Originally published on Spoonfed, June 2012.

After a typical bout of quasi-outrage from the nation’s media, the Hayward Gallery’s controversial exhibition, Invisible – Art about the Unseen, opens its doors to the public today. Given the potentially provocative nature of the subject matter (or lack thereof) it’s one of those shows that’s hard not to have a strong opinion about before you’ve even arrived: a fascinating exploration of the power of the imagination, or the apotheosis of conceptual art nonsense? I suggest you simply go and, um, see for yourself.

But first, it’s worth pointing out that this is not really anything new, nor is the Hayward attempting to claim such newness for itself. As the exhibition’s subtitle makes clear in advance, there’s work on show from as far back as 1952. The fact that certain sections of the media can still profess outrage at work from 60 years ago says a lot both about art and about journalists.

Because despite some of the overcharged pre-exhibition coverage, there is plenty to see for the £8 entry fee, including work by some of the biggest names in late twentieth century art – the likes of Yoko Ono, Andy Warhol and Yves Klein. Personal highlights include Claes Oldenburg’s thoughtful proposals for ‘negative’ memorials; Lai Chih-Sheng’s colossal, but barely noticeable site-specific drawing; Robert Barry’s thoughtful work with non-visible materials like noble gases and energy fields; and Jeppe Hein’s Invisible Labyrinth (2005), which manages to be childishly entertaining for both participants and observers alike. Even the wall texts look rather lovely.

What visitors to Invisible should realise fairly quickly is that it is not some kind of arch art-world in-joke. There is humour here (from Maurizio Cattelan in particular) but this is a serious and sensitive undertaking. There’s the tender intimacy of Song Dong’s diary, written in water on a stone; the intriguing beauty of Bruno Jakob’s The Visitors/Breath (2008) (his other works include such media as light, touch, and “worries colliding and releasing”); and Tom Friedman’s five-year long project, 1,000 Hours of Staring (1992-97). If the artist really spent a thousand hours staring at this blank piece of paper, the least the visitor can do is return the stare for a minute or two.

Together, such works form an exhibition that cuts to the very heart of conceptual art (indeed all art, which was always already conceptual). Invisible lays bare art’s history and its theories. There is no hiding place. For what Invisible makes most immediately clear is that a work of art never materialises out of thin air (even if, as is occasionally the case here, the work of art actually is thin air). Behind every work of art is the story of its creation, just as afterwards is the story of its reception: twin narratives, twin discourses that generate significance. As Friedman puts it: “one’s knowledge of the history behind something affects one’s thinking about that thing”.

The consequence is that, as Ralph Rugoff, Director of the Hayward, said in his introductory speech at the media view, “the meaning of a work exists in the discussion that happens around it, its history, and the way it’s presented”. Meaning and value, this exhibition argues, are not intrinsic properties but marks formulated and inscribed by external factors.

It’s important to point out, because it’s so frequently overlooked by those who seek to ridicule the pretensions of artists, and collectors in particular, that this is by no means unique to the art world. An example: for £35, you can buy a paperweight containing tiny swatches of the ‘hallowed turf’ of Lord’s cricket ground, cut from the outfield in 2002. Evidently it is not the turf itself that is of value, but where it comes from: turf costs as little as £3.49 per square metre from Wickes. Similarly, anyone who knows the antiques trade or deals in stamps or buys celebrity-related or historical memorabilia knows that it is not the object that is of value, it’s the provenance, and the ability to prove that provenance. Without the all-important piece of paper, that priceless heirloom you brought onto Antiques Roadshow is sadly just another worthless trinket.

The difference, however, between art and other similar discourses of value, is that art is more self-aware than most. Invisible makes this point very neatly by exhibiting two superficially identical works. The Air-Conditioning Show (1966) by Art & Language and Air (2003) by Teresa Mangoles both consist of pairs of air-conditioning units situated in the corners of otherwise empty rooms. But where Art & Language’s work is accompanied by reams of characteristically dense wall text, Mangoles simply points out that the units are powered by water previously used to wash dead bodies in a morgue. “The water vapour is harmless,” we’re informed, dryly.

Whether or not art (as opposed to art theory or philosophy) is the most effective place to explore such issues is a moot point. Interestingly, the exhibition that Invisible reminds me of most is not an art show at all, but Writing Britain over at the British Library. Both exhibitions largely eschew the visual in favour of the textual, and both therefore take place predominantly within the mind of the visitor. They are solitary, introspective exhibitions, but ones that linger in the mind and continue to needle and challenge. Perhaps this similarity is hardly surprising: in 1989, Jacques Derrida described literature as “the institution which allows one to say everything, in every way“. For better or for worse, the same is true of art too. Perhaps it always has been.

Invisible – Art about the Unseen is at the Hayward Gallery until 5th August 2012.