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by Ben Street
Anthony McCall, "Elements of a Retrospective," Nov. 30, 2007-Feb. 3, 2008, at the Serpentine Gallery, Kensington Gardens, London W2 3XA, England

In a 1971 video, the New York-based British artist Anthony McCall, in his period brogues and flapping corduroys, digs a hole in a nondescript area of ground, puts the unearthed soil into a box, wraps the box up carefully, then buries it back in the hole, replacing the soil and the square of turf on top of it, and stamping it down.

The slightness of the artist’s adjustment of reality sets the discrete tone for "Elements of a Retrospective," the current show of his work at the Serpentine Gallery. The hiddenness of the gesture is whimsically apt. McCall gave up making art between 1979 and 2003, apparently for financial reasons, turning instead to graphic design. The current show is McCall’s first major London exhibition, and a rediscovery of a body of film-based Post-Minimalist art of considerable note.

The conceptual and esthetic nucleus of the show is Line Describing a Cone (1973), an early light projection that fills an entire gallery (the show includes three such light works). A projector beams a single point of light across the darkened room. To the sound of the whirring projector, the dot of light on the white wall slowly becomes a line, which gradually becomes a curve and finally a circle. The beam of light itself begins to take on an illusory appearance of solidity, the effect caused by a haze machine quietly filling the room with mist. The beam of light is like a slice of curved, smoked glass space, which gradually expands to become a cone, with its apex at the lens of the projector.

Moving in and out of this cone is a disquieting experience. In an interview this year with Julia Peyton-Jones and Hans-Ulrich Obrist, McCall described this work and his subsequent works as "films" in the sense of their "explicit durational structure," despite the fact that they present not the cinematic image but rather the mechanics by which cinematic fiction is made. McCall has emphasized the importance of ambient sounds, especially cinematic ones (his soundtrack is "the projector, the murmuring presence of people in the room"), and the apparition of the beam of light as an apparently "solid" object as a means of activating the overlooked spaces of the cinema experience: not the image itself but its "coming-to-being," as McCall puts it.  McCall’s subject is the exquisite moment before the movie starts -- the collective shifting of perception, in which the moment disbelief is suspended.

Line Describing a Cone takes as its subject the experience of perception itself, something the California Light and Space artist Robert Irwin -- whose practice bears comparison to McCall’s -- might describe as an attempt to "reinvoke the sheer wonder that [people] perceive anything at all."

In London in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, McCall was part of the experimental London Filmmakers Co-operative, alongside John Latham and Sally Potter, and was a friend and roommate of performance artist Carolee Schneemann (McCall has said that "When I started making art I started with performance," and the engagement of the viewer in his light pieces testifies to that practice). Drawn increasingly towards American conceptualism -- partly through seeing Rauschenberg’s "Combines" at the Whitechapel in 1964 -- he left for New York in 1973, where he met Richard Serra, Joan Jonas and Fred Sandback. The installation of Sandback’s work at Dia Beacon -- vast planes of space, resembling huge sheets of glass leaning delicately against the wall, that on closer inspection turn out to be simply colored yarn stretched between nails -- has particular resonance with McCall’s light works. Both play in the liminal space between what the brain and the eye independently understand.

At the Serpentine, the central gallery space is dominated by a larger, three-part projection from 2003, which elaborates Line Describing a Cone’s essential premise through the use of digital projection rather than film. Three projectors at the rear of the gallery create simultaneous, intricately harmonized projections of ellipses, ovals and curves in the foggy air. What they gain in smoothness of movement they lose close up, as they crumble into pixels; some of the archaic charm of Line Describing a Cone is lost.

However, digital projection has allowed McCall to enter his baroque period. In a work like You and I, Horizontal, III (2007), the air is sliced into elliptical curves, giving the effect of walking through a three-dimensional architectural drawing for some imaginary 17th-century palace. In fact, drawing can be said to be central to McCall’s practice, and the first room of this retrospective is largely taken up by his works on paper. The artist uses drawing "to think through durational structure," and the works on display here have something of the storyboard to them. Like drawings, McCall’s light works point towards an imagined ending. Unlike drawings, the pointing is the point.

The opacity of the smoky light in the central gallery is such that in places it takes on the appearance of a ceiling curving over your head. Conceptualism aside, it’s an art of sensory wonder, something that Anthony Gormley’s Blind Light, in his recent retrospective at the Hayward Gallery, tried and failed to achieve. Gormley’s glass room filled with water vapor spoke to the funhouse esthetic of some recent installation art. McCall’s work, by contrast, operates at a slight remove -- it’s not what you see, but how you see, that informs his work.  

Like Sol LeWitt with his wall drawings -- LeWitt was an early influence on the younger artist -- McCall exploits the fundamentals of pictorial geometry (Cézanne’s "cylinder, sphere and cone") as affectless, non-metaphorical shapes. McCall asks, "if you were to make a film that was only a film, what would it look like?" It would, he says, "only exist in the moment it was being watched." It’s a remarkable sleight-of-hand that McCall makes looking itself something worth looking at.

BEN STREET is a teacher, lecturer and critic living in London.