Slowly diminishing sculpture

Anya Gallaccio, Intensities and Surfaces, 1996

Using ice as a building material for making art is pretty much always going to end in, well, if not tears, then puddles. In California that outcome will be comparatively speedy but in a London winter the process takes a bit longer. Anya Gallaccio’s Intensities and Surfaces, made in Wapping Pumping Station – the clue’s in the name: a former pumping station in, yes, Wapping, in London – took the form of a large scale ice construction at first glance not dissimilar to one of Allan Kaprow’s ice enclosures. But Gallaccio’s block was solid; it was also lit slightly from within (not apparent in any of the pictures I’ve been able to find of it but I’m almost certain I’m not misremembering) and with a block of rock salt within it and possibly, I think, layered between the ice bricks.

Of course the key difference between Intensities and Surfaces  and Kaprow’s Fluids happening is that Gallaccio’s work was indoors and only likely to be encountered by those who’d turned up in Wapping with the express intention of seeing it. But while that lack of surprise makes for a very different piece of work, this was nonetheless an extraordinary installation. Firstly there’s the scale of the thing. The block was 3m x 4m x 4m which is pretty substantial and, though Kaprow’s enclosures were rather longer, at only around 2m in height they were more human scale in that crucial respect. And, of course, Intensities and Surfaces is solid. And cold. Okay, ice is cold. But a huge block of it in a draughty, unheated, industrial scale space in the middle of winter is more obviously freezing than I imagine a wall of ice in the California sunshine would seem (though in that respect Kaprow’s enclosures win out in the unexpectedness of the material in the context stakes).

As a simple white block, early on in the show, the work has a minimalism not generally associated with large scale installations in disused industrial spaces. And there is an absolute simplicity to the work. As is often the case with Anya Gallaccio’s work (which I’ve written about here before), its decay started the moment it was installed but for a while at the start the only thing disrupting that perfect white rectangle was the way the light caught it. Although it is true that from the start the puddles that had to be navigated to get close to the work were a clear reminder of the piece’s fate. But the work gradually became more complex as the ice melted. The salt meant the melting was unpredictable and uneven with individual ice bricks changing shape as they melted, compromising the overall structure.

And of course there was another factor in the unpredictable nature of the piece. The weather. The winter turned out to be a little colder than forecast so the piece lasted better than had been expected. In a pleasingly unusual response to this the exhibition was extended as the work was disappearing more slowly than projected. (I’m almost sure I didn’t make that up.)

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