With this exhibition, Cerith Wyn Evans throws both himself and the viewer into a beautiful free fall. Forget how you think this might look – let’s say, a mass of confused imagery flying past your discombobulated body – and instead envisage an experience of clean certitude: bold lines, crisp light and minimalist planes. The artist has acknowledged his indebtedness to both Eric Alliez’s The Brain-Eye (2007), a post-phenomenological study of painting and its ‘hallucinatory sensation’, and Hito Steyerl’s 2011 essay, ‘In Free Fall: A Thought Experiment on Vertical Perspective’. Steyerl argues that, today, linear perspective has been supplemented by other types of vision (such as the aerial views of Google Maps), twisting and multiplying traditional modes of seeing. For Steyerl, there is a politics of verticality: surveillance technology is ‘an intensified class war from above […] a proxy perspective that projects delusions of stability, safety and extreme mastery’.
Originally conceived as a site-specific work for Wyn Evans’s show at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, Neon ‘Once more …’ After J.M. (‘The Changing Light at Sandover’) (2014) feels seamless in its second presentation here, suspended to create a horizon line across two walls. A sterile white light so bright that, at times, you have to squint, the neon delineates a poetic description of the world as a ‘gassy expansion […] peppered by black holes’. Its title pays homage to American poet James Merrill’s epic poem inspired by Ouija-board séances. (Wyn Evans is known for his interest in language and perception, often reformulating structures of communication; past works have reconfigured lights to render texts in Morse code, for example.) The Ouija-board, with its unpredictable, meandering pointer, epitomizes nonlinearity.
Fragments of this neon are reflected in the five-channel audio installation ‘E=L=A=P=S=E’ in Glass with Sound (2016): 11 panes of toughened low-iron glass suspended from stainless-steel cables in a figure of eight in the middle of the gallery. (It’s no coincidence that this is the symbol for infinity: anti-linear, without start or finish.) Within these
windowpanes, letters are reversed as in a mirror, reflected words layered upon one another to create poetic amalgams, transforming Wyn Evans’s neon into a broken horizon line fragmented in space.
As I wove my body (itself reflected) between the panels, a chorus of ambient noise was emitted, powered by tiny speakers embedded into each sheet of glass. Recalling birdsong, piano notes (another work upstairs features the artist’s own piano compositions), breezes and gentle tapping, these are actually recordings of stars – the symphony of the universe. Wyn Evans not only breaks the linear horizon, he provides an overview of the entire curved universe using the sound of stars – which, billions of years old, also embody a vast expanse of time.
Another neon in the entrance hall, ‘L=U=M=E=N’ After H.D. (2016) celebrates the artist Hanne Darboven – reproducing, in her scrawled handwriting, a mirror image of the German word heute (today). Darboven’s linear constructions of numbers (which she described as a form of writing) offer an orderly system by which to represent time as the continuous flux of life; here, Wyn Evans’s work operates similarly.
This exhibition comes hot on the heels of the 9th Berlin Biennale, in which artists who typically sit under the post-internet umbrella explored the conditions of a contemporary world dominated by capital, commerce and the vertical logic discussed by Steyerl. Wyn Evans’s presentation feels complex and sophisticated by contrast. He uses a minimalist vocabulary to render our social atomization in physical form – divided by the glass screens that mediate our lives – without assaulting the senses with impersonation or pastiche.