‘Invisible art’ show opens today to rave reviews

A visitor walks past one of the invisible artworks at the Hayward Gallery © Getty Images

London’s Hayward Gallery has stirred a hot debate with its latest exhibition of modern art. From blank canvases to empty pedestals, the works on show have one quality in common: invisibility.

How much would you pay to enter an art gallery full of works you cannot see? Audiences in Britain will be asking themselves that very question this morning, as a bizarre new exhibition of invisible paintings, sculptures and installations opens at London’s Hayward Gallery. Entry price? Eight pounds sterling.

Curators at the Hayward insist that visitors will get a lot for their money. The exhibition, called Invisible: Art About the Unseen, includes works by some of the most interesting artists of the last sixty years, from Yoko Ono to the great Andy Warhol.

But the exact nature of the art on offer will certainly raise some eyebrows. The Warhol piece, for example, is nothing more than an empty pedestal, on which the artist once stepped. Another empty pedestal, by a different artist, marks the spot where some air was cursed by a witch.

Other exhibits are even stranger. There are three drawings done in invisible ink; one picture from a magazine that has been carefully erased so that nothing remains but an empty page; even a blank canvas to which nothing has been done at all. It is in the gallery because the artist spent a thousand hours just staring at it.

Then there is the extraordinary picture by Lai Chih-Sheng, a Taiwanese artist who carefully drew very fine lines over all the cracks and corners in the walls of one gallery room. Anyone who goes in will be standing in the middle of a huge drawing – they just won’t know it.

Perhaps strangest of all is Bethan Huws’ idea: to hire an actor to wander around the gallery pretending to be an ordinary visitor. The artwork is invisible because no one knows who the actor is.

Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan went one better by failing to submit an artwork at all. Instead, he sent in a police report, written by officers in Milan after an ‘invisible sculpture’ was supposedly stolen from his car.

What is the idea of all this unseen art? ‘This exhibition,’ says gallery director Ralph Rugoff, ‘highlights that art isn't about material objects. It's about setting our imaginations alight.’

Hidden benefits

Public reaction has, so far, ranged from confusion to outright ridicule. Modern art, say the doubters, was already like the Emperor’s new clothes in the famous fairy tale: an absurd illusion. Now it has become a parody of itself. True art should be beautiful. This ‘invisible’ art is nothing at all.

But many art critics have been more impressed by the exhibition. For one thing, they say, the invisible works are quite a clever joke about the nature of art. And anyway, good art draws its power not from beauty but from good ideas. The beauty may be hidden but the ideas here are fascinating and brilliant.

You Decide

  1. How much would you pay to see an exhibition of invisible art?
  2. Which is more important in art: ideas or beauty?


  1. In small groups, try to come up with a good concept for an invisible artwork, and present your idea to the class.
  2. Write a definition of the word ‘art’. Would the works in the invisible exhibition count?

Some People Say...

“At least if modern art is invisible I don’t have to look at it.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Artists are always pulling off this sort of crazy stunt. It doesn’t bother me.
It might if you or your parents are UK taxpayers. The Hayward Gallery is part of the Southbank Centre, one of Britain’s largest public arts spaces. That means it runs partly on money from the government.
Maybe I’m not a UK taxpayer.
Even so, what happens in the art world does matter. The value of modern art bought and sold each year is estimated at around £26 billion per year. That is a not insignificant chunk of the global economy.
And is it just visual art that has been getting so strange?
Not at all. The American classical music composer John Cage famously wrote a piece of music called 4’33’’. What did it sound like? Four minutes, thirty-three seconds of pure silence.

Word Watch

Yoko Ono
Born in Japan in 1933, Yoko Ono is a conceptual artist and political activist. She is perhaps best known today for her marriage to Beatles songwriter John Lennon. It was with her that Lennon held his famous ‘Bed-In for Peace’, and released his song Give Peace a Chance.
Andy Warhol
Andy Warhol is perhaps the most important artist of the late 20th Century. Working from his ‘Factory’ in New York, he became famous for his obsession with celebrity and pop culture, painting icons like Chairman Mao and Marilyn Monroe. He is responsible for the well-known saying: ‘In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.’
Emperor’s new clothes
The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fairy tale by the Danish writer Hans Christian Anderson. In the story, two tailors promise to make a new set of clothes for a powerful emperor. The clothes will be the finest ever made, but only clever people will be able to see them. In fact, the clothes do not exist, but everyone is so afraid of being thought stupid that they pretend to see them. Only one little boy is brave enough to point out that the Emperor is walking around in the nude.


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