Cubitt Gallery, London

Frieze, Issue 29, Jul-Aug 1996

If you weren't offered some chemical relief on the way to the gallery (at the seedy end of King's Cross), then - if you are a man - no doubt a more manual form of ecstasy was proposed. It's that kind of place. The curators, aware of the importance of this context, have left this basement space close to its original gloomy state. For this show, it is even darker than usual. The large first room contains only one item: a telephone box. For such a ubiquitous piece of street furniture, it has an odd air of mystery about it, which is only partially due to its unusual setting. That the usual BT markings are missing, leaving only clean metal, is disquieting, as is the fact that the booth provides the only light-source in the room. Maybe the major factor in this uncanniness is that the telephone has been replaced by a set of headphones. But there is another deliberate mistake at work, though it only becomes apparent on entering the booth, which we won't be attempting until later. The piece looks so uncanny, so scary, that I decide to save the experience of placing my vulnerable self inside it until later... just in case.

Probing in the dark, cautiously pushing through light-proof curtains, I enter another darkened space, blacker yet. Inside are two whirring fans by Jaime Pitarch entitled I Miss You. I Miss You Too (1996). Side by side, they slowly pivot back and forth, floating in the gloom at eye height. Set slightly out of sync, their blades never touch - even though their paths cross only millimetres from collision. Projected onto their spinning blades are circular images of hands: one palm towards us, the other facing away. It seems an age before the eyes adjust to give enough confidence to move around the small room. But soon the luminescence of the fans becomes attractive. What are fans for? They circulate air and cool our skin, but here the skin is lying upon the fan. And it is lying upon the wall too: where the light passes through the imperceptible gaps between blades it forms a second image on the wall. These double-images overlap slightly allowing the fingertips to touch. Of course the strongest temptation with fans is to reach out and touch the spinning blades - not the wisest of moves, but compelling nonetheless. This hallucinatory object invites examination with a sense more concrete than sight, but the projected hands have beaten me to it. However, these hands can examine little since they are as illusory as the surface and, what's more, dependent upon it. The seductive elegance of this piece does not lead to any further knowledge.

In Position (1996) in the last room, Niamh McCann has mounted two projectors near the ceiling facing each other, and programmed them to hammer through their respective slide carousels, firing images across the space onto the wall and floor opposite, like clunky, slow-motion stroboscopes. Standing between the two sets of images, they pulse by too quickly to be read together. Only some of the images can be registered and, on the whole, they switch between showing either the debating chamber of the House of Commons in session (photographed from television) and a chess set. As an analogy, this is so obvious as to be almost tautological; chess, of course, is a game based on royal courts. But then there are also images of riots and Oprah Winfrey-type shows, though these are impossible to pick out clearly due to the brevity of their appearance - they are cut quicker than MTV.

Finally, there is nothing left to do, except enter Stewart Wilson's telephone booth Touch Wood (1996). The door pulls itself shut before I slip the large headphones over my ears. But then someone taps on the booth and I turn to see who's there, only to discover to my alarm that the glass is mirrored on the inside! Disconcertingly, all I can see is myself. The tapping on the booth is growing louder and more frantic. Initially it is genuinely hard to tell that this sound, as you've guessed, is only on the headphones. It's a tremendous effort not to turn around to see who is watching, but I know I will only be frustrated by the mirroring.

King's Cross is exactly the kind of locale in which nightmare telephone experiences are suffered. And that is what this exhibition really is: an experience. The fact that 'Virginia' is not a conceptual show was confirmed by Nicholas Bolton's video Judd Use (1996), in which the artist is recorded doing peculiar things at the Oxford MoMA's Donald Judd retrospective. Bolton has constructed a long pole with an orange sphere - possibly from a toilet cistern - on one end, and uses it to probe the huge multiple box piece Untitled (1973) as if he were a science student measuring some unseen quality, like radioactivity.

This surely is the crux of the show: the artist is examining experience, not meaning. In his extreme precision, all he could possibly be doing is measuring. And you can only measure physical properties, not meaning. So this video provides a key to the whole exhibition - all the works are primarily experiences, for they tell us very little conceptually. Even, or especially, this most distanced and 'scientific' piece. As such, the exhibition is too fleeting, too easily forgotten. Only the uncanny telephone box transcends this feeling, preying on the mind while trudging back through the streets of King's Cross.

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