You need your wits about you as you walk into Smith/Stewart’s latest sculptural installation - a faltering step might easily end in a nasty bump to the head.
Stephanie Smith and Edward Stewart - the pair have worked together since 1993 under the Smith/Stewart brand - are known for their exploration of the divisions between public and private space, and this time have literally divided the rooms of Inverleith House, installing interlocking black beams at head height.
On the ground floor, the first room is split by an off-kilter cross, echoed in the second. Upstairs, the dissection of space becomes more complex with interlocking lines slicing rooms into uneven quarters.
Described like this, Enter Love And Enter Death might sound like good old minimalist sculpture, but its form is, perhaps, less significant than the effect it has on its audience.
That effect is a powerful one, of heightened awareness - the beams are set at eye level, and have the look of metal girders (though they are made of painted wood), and so present a very real threat, forcing careful, tentative movements, and a good deal of cautious peering over and under the beams to plot a course through them. The result is a feeling close to claustrophobia, even though the spaces between the beams are wide, or a nervous, grown-up reversal of the abandon with which children attack a climbing frame.
This exaggerated sense of ones surroundings also applies to everything that Smith/Stewart have not installed. Inverleith House is perhaps Scotland’s most pleasing gallery, with its airy rooms, and the green light of the Botanic Gardens creeping through the windows, but at most shows, the art overwhelms the interior - with Smith/Stewart’s joists in place, every detail of the rooms is thrown into sharp focus, and views are admired with fresh eyes when it is hard to reach them. In the last room on the upper floor of the gallery, the ghosts of past installations remain - a wall-drawing by Robert Ryman, text left over from Douglas Gordon’s Superhumanatural exhibition - and Smith/Stewart’s beams grant them a fresh context, simultaneously obscuring and framing works that, to regular visitors at least, have long since faded into the background, forcing another fresh look. At the exit, Smith/Stewart even introduce a note of humour, with a final beam placed so close to the door that leaving the work is a struggle bordering on the slapstick.
Smith/Stewart are perhaps best known for their earlier work, pitched somewhere between performance and video, which was concerned with the body at an intimate level, often with a violent edge (the duo have described their work, menacingly, as being about ‘the things that people are capable of doing to one another’). The pair have filmed themselves desperately trying to breathe with plastic bags over their heads, for example, and made distinctly disquieting video works with cameras housed inside their mouths, looking out.
In the context of this past practice Enter Love And Enter Death, can be seen as a performance of sorts, as much as it is an installation or sculpture - the difference being, of course, that the artists are not the performers in this case, but choreographers, orchestrating the movements of their audience through the gallery spaces of Inverleith House, and, where once they documented events with video, Smith/Stewart here document in advance, so to speak, with their sculptural forms. Much is left to chance, of course - the duo could hardly predict the ducking and weaving of visitors with any precision - but, as one stalks the gallery alone, the sense that others must have peeped into this corner, dipped low to gain access to that area, or pulled up short to avoid a collision with a certain beam, is a strong one, with the ultimate result that an encounter with Enter Love And Enter Death begins to feel like something approaching a collaboration, with Smith and Stewart, first and foremost, and with fellow gallery-goers past and present, too.
Without that sense of physically interpreting the work as one moves through it, the piece would be distinctly aggressive, less a meditation on the controlled routes architects set into their buildings, or an intervention on the existing spaces of Inverleith House, more a near-violent corralling of an audience. But the idea that, albeit in some limited sense, every visitor is collaborating with the collaborating duo, lends the work a subtler tension, as if the usual mode of gallery behaviour - the presentation and consumption of art - has been transformed into a distinctly discomforting dance of control and willing submission.
This is powerful stuff, then, a work that provokes an intense physical response, one that borders on the unpleasant while also offering a genuine sense of communication between viewer and artists. That all this is achieved with the simple placement of some black beams makes Enter Love And Enter Death, which is at first sight might seem rather slight and repetitive, a remarkable piece of sculpture.
This review was first published in The Herald on November 30th, 2007.