Art isn’t generally the kind of thing you can ‘spoil’. Someone telling you about the Guernica before you see it doesn’t detract from your appreciation of it – quite the contrary: the more you know, the more powerful it becomes.
But I feel I should include a spoiler warning ahead of this review of the Hayward Gallery’s new Space Shifters exhibition, which brings together eclectic works that play with your sense of depth and perspective in ways that elicit genuine gasps of joy.
It’s part art exhibition, part science lesson, part magic show, with each sculpture – most large-scale, most using mirrors or reflective surfaces – messing with your mind to the extent that you’re never entirely sure what you’re looking at.
I squatted above what appeared to be a low stool filled with water, blowing on it to see if it would cause ripples, until an attendant came over to confirm that it was, in fact, glass, polished to within an inch of its life. I almost walked into a towering 25ft glass column, which blended into its surroundings so convincingly it was almost invisible. As you climb the stairs, what first appears to be a poorly-connected rubber handrail spirals onto a wall to form a giant, squiggly Skalectrics track.
Elsewhere you can find a curved, polished, fairground-style mirror by Anish Kapoor that makes you go cross-eyed as you try to look at yourself, and a room filled with Escher-style balls that sparkle like quicksilver.
The exhibition collects works from the last 50 years, with earlier pieces coming from the Light and Space movement that sprung up in mid-60s Los Angeles. Some of these pieces made use of newly declassified materials such as polyester resin, which provided artists with exciting new ways to explore the way light is reflected onto our retinas.
But it’s the giant works that are the real show stoppers. In the first room two vast sheets of mirrored glass spin around, reflecting the other mirrored works and making you feel slightly dizzy. Viewed through a window is a vast, curved blue dish that reflects the sky and creates a kind of projection show inside the gallery.
One ingenious piece by Alicja Kwade, first displayed at the Venice Biennale, appears to be a series of empty steel frames dotted with Zen garden-like rocks. But as you move around it, mirrors polished to the point of invisibility change the colours and shapes of the objects; a rust-coloured rock becomes grey as it passes through the inch-thick frame; a tree trunk turns silver. You end up walking through it with your arms outstretched, lest you crash into your own reflection.
And best of all is a narrow platform that extends over a mezzanine on the top floor. To walk on it, you have to leave your jacket and bags behind, and it wasn’t until I was at the end, looking down, that I realised there was no “down” – I was standing in a trough in a room filled with reflective oil, creating the illusion of height and depth.
There’s a simple, childlike pleasure in having our perception of the world tweaked, making us disbelieve our eyes, question the things we take for granted. Space Shifters is magnificent; one of the must-see exhibitions of the autumn.