Beneath the high glass ceilinged exhibition hall of the South London Gallery, a dense mesh of red and black thread engulfs the room. The interweaving lines form a tunnel that draws the viewer into the space. Within the network, the threads are animated by the emergence and dissolution of large letters that are gradually deciphered to spell UNMATTERING and TIGER TIME. This site-specific installation by American artist Pae White is inspired by a period of insomnia and her consequent reflection on the transience of our existence. Such existential questions are alluded to by the simultaneously substantial and transient quality of this textile installation. However, it is White’s perceptive negotiation with architecture that is the most compelling feature of this exhibition.
Responding to the ‘relentless ethereality’ of the exhibition hall, White constructed the work to be simultaneously in conflict and sympathy with the space. Indeed, from certain angles, the threads coalesce to form a dense, angry mass of red, black and purple, clashing boldly against the serene white walls. Move slightly, and the illusion of substance collapses and the threads elegantly fall into geometric harmony, echoing the fine lines of the building, drawing our gaze upwards to contemplate the site itself as an extension of the artwork. The fluctuation between substance and nothingness is reinforced by the unusual word UNMATTERING written on a monumental scale down the length of one wall. TIGER TIME, White reveals, suggests the menacing quality of insomnia, ‘concealed’ and ‘lying in wait’.
With a vast and incredibly diverse career, White’s work shares one common theme: a specific and often unpredictable response to place. Previous works have been sited in a decommissioned French synagogue; a disused Venetian warehouse transformed into an elaborate birdcage with hidden impersonators mimicking birdsong, and a sound installation of German bells programmed to play love songs throughout Dusseldorf. More recently, White’s work has involved increasingly large-scale public art commissions: her signature thread installations in LAX airport; an outdoor exercise park for dogs, and future plans to re-design London tube stations with enormous Kelvin light-boxes to provide a ‘wash of optimism’ for seasonally-affected Londoners. In each piece, White displays an unusual ease in relinquishing control of her art and letting the site influence its outcome; the reflective surfaces of an installation that depended on her native Californian sunshine were transformed in the dim January light of a Berlin gallery.
This flexibility and willingness to collaborate is apparent in ‘Too Much Night, Again’. White is openly grateful for the collective effort required to assemble the vast textile installation. In total, the work involved 48km of yarn, 4,725 eye screws, 8 people, 2 weeks and 18 pizza boxes. This joint effort is testified by the presence of the 18 pizza boxes piled at the end of the installation, alongside White’s ancient running shirt; a ritual aspect of her studio time. This unique signature style is seen in other pieces: her marital initials were embroidered into custom bus seat covers, ‘just for kicks’. And in the corner of a vast metallic stage curtain, White scanned her thumbprint, rather than the standard artist’s signature.
‘Too Much Night, Again’ is an impressive installation, and well worth visiting for its immersive, experiential viewing experience. However, I can’t help but feel that White’s artwork is paradoxically more successful outside the art gallery. Her work is most vibrant and exciting in its engagement with the public, often with a practical concern: ‘sculptures often do something for people.’ All of her projects are built around her persistent questioning: ‘how does art engage with the world?’ The textile installation at South London Gallery draws our attention to the ‘relentless ethereality’ of the site, though it also highlights the limits of the exhibition space, raising the question: is art more effective in public spaces than confined in art galleries?
‘Too Much Night, Again’ Exhibition Dates: 13 March – 12 May 2013 Admission free
Tuesday – Sunday 11-6pm Closed Mondays
Current exhibitions: Eoghan Ryan: Oh wicked flesh! 5 March – 12 May 2013