington artists (work assembled by local design students while the artist is on conference in town surely doesn't count). Yet I find myself willing to accept a bit of rule bending when it allows for the presentation of extraordinary work like this (and when main show The Obstinate Object has such welcome strong local representation).
The darkened space hosts a dense forest canopy of gently moving and twinkling chandelier-like plastic fernery, translucent vessels and lights. As you wander within, this kinetic environment responds to your movement. On touch dangling creepers buzz and tickle like insects. They send signals to clots of microprocessors that make the pretty fronds unfurl, venus trap like, wafting robotically but gracefully as ballet dancers on strings.
Lights flicker on when sensing motion and other creepers on touch set off faint disembodied voices above (perhaps the background mutterings of the environment's architects). It is as if this human-made nervous system has developed its own independent intelligence. It is like an ever-growing primordial ecological skeleton, mimicking in its shapes the lay of landscape and the networks of cellular structures and plants. It also features clusters of yellow liquid-filled bladders and icicles, feeding energy into the system's arteries.
With the awe factor of the sublime, it is at once enchanting and dark. With its sinister claw and pincer shapes it is as if it is feeding off you. In this respect it is no different from a real wilderness. Like a CGI film portrayal of machines taking the upper hand come to life, I'm spellbound, continuing to touch and wander whilst feeling an increasing sense of unease.
This work follows the Beesley studio's experiments with these forms and concepts over many years. Versions have appeared all over the world, including at the Venice Biennale for Architecture in 2010, yet the sense I have here is of it reaching some artistic maturity.
Hylozoic is the philosophy that all matter has life. Beesley's interest is in models for an architecture in the future that has a lightness, grace and intelligence to respond to the mood, movement and wishes of the people that move through it. Yet this work's power as art is also in the dangers that the material's life portends. Its genuinely scary - an environment that could be collecting data from your fingertips, as the invisible robotics of the internet already do today. And yet also in our magical interconnectedness with the work I find myself reminded of how each of our actions has an environmental impact. The work feels at once of the future and of the past - some baroque laboratory where magic is conjured by a scientist from glittering rows of steaming vials and flasks.
It doesn't all work. In the works cascade down to a bare plastic lattice of sharpened points near floor level (reminiscent of the shape of O'Connor's iceberg structure last year) there are some awkward shifts in visual structuring. The soundscape is the sort of electroacoustic rumble that has become a cliched audio signal in museums that you're entering an otherworldly experience. And, thankfully, my nostrils could not detect that the old hippy forest perfume of patchouli is added into the tubing and bladders every week.
Quibbles aside, don't let the academic title or lack of marketing put you off. Beesley's installation is a rare splendrous treat. We're a lucky city to be the subject of this particular experiment.
- Hylozoic Series: Vesica, Philip Beesley, City Gallery Wellington, until 4 June