Richard Wilson's 20:50 at the Saatchi Gallery in London

11 March 2012

If you ever visit the Saatchi Gallery in London, be sure to go down to the ground floor and see Richard Wilson’s piece “20:50”. Originally produced in 1987 and now re-created at the new Saatchi Gallery, it is truly awe-inspiring.

Stepping onto the viewing platform, the viewer sees, what at first appears to be, a perfectly polished floor that both mirrors and absorbs the surrounding architecture. The room is, in fact, flooded with recycled engine oil.

As such, 20:50 has a distinctive odor which is, itself, modern, vaguely “sci-fi” and as pre-historic as the La Brea Tar Pits. It almost calls to the viewer (the smeller?) wherever they might be in Saatchi Gallery space, beckoning them to venture deeper into the building and discover the source. On entering the space and stepping onto the viewing platform, there is a sense of initial confusion as the work mirrors and swallows the surrounding architecture both figuratively and literally with a quality of confounding universality which is, at once, deeply mysterious and blindingly obvious. It has the sense of both stimulating and obliterating the senses in a way that shocks and soothes in equal measure.

While this type of monolithic installation is, in a sense, nothing new, visiting this particular piece conveys the feel of standing at the edge of a deep chasm. While some contemporary art falls short by offering mere “cleverness” to the viewer, I find the blunt, primal “thoughtlessness” of 20:50 to be very refreshing. It supplants intellectual posturing and hits the viewer with a very direct experience. The minimal, intrinsically slick execution leaves no sharp edges or metaphorical barbs on which to hang excessive critical analysis. This is one of my favorite qualities of the piece. Lastly, I’m curious how many mobile phones or other objects have been dropped in from the viewing platform; accidentally or otherwise.