“Please be aware that for some people this may cause dizziness, nausea and disorientation.” It was these cautioning words found on Louisiana‘s website regarding their current exhibition Eye Attack: Op Art and Kinetic Art 1950-1970 that sealed the deal. Keen on making an art-excursion but not really knowing where I wanted to go, I had been browsing the web pages of my favourite art institutions within day-trip distance to see what they had to offer and make my decision based on that. It had been an even race between the options until those words of warning caught my eye. Then there was no doubt. As someone with a penchant for art that has a visceral effect on the body, Eye Attack at Louisiana came out on top.
Op Art is an abbreviation for Optical Art and refers to abstract art that uses optical illusions. Typically, Op Art gives the viewer the impression of flashing and vibrating patterns, of swelling or warping, or of movement. Kinetic Art is a broad term referring to all sorts of art that incorporate movement, whether literally or as an illusion. Motorised sculptures and mobiles animated by the wind are quintessential examples of Kinetic Art, but the term also encompasses art that appears to be moving or shifting due to the movement of the spectator and/or the employment of optical illusions. Op Art and Kinetic Art thus are somewhat overlapping terms. You don’t need to know all this to enjoy Eye Attack, though. The thing about Op Art and Kinetic Art is that they appeal directly to our senses- regardless of our cultural background and prior knowledge.
Eye Attack at Louisiana is an ambitious and well-made exhibition. It features nearly 100 works of art by more than 40 artists. Among the highlights are the colourfully lit corridor Chromosaturation (1965-2016) by Carlos Cruz-Diez, the painting-mobile-hybrid Carré virtuel violet (1979) by Jesús Rafael Soto, and Bridget Riley‘s big patterned painting Cataract 3 (1967) that appears to undulate when looked at.
As a whole Eye Attack is however somewhat underwhelming. Quite a few of the works displayed are similar variations on the same theme, making the expression one-trick-pony come to mind more than once. Furthermore, a not completely insignificant amount of the exhibited works haven’t stood the test of time. On several occasions I had to remind myself that even though they might not be eyebrow-raising now, these pieces were groundbreaking at the time of their conception. (On the other hand, that brings a certain nostalgic charm to the exhibition and can be taken as a proof of Op Art and Kinetic Art of the 1950s, -60s and -70s having left a deep mark on contemporary culture.) Last but not least, many of the works don’t conjure as much of a visceral effect as expected. Perhaps the title of the exhibition, the cautioning words on the website and the signs accompanying some of the works got my hopes up too high. Perhaps my brain isn’t wired the way needed to achieve maximum effect from these works. I don’t know. What I do know is that in my book artists such as Olafur Eliasson and Yayoi Kusama do it better.
The biggest fly in the ointment has however nothing to do with the debatable shortcomings of Op Art and Kinetic Art made between 1950 and 1970 or how it is represented at Louisiana, but with the fact that people using wheelchairs or similar aids are banned from entering the environments (i.e. room installations) by Julio Le Parc and Gianni Colombo featured in the exhibition. I, a person with a physical impairment using a motorised standing aid to move around, learned this the hard way when I quite harshly was denied access to Julio Le Parc’s work. When I asked why, the guard gave me a rather nonchalant “that’s just how it is”-kind of answer. There was nothing in that room I couldn’t handle (for example stairs or high doorsills), so naturally I was upset, both by the rule in and of itself and by the attitude displayed by the guard.
A rule assuming any people using aids cannot handle these parts of the exhibit is conversely assuming that all people not using such aids can. Both are assumptions and not necessarily true – people not using aids can for example stumble and both hurt themselves and do damage to the artworks. Therefore making an “access denied”-rule specifically applying to people using aids in this context is discriminatory. In other words, if able-bodied people are expected to be capable of maneuvering themselves in these works of art given the circumstances, the same should go for me and my peers. If I’m not faced with heavy terrain, water trenches or level differences, I’m as skilled at making my way as the average able-bodied person is. Any other assumptions are ableistic thinking. Not being a person who lets this sort of thinking stop me, I took my chance and snuck in when the guard was temporarily out of sight. I’m glad I did, partly because it feels good to challenge discriminatory rules and partly because Julio Le Parc’s environment was among the best works of art featured in the exhibition.
I didn’t have to sneak in to enter Gianni Colombo’s environment – another piece in Eye Attack well worth experiencing – despite the sign at the entrance saying I wasn’t allowed inside. The guard stationed there tuned out to be very accommodating and benevolently offered me inside. That was nice, but me being allowed to enter or not should not be an issue decided by the goodwill of individual staff members in the first place. It should be a given – just as it’s a given that other historically marginalised groupings such as women and black people are allowed inside.
If expectations are kept at a moderate level, Eye Attack is well worth visiting. In these days when posting pictures on social media is almost as routinely done as brushing your teeth and the practice has started to be recognised by institutions and companies as a good way to get free publicity, it feels both a bit unexpected for a museum to opt for an exhibition that photographs as poorly as this one and quite exclusive to visit such an exhibition. What I as a visitor experienced at Eye Attack no picture posted on Instagram or Facebook can do justice – it has to be taken in first hand. I would, however, have loved some more “attack” and less ableism in Eye Attack.