The Wapping Project , London, UK
‘Irons in the Fire’ is the name given to a group of projects by Richard Wilson dating from the late 1980s to the present. Ideas are represented by sketches, blueprints and maquettes, thus lending equal status to finished works and unrealized conceptions. Perhaps the most celebrated of Wilson’s installations is 20:50, a reservoir of sump oil that has occupied several venues since its initial appearance in Matt’s Gallery in 1987. It takes a moment, however, to realize that you are looking at a defining work of British installation art when presented with one half of an old shoebox. The arte povera quality of the prototype intensifies the tarnished grandeur of the scaled-up version. And the number of great notions that never got beyond the planning stage conjures up the image of a potential Wilson oeuvre that is daunting in its aims and inventiveness. One of the most beguiling of these lost opportunities was the idea of rigging out the Baltic Flour Mills in Gateshead with alternating neon outlines, two of which would reproduce the shape of the building, but with one skewed away from the other. Flicking the two sets of lights on and off would create the impression that the building was moving, living out the title The Joint’s Jumping.
There is a core to the body of work that Wilson has both dreamed of and realized that reveals an obsession with architecture in motion. The expression ‘safe as houses’ is meaningless when he is around. The kinds of thing he routinely does to both individual rooms and entire buildings are usually the result of natural or man-made disasters. But in Wilson’s hands the same effects are achieved through painstaking construction. Projects such as Tumble Room (2001), Over Easy (1997?8) and Turning the Place Over (1998?2001) could not be more dramatic in their focus on subverting architectural design and function. The revolving chambers and rotating segments of wall that frequently appear evoke the experiments in zero gravity undertaken by space programmes. But the pivot around which such experiments turn is the human body inside them - an absence in Wilson’s work. The rooms, buildings and vessels that undergo such alterations are shells that were once animated by work, trade, communication or congregation. Now, in the form of art, they are objects only of detached contemplation, except that the viewer’s recognition of displacement or dysfunction always routes the attention back to the original uses of the space being usurped. In this respect the current setting of what used to be the Wapping Hydraulic Power Station is an especially apt space in which to show Wilson’s work.
Sometimes the sense of the artwork as a conductor for an energy that converts an aesthetic impulse into a social critique is given an absolutely literal form. In Strange Apparatus (1999) and Turbine Hall Swimming Pool (2000) the creation of a source of electricity that could run a distant facility exposes certain relations of power and prestige in contemporary culture by the simple but cunning expedient of reversing the usual current. For Turbine Hall Swimming Pool Wilson intended to generate electricity at an art space in Dilston Grove, Southwark, with the intention of selling the results to the National Grid. Not far upriver he would attach a meter to a spotlight trained on the Tate Modern and pay for the electricity required through the proceeds from the Dilston operation. By referring the work of art back to its origins in a system of dependency that controls what is visible and what isn’t, Wilson encouraged the viewer to make connections between art spaces and the spaces for work and habitation that are too often suppressed by the institutional limits placed on the scope of the work of art. ‘Irons in the Fire’ shows the consistency of his concerns and makes clear the political dimension of an apparent craze for constantly turning over the place of art, almost literally turning it inside out.