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Psycho Buildings: Disney's Dream Debased

Get in line for the Hayward Gallery's 40th anniversary celebrations

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by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: July, 2008
None of the exhibitions can compete with the 'psycho building' of the Hayward itself
by Henderson Downing, for outsideleft.com
originally published: July, 2008
None of the exhibitions can compete with the 'psycho building' of the Hayward itself

Cue queue quote:

'Disneyland less redeems LA than inverts it. The reason one circulates on foot in Disneyland is precisely to be able to ride. However, the central experience, by anyone's empirical calculation, is neither walking nor riding but waiting in line. Most of a typical Disney day is thus spent in the very traffic jam one has putatively escaped, simply without benefit of a car. Indeed, what's perfect, most ultimately viable, at Disneyland is riding. After hours of snaking through the sun with one's conscientiously well-behaved fellow citizens comes the kinetic payoff: brief, thrilling, and utterly controlled, a traffic engineer's wet dream.'

It's almost two decades since Michael Sorkin wrote 'See You in Disneyland', a witty and perceptive exploration of the political and cultural resonances of the pacifying devices deployed by the architects imagineering the cartoon utopia of 'America's stand-in for Elysium'. Sorkin's essay remains a brilliant analysis of the ways in which the pseudo-urbanism shaping the punter's experience of the world according to Disney continues to infiltrate the wider urban culture. Like Disneyland, the central experience of visiting Psycho Buildings at London's Hayward Gallery involves standing in line. Over-hyped by the media, Psycho Buildings is a series of discrete anti-climaxes, a show that traffics in faux jouissance. The anticipated sensory orgasms promised by the scripted spaces and manipulated moments at the end of each queue were almost all lacking in conviction.

Inevitably, waiting in line put me in a bad mood. But it did give me a chance to reflect that the experience of loitering in each queue had more of an emotional impact than almost all of the supposedly 'architectural' interventions of the exhibition. I queued to get in (while waiting for the ticket seller to finish flirting with two female students). I queued to ascend Atelier Bow-Wow's 'Life Tunnel', an angular passage connecting separate floors of the Hayward. Dutiful to the folks waiting behind me I felt obliged to skip any static contemplation of the architectural niceties of the steel plate structure once inside the uterine shaft: spurred on by thunderous footsteps there was no time even to indulge in Die Hard crawl space fantasies of counter-insurgency. Move on to the next line.

I queued to get into the makeshift cinema on the roof (one of three outside galleries requiring queuing). Rather than immediately joining the queue to get bubbled in Tomas Saraceno's transparent dome, I moved around it as it snaked into the rooms parodically doctored by Mike Nelson to resemble the scarred-and-scratched aftermath of an event possibly involving some kind of abhuman creature out of a tale by Lovecraft (or, more likely, showing traces of previous gallery-goers who had freaked out and tore at the walls in a bid to escape the endless lines of people). There was no queue for the boating lake on the roof as the art collective Gelitin's already legendary intervention had been 'closed for repairs' (amongst inevitable rumours of Health & Safety issues). But there was a notice on an internal gallery wall explaining that the waiting time for the boating lake from that point was 40 minutes, enabling me to imagine a queue stretching into the gallery where Do Ho Suh had atmospherically reconstructed the staircase and floor of his landlord's apartment in New York as a beautiful floating structure built from transparent red polyester stretched between a series of stainless steel tubes.

Ironically, when I found a place to stand voluntarily - in a quiet corner of Michael Beutler's underwhelming tissue paper maze - I was castigated by an officious invigilator for penetrating beyond 'the rules' ('the rules': her repeated response when asked for further clarification as to why that particular spot was not designed for critical lingering). For me, the most surprising revelation was Rachel Whiteread's haunting 'Place'. Instead of producing another in a series of now formulaic negotiations with negative space, Whiteread had eerily reconfigured her slice of the show into a landscaped village of doll's houses. The only illumination in the darkened room emanated from the windows of the abandoned buildings. Spectral, magical, like a fairy-tale model village in the wake of an unnamed (or unnameable) tragedy, the piece was by far the most powerful of a lacklustre bunch.

From a more charitable perspective, the exhibition works well as a doomed response to reducing the fluid narratives of the multi-levelled concrete labyrinth into a series of more uncanny singularities. None of the exhibitions can compete with the 'psycho building' of the Hayward itself. The unapologetic materiality of the concrete and the uneasy scale of the interpenetrating solids and voids provoke multi-sensory reactions that fuse elements of dread and desire, inspiring intense physical, psychological, and perceptual reactions. In short, the architecture of the gallery does everything that the mostly dull and Disneyfied art fails to do.

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Henderson Downing

Henderson Downing has written for various literary journals and small press magazines, he lives in London

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