By Katy Wesley
Simplicity is often the most successful way of satisfying an audience; show them something that they can respond to, something they can get a grip on. Don't over complicate their field of vision, or bombard them with too much information. Don't patronise them with fact sheets, or reference tools, or pamphlets. Let them discover. There is literally nothing that satisfies more than discovery.
Never is this truer than in the case of installation art, which by definition occupies the same space, or part of the same space as its audience. It demands interaction. Installation art cannot be stowed or stored or tucked away; it only comes to life when it is within a space. When it is not installed it is just a notion, a memory or an idea. So it is with Richard Wilson's iconic 20:50.
This is the third time since he purchased Wilson's famous 1987 installation that Charles Saatchi has installed it. Every time he has, the work has elicited an enthusiastic response from those who see it. How is it that this work, now over 30 years old, continues to capture people's imagination?
On entering a space containing 20:50, the spectator's world is instantly warped. At first they will be hit with the distinctive, heady smell of oil, but they would be forgiven for not knowing where the smell was coming from, because before them is a flat black mirror, seemingly cut with precision to follow the lines of the room it reflects. It is only on closer inspection, when entering the work via the gangway bisecting one corner that the journey of discovery, so key to the success of 20:50, begins. The black mirror is not a mirror at all: it is a lake of used sump oil, so viscous that the surface barely flinches, and so highly reflective that it appears to be a rigid, polished sheet.
Though the idea of 20:50 remains unchanged, the site-specific nature of the work means that with each incarnation it changes radically. Though effective in the dark panelled room it occupied in County Hall, the piece benefits now from being well lit (both artificially and naturally) at Duke Of York HQ, where it is currently installed. As when it was displayed at Boundary Road, a larger, more open space heightens the impact and monumentality of the work.
The constituent materials of 20:50 never change; the oil, the custom made tank that follows the contours of the room in which it is placed, and the shape of the walkway that allows you to be a part of the work. Yet the piece functions as a mirror for the space it occupies, as well as the spectator who leans over to inspect its surface with incredulity. As such, it changes dramatically whenever it is moved and alters subtly with the slightest shift in light that falls onto it.