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When someone is selling you invisible 'art', try not to blink

The idea that you can present "art" that doesn't really exist as a material object, and expect people to trust the process, is hard for some, impossible for others.

It always amazes to see some of the works that people succeed in passing off as "art". But to make the absence of art into something to be admired takes this to a whole new level.

That was my thought one day last summer as I was going through a newspaper and learnt of Invisible: Art About the Unseen, an exhibition then on at the Hayward Gallery in London.

As soon as the title sunk in, I felt an overpowering urge to go see (or perhaps not to see) this bizarre exhibition. But in the end, I didn't go. I was on a holiday break with my family and decided to abandon the idea, since I didn't want to risk being the butt of their jokes for the duration of our holiday. Yes, pride does sometimes matter more than art.

Later, however, I did some research to learn what I had missed. Literally not much, as it turns out. The show seems to have consisted of a gallery filled with empty canvases, a lot of open space and empty rooms.

My first reaction was that this was all a prank the gallery had pulled. But then I calculated that April Fools' Day was still months away.

I unearthed a video of Ralph Rugoff, the director of the Hayward Gallery and curator of the show, explaining to the camera a set of five empty canvases by the artist Gianni Motti. These had been drawn using "invisible ink" he said, and went on to explain that art is "about ideas" and that an artist is "trying to make the creative process private".

As I watched, I couldn't help but appreciate the amount of courage it must have taken from Mr Rugoff to try to sell these ideas to the camera and expect people to trust him.

At first, I struggled to get my mind to absorb the concept of the exhibition, to overcome the feeling that the show was trying to mock whoever dared to come and see or judge it.

But eventually I came to appreciate the boldness and silliness and complete absurdity of Invisible; the idea grows on you.

In the end, art is not a discipline that follows a strict set of 1,000-year-old rules; rather the idea of art offers many ways for people to challenge it, and to try to create new ideas around it.

Certainly, it can be sometimes hard to take in what is offered. This winter I went to London's Tate Modern to see an exhibition of works by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. One work that I thought really stood out was The Sick Child, his take on the loss of his young sister Sophie, who died of tuberculosis in her teens, in 1877. In his picture, she reclines in bed; next to her a woman appears to be weeping.

The sick child, red-haired, seemed to have a vibrant halo of life around her despite the looming presence of death. This was something to ponder, a powerful slice of the artist's reality.

How can anyone compare the vivid array of emotions that this piece offers to the empty canvas of 1000 Hours of Staring by Tom Freeman? (The American artist says he stared at an empty canvas for that long, over five years; I don't know how he calculated the time lost to blinking.)

I couldn't help but to laugh when Mr Rugoff commented that visitors are adding value to 1000 Hours of Staring just by looking at it.

The idea that you can present "art" that doesn't really exist as a material object, and expect people to trust the artistic process instead of feeling ridiculed, is hard for some, and impossible for others.

But the undeniable playfulness factor in Invisible helped soften my initial harsh judgement of it. Although I still think the show was ridiculous, it did make me think of what other possibilities we could explore in art.

I was left, finally, with a nice conundrum: if someone had stolen some of the invisible artworks from that show, could he have been prosecuted?


Fatma Al Ardhi is an art gallery owner based in Muscat

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