Space Shifters review, Hayward Gallery: art that may never lose its shine

20:50, by Richard Wilson 
20:50, by Richard Wilson  Credit: Eiji Ina © Yayoi Kusama

At first sight, Alicja Kwade’s Weltelinie looks like a fairly straightforward piece of geometric abstract sculpture: an arrangement of cuboid steel frames through which the viewer is invited to wander. Then you notice a familiar figure loping through the middle of the work: yourself. What appears to be a collection of holes in space is dotted with mirrors, which are never quite where you expect them to be. Areas of the room that should be milling with people are just a mirrored void, while proceeding into another of the work’s spaces, you see yourself gawping back from just a few inches away.

The Polish artist’s piece, which made quite an impact at last year’s Venice Biennale, is perhaps the keynote work in an exhibition on the ways artists have attempted to “alter and disrupt” the viewer’s sense of space, from Anish Kapoor’s Non-Object (Door), formed from concave mirrored panels, which seems to tremble like some cuboid column of mercury, to Handrail, by another Polish artist, Monika Sosnowska, that extends one of the gallery bannisters, twisting it into a looping abstract shape that completely fills one of the adjacent walls.

Larry Bell's Standing Walls II Credit: JR Dot

There’s nothing new in the idea of artists playing games with space. Ever since the Renaissance, they have attempted to fool the viewer’s eye and mind with devices such as perspective and trompe-l’oeil, and all sculpture, of course, projects into actual space. Over the past half century, however, artists have begun to treat the space around the viewer not just as a void between works of art, but as a medium in its own right that can be disrupted to change our sense of our surroundings and of reality itself.

This exhibition, then, feels like a sort of conceptual hall of mirrors in which there are a lot of actual mirrors, reflective surfaces and reflected light. The dark wedge of American artist De Wayne Valentine’s Grey Column looks like some enormous murkily reflective boiled sweet, though it’s actually resin. The right-angled planes of Danish artist Jeppe Hein’s 360 (degree symbol) Illusion 3 rotate like a giant mirrored propeller, sending mirrored sections of the room sliding slowly through space.

Anish Kapoor's  Sky Mirror  Credit: Anish Kapoor/DACS 2018

All this might seem just a collection of clever effects and ultimately trite visual conceits, if it wasn’t for the visual beauty of just about everything here. Yayoi Kusama’s Narcissus Garden, for example, is 700 polished steel spheres distributed in continent-like clusters oddly reminiscent of the abstract simplicity of a traditional Japanese Zen garden. Moreover, this severe minimal elegance perfectly suits the Hayward’s stark Sixties concrete architecture which, following a recent refurbishment, has never looked better.

The most unnerving work is Richard Wilson’s 20:50, which looks at first like a narrow walkway through the upstairs gallery with precipitous views onto the ceilings below. But don’t be tempted to lean too far over the edge, because that lower space is in fact the ceiling reflected in a room-filling tank of engine oil.

Yet the most intriguing conundrum posed by this exhibition is what period it’s taking us to. You’d be forgiven for assuming – and the show doesn’t exactly bombard you with contextual information – that this art is all new and cutting-edge. Yet, while much of the work is indeed very recent, some of the artists have been dead for decades, while classic works such as the Kusama date back to the Sixties.

Yayoi Kusama's  Narcissus Garden  Credit: Yayoi Kusama

The fact that all the work, whether vintage or contemporary looks equally fresh gives an odd, time-warping sense that you could be looking at a historical exhibition in which most works are, weirdly, brand new. Does this mean that the work of the original space-shifting artists has weathered particularly well – or simply that it happens to chime with current aesthetic tastes?

Perhaps both. On one hand, retro-modern white walls and stark interiors are all the rage these days, and much of the work here does accord with that. On the other hand, the sensation of being startled, as you are with Wilson’s, Kwade’s and many of the other exhibits here, will always make a work feel current. This isn’t art that’s likely to lose its immaculately sleek lustre any time soon.

Until Jan 6; 020 3879 9555;