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Bridget Riley at The Southbank Centre

Photo by Daryan Shamkhali

“If you can allow colour to breathe, to occupy its own space, to play its own game in its unstable way, it’s wanton behaviour, so to speak. It is promiscuous like nothing.” Bridget Riley, an artist known for her Op art and experimentation with colors, presents us with an array of her lifetime work, leading us into the deep ends of her senses. Her work is movement and momentum, as difficult to strip down as it is not to get light-headed along the way.

It’s kind of ironic. The artist admits not to like one particular work of hers, and yet half of one’s visit is spent on standing in queue to see it. Continuum (1963), a three-dimensional spiral into vertigo, was designed to explore new ways of perceiving, new modes of sight. As the artist said herself, “I wanted to bring about some fresh way of seeing again what had already almost certainly been experienced, but which had either been dismissed or buried by the passage of time.” I can’t help but think of Plato, and his musings on the forms. Is art the way to escape the complacency of everyday over-stimulation? Is the faculty of sight a window to the forms, just as taste might be the gate to the gut, and smell the door to desire?

The outcome is rather disheartening. I stand in line, as a proper visitor does, I listen to conversations about buying carpets in Istanbul, and then it’s finally my turn. I walk right into the closed-up circle of multi-seeing. I can see her intention, as well as her disappointment. The arrows, the claustrophobia, it seems to be an attempt to lead us somewhere—but it’s finite. One cannot fully be immersed in it. One sees the edges, the end notes, the ceiling. It imitates a circle, but it isn’t one. The forms may be eternal, but we are eternally confined to the world of dry, transient matter. I walk out in a matter of minutes, and I am not altered. It’s not like there’s enough space to focus anyway, since all one can think about is the queue and impatience that grow and grow the longer I try to grow and understand.

What captivated me more were her works from the 1960s: the black & white, the optical illusions. It appears as if she’s playing with the ‘death of the artist’ idea. One takes what’s already there, what’s basic and familiar, and the works mutate into a life of their own. 

Black and white seems outdated, bare. Even though colors normally provide a thing with life, this achromatic section seems the liveliest of all. Is it a relinquishment of the power of colors, of the obvious, and letting art speak for itself, in its most basic yet abstract terms?

As I approach another work that consists purely of color-blinded shapes, the squares and circles start vibrating. At first glance, I let myself see a ship and floundering waves. At second glance, I spot a silhouette of Buddha. I see all and I see nothing, but my eyes are open. The artist gives us a template, while we create the work. We make a choice—do we focus on the black/white contrast, on the curves, the vertical, the diagonal, the large, the small? Do we choose to make sense of it, or not? It’s a bit exhausting, really, but I suppose one can make anything from anything as long as they put it into a framework.

The interpretation is open, it seems to twirl around what’s already been at the back of our minds, but comes into existence with the help of our eyes. It’s what Riley (and Plato, and Freud) said about perception; it’s re-seeing. The eyes may be a window to the unconscious, which may as well be a window to the soul. It’s a right place / right time thing. Art is an excuse to open our eyes. We can create links when there aren’t any, or we might not, but those made-up connections we make signify what’s hidden, what’s really real. It’s art as therapy, almost.

The exhibition is vast, it’s an entire life in the making. From the small-in-scope human drafts, up to the newest works that seem to be a naturalized and crystallized version of the black & white, shape-based 60s, we witness a life of an individual’s mode of perception, a life of observation, experimentation and risk. If it doesn’t move you, or translate into something knowable—that’s okay. The least it can do is to test your eyes.



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