Monday, May 9, 2011
Richard Wilson's 20:50
in the Saatchi gallery
oil tank delusion.
once it is complete
the write up given by the Telegraph
What is the most important work of British art of recent decades? One contender is the stunning installation 20:50, created by the sculptor Richard Wilson in 1987, when Damien Hirst was still just a pugnaciously precocious student at art school, and now reprised in the Saatchi Gallery off the King's Road in London.
Over the years, 20:50 has become something of a legend in the art world. Now that I have finally encountered the piece at first hand (I was too young to remember it when it was initially shown), I understand why.
In the basement of the Saatchi Gallery, Wilson has fashioned a waist-high reservoir out of sheet metal that precisely follows the contours of the room. The tank is filled to the brim with thick sump oil (the title apparently refers to the viscosity grade of the recycled engine oil used by Wilson).
The liquid shimmers and glistens, gracefully reflecting the clean, white architecture of the room in which it rests, and subtly distorting our impressions of the space. At one point, a tapering walkway juts into the middle of the preternaturally still pool. The effect of wandering along it is not unlike finding yourself on the tip of a diving board above a menacing lake.
There is nothing more to the installation than that, and yet the effect is unbelievably assured. The work has aged well – and not simply because oil has especially charged connotations these days.
In 20:50, Wilson alludes to the grammar of Op Art, Minimalism and Land Art, but you don't have to be versed in the language of art history to understand the paradoxes that make the work so effective.
Wilson has transformed a liquid into something that feels surprisingly solid. There is also a discrepancy between the work's immaculate beauty and the hazardous nature of its material.
More than two decades after it was first created, 20:50 continues to confound our preconceptions, ensuring that it still feels fresh, relevant – and important – today.