Every musician learns early on that the notes one does not play are as important as the notes one does. And writers, if they are any good, learn to cut, cut, cut. Economy, spareness, is evidence not only of intelligent and careful choices but also of respect for those poor souls who are destined to consume one’s art work. The viewer rejoices to find an artist who delivers something lean and honed, because (in our heart of hearts) none of us wants to wade through distractions; we long to delve into an idea that has been cleared of all flotsam. Robert Orchardson’s new work, Endless Façade (2011), which was first shown at Birmingham’s Ikon, gives us just that – an opportunity to enter a complete world – and it also gives us permission to ask what that world (with its ‘endless façades’) is made of.
Immersion begins at the exhibit’s entrance, which is an unavoidable architectural intervention. Orchardson drops the gallery’s white wall into the space of its entranceway, leaving visitors only a slice to hunker through. At first we may assume the artist means merely to set us on our guard, to get us thinking about the space qua architecture rather than a sterile environment for art, but the entranceway does much more. It could be read as a geometric curtain, beyond which the gallery lives as a stage; or, more dramatically still, it may look animated, as though it could continue to fill in after we hapless viewers have passed through, sealing us inside.
However we read that gateway, Orchardson’s interior is certainly a separate and theatrical world. Half the walls are built up with panels of cement board, a vertical extension of the gallery’s cement floor. This creates a kind of shadow box or even dioramic effect, allowing the 13 objects that live there to be surrounded not by deactivated space but by an atmosphere, a sort of thicker air. The effect ties Orchardson’s objects together into a scene even while they exist as discrete items in the room.
As for the objects themselves: an acrylic blue rod extends from the wall, a white resin circle rests humbly in a corner, a plywood screen balances on tiptoe. In tangential ways, the items recall a theatre set that Isamu Noguchi designed for the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 1955 production of King Lear. And, indeed, Orchardson’s work calls to mind that sense of measured air, or perfect distance between things, that informs the Noguchi Museum in New York. Noguchi’s set was heavily criticized at the time; a ‘failure’ is something that attracts Orchardson. Walking through the Contemporary Art Gallery this winter, he told me that, ‘Noguchi wanted to give them something that was more nothing than nothing’ – a reasonable ambition, given the play’s focus on nothingness and the stripping away of Lear’s powers. Noguchi designed Lear’s cloak so that it would contain more and more holes as the play wore on. Orchardson gives us a non-functional version of the cloak, a piece of red felt abandoned on the gallery floor with Noguchi-esque voids cut out.
There’s a reason that a Modernist like Noguchi was able to conjure that thick atmosphere between his built objects. There’s a reason his King Lear design so radically undid the clutter and trappings of his predecessors. His world, like ours, was more invested in tomorrow than in yesterday. And when you consume more future than you do past, you leave great thrumming spaces between things, for tomorrow to fill in. Orchardson, without ever falling into mimicry of Noguchi, has produced a similar stage, an intelligent place in which his placed objects can marinate in a rich volume. To walk through his work, around his humble set pieces, is a little like walking along the bottom of a swimming pool.