Richard Wilson Will Fill the Hayward Gallery With Thousands of Gallons of Oil to Reprise His Most Famous Work This Fall

The artist's celebrated installation "20:50" will play a starring role in the upcoming show, "Space Shifters."

Richard Wilson with 20:50, in Matt's Gallery (1987). Courtesy the artist.

One of London’s most memorable contemporary art installations is returning to the capital. The work—Richard Wilson’s most famous installation, which involves flooding a room with gallons of reflective engine oil—returns some three decades after its debut in the city.

Wilson will be installing the large-scale sculpture, 20:50, in an upper room of London’s Hayward Gallery on the South Bank for a major group show this fall. Called “Space Shifters,” the exhibition will feature works by more than 20 international artists who “alter or disrupt our sense of space and re-orient our understanding of our surroundings in ways that are by turns subtle and dramatic,” according to a statement from the gallery.

Wilson’s optical work will be one of the more dramatic pieces in the show, capturing every architectural detail of the newly renovated Brutalist venue. The installation’s mirror-like surface reflects its surroundings with an incredible clarity, the artist tells artnet News. The Hayward iteration is going to be “very big and beautiful,” Wilson says.

Visitors can view the sea of oil from a platform above or from an aisle walkway Wilson will build to cut through the waist-high muck. But beware: If you are tempted to touch the art, you’ll end up with inky black oil all over your hands. Better to blow lightly on the surface to confirm for yourself that what looks solid is indeed liquid.

The Hayward Gallery’s architecture will be reflected in Richard Wilson’s 20:50. Photo by Morley Von Sternberg, courtesy of the gallery.

Wilson will begin building the work in a long, narrow gallery next month. “Because we’re being cheeky [about] how we build the piece, there is a fire escape door and it will appear as if the oil is escaping [from the room] into the outside world,” he says.

In 1987, when Wilson first unveiled his signature work, it drew lines around the block at Matt’s Gallery in East London. Snapped up by mega-collector Charles Saatchi that same year, 20:50 became a highlight of his galleries, showing first at Boundary Road in north London, then in County Hall on the South Bank, before finally coming to the Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea.

In 2015, Saatchi sold the piece to the collector and museum founder David Walsh, who installed the piece at his Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania.

“I’ve always had an exhibition copy, which is not for sale,” Wilson explains, adding that Walsh is fine with its temporary return to London. “It’s a shame [that] it left London,” he adds, nothing that he has always thought of it as a “European piece.”

Wilson first had the idea for 20:50 while swimming in a pool on a vacation in the Algarve in Portugal. He began experimenting with a drum of engine oil back in his studio in London. “I thought, ‘God, that oil is so magical in that you couldn’t see it but it’s presence was very much there,’” the artist says. He is pleased to have added the medium of oil to the “sculptor’s vocabulary.”

“I just like the idea of taking a hazardous waste material and changing one’s perception of it,” he says. “You realize that a material [that] you could be arrested for if you poured it down the drain is a very beautiful thing if you could do something with it.”

Wilson’s sculpture will be joined by Minimalist works from the 1960s, as well as other large-scale installations and architectural interventions. Organized by Hayward’s senior curator Cliff Lauson, the show will feature works by artists including Larry Bell, Roni Horn, Robert Irwin, Yayoi Kusama, Alicja Kwade, and DeWain Valentine. Their work, along with Richard Wilson’s 20:50, will help the Hayward end its 50th anniversary year on a high note.

“Space Shifters” will be on view from September 26 to January 6, 2019 at the Hayward Gallery in London.

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