…The Illuminating Gas: Cerith Wyn Evans at Pirelli HangarBicocca
Written by Virginia Bianchi
Published on 9 January 2020

If there is one exhibition you can’t miss this winter, that is the one we are going to talk about in this article. Cerith Wyn Evans’ show ‘…The Illuminating Gas’ at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca is the biggest exhibition of the artists up to today – and this should be already enough to convince you that this show is unmissable.

Cerith Wyn Evans’ show ‘…The Illuminating Gas‘ at Pirelli Hangar Bicocca is the biggest exhibition of the artists up to today – and this should be already enough to convince you that this show is unmissable.

But before saying too much, let’s first try and understand who Wyn Evans is…

He was born in Wales in 1958 and is defined as a ‘conceptual artist’ – let’s accept this term aware of all the simplifications it includes. He first started his career as a filmmaker in the artistic experimental scene of London in the 70s and 80s: after his graduation from the Royal College of Art in 1984, he entered in contact with the subculture of the city and the avant-garde of independent cinema. He created some experimental films and collaborated on music videos for bands such as The Smiths and Throbbing Gristle (remember these partnerships because we are soon going back to them…).

It was in the 1990s that he started experimenting with sculptures and installations. His practice focuses on language and perception and his works are characterized by the usage of assemblage as a compositive technique. Moreover, ephemerality and fugacity are the central elements in his works: the element of light is to be interpreted mainly focusing on its temporal state since the artworks can be properly experienced only when installed in an exhibition. This is related also to his use of sound, as we will see: his practice can be considered as a continuous process of translation of various languages including sound impulses, image projections and texts, often translated (as we will see) in neon installations.

For his exhibition, the main, huge corridor at HangarBicocca is disseminated with beautiful light installations that almost seem like neon representations of doodles (Neon Forms (after Noh), 2015-19). They are, however, the translation of the movements of choreographers from Noh Theatre, a dramaturgy from 14th century Japan. For this reason, the sculptures are far from simple: they are a tangle of neon lights suspended in the air, so still and so dynamic at the same time. Evans’s works transcend their status of sculptures and become everything they ought not to be: moving installations despite their stillness.

The space of the navate is not only occupied by neon forms: one of the biggest artworks of the exhibition, Forms in Space… by Light (in Time) (2017) occupies the right hand of the huge corridor. First conceived for the Duveen Galleries of Tate Britain in London, the artwork is formed by kilometers of neon tubes that reproduce geometrical and abstract figures. The work has been reconfigured for the exhibition at HangarBicocca and is the fulcrum of the whole space. It is divided into three parts, which reinterpret figures also present in other sculptures of the Neon Forms (after Noh) series. Moreover, specifically for this exhibition, Evans decided to add a fourth part defined as the ‘coda’ – term borrowed from the musical lexicon. This last section recalls and mirrors the first, and – hear this! – it also contains the formula of the LSD molecule!

Going back to the first section of the exhibition, as soon as visitors walk past the black curtains that divide the second exhibiting space from the Shed, they are welcomed by a huge set of seven 1850-centimeters-high, illuminated columns(StarStarStar/Steer (totransversephoton), 2019). The artwork has been realized specifically for the HangarBicocca space and is formed by a set of LED lights that constitute cylinders of different heights (… but all of them very high :D). They all light up at different speeds with such intensity that visitors almost can’t look directly at them. With a clear aesthetical reference to the Doric classical architecture, they also challenge the same concept of the column, since they are not sustaining any piece of architecture but, on the contrary, are suspended from the ceiling themselves.

Composition for 37 Flutes (in two parts) (2018) precedes the neon sculptures of the navate. It is constituted, as its name suggests, by 37 glass flutes that emanate a clear and soft sound thanks to the artificial breath of two mechanical systems. An algorithm controls the air produced which, just like a musician, alternates inhaling and exhaling moments.

This is not the only work exploring the concept of sound: in the Cube, the last room of the exhibition, sixteen round surfaces constitute C=O=N=S=T=E=L=L=A=T=I=O=N (I call your image to mind) (2010). These plates rotate in the air and transmit sound compositions which mix tracks recorded by Evans with music from the group Throbbing Gristle (remember, he created a video for them!). Each sound can be heard only from a precise point in space and can, therefore, be experienced by just one person at a time.

Mantra (2016) and S=U=T=R=A (2017) are the last two artworks with a reference to hearing. They are constituted by a couple of chandeliers that light up following a melody composed by the artist, giving life to a two-voice visual tune.

Two last artworks fill the rest of the space: first, a huge neon writing hanging from the ceiling describes a solar eclipse from different geographical locations, from Spain to North Africa up until Somalia. Movement is the focal point of the artwork: just like the Earth rotates and makes the eclipse visible in different locations, the visitor has to walk along the neon sculpture to be able to read the entire text. Lastly, visitors enter in contact with Still life (In course of arrangement…) (2019), the last piece of the composition in the Cube.

The installation is formed by a group of palms and other plants standing on rotating platforms: two lamps project a ray of light onto the plants, recreating the same atmosphere of cinematographic sets of the 19th century – it is therefore in this work that visitors find, for the first time, a reference to Evans’ initial career as a filmmaker.

HangarPirelli spaces are definitely not easy to work with, but in this case, Evans’ sculptures seem to be the perfect contraposition to the darkness and immensity of the navate. His works aggressively cut the space and give life to a dreamlike planetary, creating a path to follow up to the end of the exhibition. Undiscernible sounds accompany the visitors along a journey into perceptions where they are encouraged to embrace every visual and auditive stimulus. All this with a sense of ephemerality and evanescence that transcends even the monumentality of the installations.

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