words Justin McGuirk
Cristina Iglesias's first solo exhibition in the UK may be architectural in scale, but it's about intricacy and intimacy.
I'm wondering how many tonnes Cristina Iglesias' Untitled (Tilted Hanging Ceiling) weighs. It's made of iron, resin and stone powder and it's hanging from a few slender cables in the Whitechapel's ground-floor gallery. I don't really want to linger under it; if one of those cables snaps the whole thing will come down on me like a giant Monty Python foot. But it's hard not to linger; the surface is intriguingly delicate; I can see coral. It's like looking up, paradoxically, at a fossilised seabed. It is one of the characteristics of Iglesias' work that it can be pulling you in at the same time as it's showing you the door.
This is the Spanish artist's first solo exhibition in the UK, and it comes via the Serralves Museum of Contemporary Art in Porto. In its forms and scale her work is architectural, but it is less about architecture than it is about states of mind and our interaction with certain types of space. Looking at Iglesias' suspended ceiling from across the room is a completely different experience to being underneath it, when it becomes an escapist's haven. Even though there are no walls confining you, you feel as though you are in a separate place, a darker and more intimate one. Absorbed in the ceiling's detail, the gallery disappears.
Around the edges of the room a series of photographic images induce a similar sense of displacement. Silkscreen-printed on to giant sheets of copper are images of doorways and hallways and rooms leading on to other rooms. At a glance we respond to them intuitively as abandoned, generic spaces, but the illusion only lasts a second. Rioja? These are crude models made of cardboard wine boxes. Rough-edged doors have been sliced through barcodes and the names of vineyards. But the scale is unsettling, and for a while there is still a temptation to look for signs of life in the shadows. To a certain extent the spectator is made to inhabit the space, a spectre reflected on the copper's surface. The sense of perspective is real even if the human scale is a fiction. I think the word is "uncanny": we see it, we believe it, we know it's not true.
In the next room are two pieces made out of lattice-work walls clearly playing on the mashrabiyah screens of Islamic architecture. Iglesias uses that air of intricacy and refinement to seduce you and then confound you. One is a cage, with no way in or out. The other is a maze that leads nowhere. The filigree walls are clearly composed of letters, but the text is no help or consolation because it is too difficult to follow. The works belong to a series called Celosia, which in Spanish means both a blind and jealousy - suitably evocative of a world only partially glimpsed and from which one is excluded. A larger version of this labyrinth is installed in a disused shop five minutes' walk from the gallery, and there the sense of an imaginary world, a world of secret gardens to which one cannot quite find the way, is more palpable - as is the sense of claustrophobia.
But, as a byword for complexity, the very concept of the labyrinth is a loaded one; a cynic might say that it offers a shortcut to some kind of depth in the work. As a metaphor, the simple blind alley is more instantly effective - by which I mean frustrating - and it is particularly effective in a series of installations in the upstairs galleries entitled Vegetation Rooms. Here, walls of organic matter delineate pathways into the galleries and then swallow them up, cutting you off. The walls, cast in resin mixed with bronze powder to give the impression of oxidised copper, pretend to front dense forests of matted twigs and leaves, or else swirling sea vegetation. But they are totally impenetrable, and you have to be satisfied with this tactile façade.
The baroque ornateness of the Vegetation Rooms, with their aura of decay, seems to suffocate the clean white cubes of the gallery: modernism's sanitised open spaces have overgrown with insalubrious primal matter. There's a postmodernist hankering for a more chaotic past in this, and for spaces that stimulate the imagination rather than calm it. Nothing is instantly revealed and the viewer is frequently waylaid by illusory effects. As Iglesias puts it: "I'm not interested in the truth to materials credo... I use lots of materials that lie."
Apart from the nostalgia that's in the work, there is also the nostalgia, or the reverie, that the work induces in the viewer. Untitled (Alabaster Corner) invites the viewer to shelter under a narrow canopy of translucent alabaster in that favourite childhood space, the corner. And if it weren't for the adults in the gallery I would have done so. But even from where I stood I could lose myself in the luminosity of the white stone and the veins running across it. "Each of us has seen a few lines on the ceiling that appeared to chart a new continent," wrote Gaston Bachelard. Incidentally, it's hard to avoid Bachelard when you're talking about Iglesias' work; for one thing, his book on intimate spaces is all over the Whitechapel bookshop.
In the same room are two works that are deceptively simple but that get better the more you think about them. Against the gallery walls are planes of rough concrete, which have been peeled away at one end to reveal tapestry linings. Metal and glass sheets against the wall reflect the leafy, woven motifs and give a sense of plush interiors or, again, hidden gardens. But the heavy walls cannot be prised open any further - at best, you can nestle vicariously in the gap. There is an aspect of this in most of Iglesias' work: it entices you with elaborate internal worlds, but the chain is always across the door.
It sounds teasing - cruel, even. But, if this isn't too much of a truism, there are two worlds: the one inside our heads and the one outside. Iglesias' work manages to stimulate the impulse that we have to seek out comfortable, private spaces where we can daydream. Is the work so appealing because we rarely allow ourselves the time to drift off like this anymore? Is it that Iglesias' work offers the kinds of spatial intricacy that the mind craves but that almost a century of architectural practice has done its best to erase? But the very fact that I could even be asking these questions means that she's managed to get inside my head.
Cristina Iglesias, Whitechapel Art Gallery, London, www.whitechapel.org Until May 18 2003