The set up is simple. Three big glossy panels rest flat on the floor. Three panels hover directly above, suspended from a cat’s cradle of wires fixed to the ceiling beams. Six coloured mirrors mirror each other. Each of these six panels is made up of nine smaller rectangles: the rear six are black, the front three are respectively red, yellow and blue; as the work’s title.
You enter through an arched opening centred on the room. Opposite are eleven tall windows. Beyond is a view onto a neighbouring brick wall. Between the planes march the gallery’s white painted columns. And on paper that is it. That is the set up.
The suspended plane has been positioned so that from the entrance it cuts off the heads of the arched windows and in mirroring the windows, near doubles them in height. They project an unnatural amount of light into the gallery; unnatural because whilst you know you are seeing a composite of the real and reflected, you sort of park that observation and accept them as true. Even then, small details inform the mind that this image is not quite right. When looking at the ‘real’ windows, the daylight of course shines down on the glazing bars. However in the doubled half of the image, the window’s glazing bars are lit from below as if by hidden lighting.
When you look towards the windows, the natural light that hits the surface makes the black super glossy. But where you get the un-lit zone below the window reflected in the nearest panels, the black surface appears matt. It is reflecting a surface that is itself lacking reflected light.
The image of these massive windows is mirrored in the floor plane. This reflection is mirrored once more in the suspended panels above. And so on. This recalls a ‘Droste effect’ which occurs when two mirrors face each other, the image multiplying and receding forever. However the reflections in this installation differ. Here, the image reverses orientation with each reflection. The first reflection is upside down. The reflection in the reflection is the right way up. You can just make out the reflection in the reflection of the reflection.
These images continue right across the breadth of the room on the panels to the left, centre and right. The mind connects the three images into one. But the image is cut up by the insistent rhythm of the columns. Imagine Irwin had blown up a photo of the gallery into a huge silvery print, and then taken a scalpel to it. From the entrance, the space vibrates between the violent cuts, the multiplying reflections and the classical order of the existing architecture.
The mind comprehends the simultaneous existence of the real and reflected, the part and the whole. But it can only make sense of so much conflicting information for so long. In seeking a simpler order, it must discard confusion or end up doubting what its own eyes are seeing. In this, the work induces a sort of dizziness.
The installation is so immersive, on my third visit I went back and photographed the work through a camera’s viewer so as to freeze these images onto a stable surface. Only by isolating the effects could I write about them.
When you stand and look towards the entrance, the panels reflect the gallery’s white walls. From some angles, say crouching down, the black turns soft white. The white is interrupted by coloured strips – these strips being the panel sides. From this view, all the columns classical bases are mirrored. Their shafts rise interrupted through the suspended plane to the soffit. At the same time, they descend towards that soffit’s reflection.
The planes are so perfect, so still, they read like pools of oil. Placing an artwork on the floor already sets up a degree of danger. You can get so close to the work, you fear for them as objects. Would the slightest knock break their surface tension? Would the work have to then be barriered off?
You see people inch their foot right up to a panel and lean over, staring into depths. Has anyone ever fallen in? Perhaps these are reasons enough to be ‘afraid of red, yellow and blue’.
Yet the work is playful too. You can track people’s reflections around the gallery. They do not see you furtively studying them, or at least you hope they don’t, but you assume they must occasionally peek too. The whole room is set up for checking out. You can even see in the lower reflected reflection people walking down the street that runs alongside the brick wall, only right way up, which is truly strange. Staring at the windows proper, these same people do not exist, for they are hidden by the wall below the windows.
With much minimalist art, people get in the way of the experience. You just want to be alone with the work. Anybody or anything else is a distraction. Irwin’s work is incredibly inclusive for it drags everything around it into play. It could equally be called enveloping, for nothing escapes becoming part of the work.
After many viewings, I began to tire of this search to pin down mirror effects. Only when I stopped interrogating it did I discover what for me is its enduring wonder. And it surprised me that it took so long to see this because it is so obvious. The work is a multiplier of beautiful colours. Gaze into the blue panel and you see that the image of the red panel above turns mauve, the yellow becomes orange, and the black purple. These colours are everywhere and everywhere irradiating.
Now you can see the care with which Irwin has installed the gallery lighting, and why. The lighting is positioned just beyond the end of the panels, brightening the floor by the entrance. Look down into the blue and the reflection of the yellow panel appears almost orange, but its very end stays yellow because reflecting the floor’s brighter light.
Minimalist art so encourages one to focus on construction and finish, that finding some technical flaw in the work becomes its own reward. But to obsess about alignment, or flatness or whether one can see faint signs of dust laid upon the surface even after the ritualistic pre-opening clean by gallery staff is here to reduce the work to its dumbest facts.
Irwin’s work dismisses such attempts. For one it is just so damn perfectly executed. But the greater truth is that making a fetish of the fabrication is to avoid the work’s challenge. Simply put, there is no reason to be afraid of ‘red, yellow and blue.’ Just let go and dive on in.
TEXT COPYRIGHT GILES REID