As you enter Ambika P3, the subterranean 14,000 square-foot space in central London converted from the vast former concrete construction hall of the University of Westminster’s School of Engineering, it’s so dark that it’s like entering Hades. Erected in the 1960s, the building’s impressive scale and brute industrialism provides a spacious venue for innovative art and architecture. Blundering through the blackness is, however, well worth the effort to encounter Anthony McCall’s poetic, ghostly and technically audacious cones of light. These four works, You and I (II), 2005-11, Breath III, 2005, Skirt I, 2010 and Meeting You Halfway, 2009 are presented as a single work on show in the UK for the first time.
Installation of Vertical Works at Ambika P3, 2011
To mingle with these shapeshifting columns is like walking through drawings made by the finger of God. Projected downwards from the ceiling to form 10-metre tall, conical tents of light, the beams form line drawings on the floor that move and shift like slow dancers, while the three-dimensional body rises up narrowing to a point at the lens of the projector, set high above the viewer’s head.
These ephemeral planes extending through space suggest not only 19th-century spiritualist miasmas and ghostly apparitions but also contemporary explorations into quantum physics and the architecture of space. A key figure in the avant-garde London Film-Makers’ Cooperative in the 1970s, the British born McCall’s cross-disciplinary work has drawn on film, sculpture, drawing and performance. His “solid-light” installations began in 1973 with his seminal Line Describing a Cone in which a volumetric form composed of projected light slowly emerged in three-dimensional space.
As with Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project“, the highly successful intervention that formed part of The Unilever Series in the massive Turbine Hall of Tate Modern, where hoards of visitors lay on the floor basking in its solar glow, or James Turrell’s recent celestial light works shown at Gagosian, King’s Cross, McCall has created an environment where the viewer becomes part of the work. This is art as total immersion, art that arrests both body and soul.
Some of his earliest films documented outdoor performances such as his 1972 Landscape for Fire 11 – where groups of geometrically aligned fires were lit according to a strict temporal progression following a series of diagrams that functioned both as instructions and a score. After a move to New York in 1973 he withdrew, at the end of the ’70s, from making art for 20 years. His newer work has now moved from ostensibly filmic concerns (with time and duration) to an interest in sculptural space where forms move continuously through a cycle of changes. Despite their apparently abstract nature, the titles of his light cones suggest a relationship to the body and with mortality.
Installation of Vertical Works at Ambika P3, 2011
Since October 2009, McCall has been working on the logistics of an ambitious installation Column that combines both art and science. A spinning twister of cloud will rise from Wirral Waters in Merseyside, across from Liverpool’s landmark Liver Building — one of 12 public art commissions commissioned by the Arts Council of England’s Artists Taking the Lead for the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad. The £500,000 artwork is planned to appear first on New Year’s Eve, and then remain in place throughout 2012 as a focal point for the North West’s Olympic involvement. Column beat four other short-listed entries, which in turn had been whittled down from 172 contenders to take the award. It may look magical but its movement is based on the principal of convection, where warm moist air is displaced by denser air, a phenomenon that occurs in nature as thermals and dust devils. The rotating warm, moist streams, combined with extra heat will cause it to lift off the water’s surface to ascend, if not quite like an angel, then in a miraculous spinning column. Responsive to natural light and weather Column will appear as a slender white line against blue skies, or a darker line against overcast skies. The ambition of this is audacious. It will bend with the winds, appearing and disappearing in structured sequences. Several kilometers tall, and subject to the vagaries of local atmospherics, it will potentially be seen from as far afield as Blackpool, Bradford and Manchester, a reminder that there’s more to the up-and-coming Olympics than simply huff and puff, and a huge budget deficit. A work of art more and more comes to resemble a high budget, high octane Hollywood movie. Whether it is Anthony Gormley’s vast Angel of the North or Anish Kapoor’s colossal Marsyas in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, it is dependent on teams of engineers and computers to bring it to fruition, making simple paint on canvas look like another activity all together.
Anthony McCall Vertical Works is at Ambika P3 / Sprüth Magers University of Westminster until 27 Mar 2011
20 May/June 2011 artillery
Content and Texts © Sue Hubbard 2011
Image © Anthony McCall. Courtesy of Sprüth Magers Berlin London
Photo: Stephen White