Over the summer, I had the opportunity to see an exhibition of the renowned French Daniel Buren in his new installation at Gateshead’s Baltic Mill. The work, drawing influence from both minimalism and abstract expression, breaks down the boundaries of what we would expect from ‘art’, especially from artistic media.
The first time I visited this exhibition by ‘France’s greatest living artist’ I have to say the work was underwhelming. The work was laid out in the large hall on the top floor of the gallery, a series of mirrors angled around the space, distorting the room to the viewer, but did little more than that. The second time, however, there was a very different experience. What I had not realised was the skylight above me had been covered with brightly coloured panes of glass, meaning that now, in broad daylight, the room was filled with a patchwork of lights and colours, literally like stepping into a rainbow. As the day passed, the colours – abstracted and warped by the mirrors around the room – moved around with the sun, in a never changing artwork, never staying the same.
The use of light is for me an innovative and beautiful way of using art, and seems to be the purest form of abstraction I’ve ever seen. Throughout the history of art there has been a debate into what is a perfect artistic expression; painting, sculpture, architecture, smooth surface, tactile surface, sound…the debate has been endless. Clement Greenburg, champion of Pollock, aimed for ultimate flatness in art, yet I do not know how even Greenburg would respond to the ultimate stripping away of physical art in Buren’s work.
I understand how many people may react to this type of work, calling it another piece of ‘modern art rubbish’, but the innovation presented to us by Buren is remarkable in the way it truly challenges the medium of art. Buren’s glass panes and mirrors are effectively his canvas, an aid to the art making, whereas all the actual piece consists of is nothing but the environment. The room, the light and the audience are all that is needed to create the experience – truly embodying the minimalist ethic of involving the location in which it is shown.
The greatest thing for me about Buren’s work is the experience of the viewer. If I revisited the Mona Lisa over two consecutive days, I would see the same work on both days. With Buren’s work I have to be in the room for less than a minute, or walk a few feet to the other side of a mirror, and my experience – the patterns of the light, the angle of the colours – will have completely changed. The art is completely evolving, and the work, being in situ, will never be replicated in any other spot.
The work is due to end this month, and will never be replicated anywhere else. Therefore, this exhibition, done by a relatively unsung great of contemporary art, is a truly transient piece – one that cannot be shipped from gallery to gallery and will soon only remain in the audience’s memory of their unique experience.
Photo Credits: Baltic Mill website
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