Catalogue Essay - The Transformer Room
by Brooke Babington
There is a sense of play at work in Winsome Spiller’s The Transformer Room. The fragments of colourful material dotted at irregular intervals along the outer walls of the space act as invitations to engage with the work, tempting the viewer to move around a large central column of brick hung with parti-coloured lengths of tulle, lining up rectangular cutout windows in the fabric with their corresponding outlying forms. The hues are vivid and breezy and the tone is one of lighthearted discovery. As viewers move around the room, translucent fields of colour blend and overlap in their fields of vision, shrouding the walls of the gallery in curtained filters punctuated intermittently by glimpses through to the other side to create that which Spiller calls ‘view corridors’ through the structure.
Through this process of engagement the work recalls Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series, but the association is fleeting. Spiller’s selection of colours belie the stoic formalism that attended Albers’ investigations. Here lilac, highlighter yellow, cerulean and bottle green veil the space in sunny hues more reminiscent of fairy floss and ice-cream cake than the strictures of Bauhaus formalism; an impression only heightened by the artist’s choice of tulle as her medium.
A further point of difference with Albers’ optical colour studies is also that which imbues Spiller’s Transformer Room with dynamism: while for Albers, the optical interactions of colours affected a perception of depth that moved beyond the surface of his paintings such that the palest hues seemed almost to float or recede against their more vivid backgrounds, here an inverse effect is achieved: pushing and pulling three dimensional space uneasily into the flattened space of the frame.
In this sense the work can be likened to a cinematic or photographic rendering of space in which fore-, mid- and background jostle for position across the screen (or photograph’s) surface. Indeed, Spiller entitled a previous incarnation of The Transformer Room for Dear Patti Smith gallery ‘Viewfinder’ in seeming reference to this effect. The surprising spatial and perceptual shifts contained in the work contrast with the apparent simplicity of form and lightness of touch Spiller employs. The gesture here is airy but the optical effects pronounced.
Perception and sensory immersion are at the heart of Spiller’s concerns here in an effort to focus the viewer’s attentions on the particularities of site. Once a power hub for the adjacent railway lines before being subject to years of neglect and vandalism, Spiller heightens lingering traces of these divergent chapters of the Substation’s history through an economy of means.
The cutout forms replicate the dimensions of the brickworks elaborating the building’s interior spaces while aligning the gaps left by them draws attention to remnants of infrastructure from the gallery’s former industrial life. The title refers to the site’s history by riffing on the dual meaning of a transformer, both as a modifier (here, of perception) and as an electrical device. Likewise, lurid blue and red graffiti adorning the pillared scaffolding of the Transformer Room (leftover from a time when the Substation stood abandoned) is emphasized by overlaying it with mauve in vibrant contrast. This scaffolding is formed of the remains of an alcove presumably used to house large-scale industrial machinery, now long absent, but invoked by Spiller’s structure – a ‘transformative machine’, she explains, ‘for looking’.
This veiling and unveiling of the building’s substrate accords with Spiller’s aim for the Transformer Room to heighten perception. Unveiling has long stood as a metaphor for enlightenment; the act representing a symbolic shedding of illusions. In an unnamed sonnet, 19th century English poet Shelley wrote “Lift not the painted veil which those who live/ Call life”. Similarly, in Buddhism, Sufism and Hinduism and also in Plato’s famous allegory of the cave it is suggested that our sensate experience of the material world is a mere veil of the true or highest form of reality. Invoking this rich symbolic tradition, Spiller’s Transformer Room ‘enlightens’ us to the nature of perception. The half-seen world that surrounds us – that which we usually filter out – is glimpsed a little more clearly through the gaps in Spiller's veil like flashes of insight that lead to a greater focus.
Brooke Babington, 2013