Sitting quietly behind the National Theatre on London’s South Bank is the Hayward Gallery, a gallery I have seen countless exhibitions advertised at but never actually been until now. And this time it is only by accident.
Mum and I are sitting on South Bank soaking up the atmosphere with an over priced beer and a Cornish pasty. It’s the first weekend of the Olympics, the sun is shining, and everyone’s having a good time. An official-looking lady approaches us with a mini flyer for the Hayward. “There’s an exhibition on, it’s around £8 so it’s a bit expensive but here’s a 2 for 1 offer”. There is a miniscule hint of hesitation in her as she tries to gauge our reaction. Are they the types to appreciate what’s in this exhibition? she’s thinking. They’re beer drinkers, this could be a problem, I imagine is going through her mind.
We thank her, glance at the flyer and pocket it for later. After a stroll down the South Bank we spot a pop-up bar and decide a G&T is in order. This G&T is a revelation for me. It has cucumber in it. Cucumber as a garnish, just popped in there with the lemon. No fuss, no fanfare, just sitting there cool as a…. well you know. No longer will I settle for a solitary lemon in my G&T. I’ve seen the future!
As we sit and savour this miracle I take the flyer out of my pocket. “We may as well go” I say to mum. “I’ve never been to the Hayward before and we’re right by it”. Obviously the flyer was really selling it. “We’ve got nothing else to do I suppose” says mum, equally excited by the idea.
The exhibition begins with a large room containing a small selection of objects and a few bare walls. The descriptions on the walls are written in light grey so as to be almost invisible, so I’m glad I have good eyesight. Mum is squinting at the walls. “This is taking the piss” she says a little too loudly as it echoes around the room. “Just go with it” I suggest. As we turn a corner we see what appears to be an essay on the wall. An essay about the significance of the air conditioning units in the following room; their place in space and their impact on our senses. We enter that room cautiously. Are we meant to be in here? It’s just a huge empty room with two air conditioning units in it. Yes I decide, we are meant to be here. “Look how beautifully placed the air conditioning units are” I say to mum. Splendid. I’m getting the hang of this. I suggest we have photos to capture the moment.
The next room is pitch black. The blackest black I have ever seen… or haven’t seen. We hold hands and fumble around in the silence thinking we’re alone when all of a sudden a young man presses a button on his phone and it lights his face from below, giving us an almighty shock. The light goes off and we hear a flap of the curtain behind us. This feels like a horror movie and a hidden camera show all rolled into one. A wave of unstoppable giggles takes hold of me but we manage to escape.
The final piece, Invisible Labyrinth (2005) by Jeppe Hein, saves the day. As we approach we see some people shuffling around a vast space taking tentative steps forward, side-stepping, retracting their move, and rotating. A man looks up at us sheepishly and smiles. His face tells us everything we need to know. It looks silly and I feel silly….. but it’s fun! We’re shown an image of a maze, handed a headpiece, and begin shuffling forward. The headpiece buzzes. Ahaa! I retract my step and rotate. Then I take another step. I’m onto a winner this time. I take two brave steps then buzzzzzz. Step retracted. I take a side step. Success again. Mum seems to be enjoying this too. An invisible maze, how clever! This time I manage three steps until the buzzer. Well done me! I’m in my own happy world until I look up and see a couple of people approaching cautiously from the previous section of the gallery. They look bemused, glance at each other and look back, their eyes trying to take in the mesmerising scene ahead.
I look at them and smile sheepishly. They know.