- Aberystwyth Arts Centre - March 23rd - May 7th 2016
Have you been inside yet? the man with the briefcase asks the gallery assistant sitting behind the desk, as he hands her some leaflets. Not yet, she replies, have you?
It is always fascinating to observe how audiences respond to an interactive installation like Jenny Hall’s Hollow. Go and play, we are told. And more often than not we don’t.
Built upon a raised mirrored-steel dais that absorbs about two-thirds of the Aberystwyth Arts Centre’s main gallery space, Hollow is essentially a towering mass of cardboard boxes. Memories of the ‘cardboard city’ of the mid1980s, housed under London’s South Bank flickers briefly to mind, reiterated by a copy of a book about being homeless in Cardiff resting on a shelf by the back wall. But there is nothing battered or broken about these boxes, unlike the cast interiors of those that formed the artist Rachel Whiteread’s 2005 Tate Modern piece Embankment. Inspired by an old tattered carton she’d remembered from childhood that she re-found following her mother’s death, Whiteread’s sculpture paid homage to boxes as intimate containers of memory. By contrast, Hall’s boxes are prefabricated, utilitarian, regular and pristine. An architect by trade, Hall’s installation is more akin to a work-in-progress, a model, a prototype.
The sensation of being in an architect’s studio is further reinforced by the scaled-down version of Hollow on a table at the opposite end of the gallery. Resonant as they are of the alphabet wooden building blocks of infancy, these miniature card boxes are easy to engage with. A child-size lesson in physics, the gentle draw of the magnetised steel on the magnets hidden inside is nevertheless a gorgeous, tender, tummy-pulling feeling.
Intending to emulate the extraction of ore from a copper mine, Hollow, we are informed, is concerned with destruction, construction and the spaces in-between. Hovering around the margins of the installation it is hard to make this leap of imagination. Too light, too clean, too open, too stark, too safe, a mine this is not.
A quirky comic-strip handout telling of the health & safety dos and don’ts exhort us to remove our shoes but leave on our socks. A collection of knobbly, gaily-coloured over-socks lie on the floor, waiting to be used. Apparently they’re to polish the floor, the gallery assistant whispers conspiratorially. No one’s used them yet. You can be my experiment.
Stepping onto the dais and entering Hollow’s space is a revelation.
The shiny steel, cold to the touch, reflects, like the stalactites mirrored in the watery pools of caverns, stratum after stratum of cubed-boxes. Once inside, the echo of voices from the Arts Centre concourse is muffled, dulled. Solitary and shoeless, there is a playful-ness and feet slip and slide. Deeper within and its spaces become all-encompassing, a private lair, a burrow.
Standing compressed within one of its narrow chambers, unable to turn, literary associations flood in. Lines from Rilke, it’s possible I am pushing through solid rock in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone; I am such a long way in I see no way through, and no space: everything is close to my face, and everything close to my face is stone. Then, on noticing a square of light projected onto the floor, Ko Un’s poem written while incarcerated in a Korean prison that captures the fleeting joy of a beam of light entering his tiny, dark cell. And the constant humming of a lyric from Kate Bush, say hello to the soft musk of her hollows.
A woman strides into the gallery, a young boy in tow. What are all those boxes? he asks, pointing, his eyes wide. She takes one look and turns on her heel, yanking him with her. We’ll come another day, she says.
Completed by human interaction, shoes-off, climbing and crawling, Hollow requires a wholly physical encounter. Only then can you experience its claustrophobia, its mystery, its magic, its majesty.