Two years ago, Cristina Iglesias, who is best known for large-scale public sculptures that transform their urban surroundings, was awarded the Royal Academy Architecture Prize—a first for an artist and a recognition of her poetic and experiential vision of public space. Her Covid-delayed prize commission—a temporary, site-specific work—is now on view through August 21, 2022, in conjunction with this year’s Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Wet Labyrinth (with Spontaneous Landscape) continues Iglesias’s consideration of labyrinths and mazes, which she has been exploring since 2005. It is also the most recent iteration of her “pasillos vegetales” (“vegetation rooms”), an ongoing series that sets nature and culture in difficult dialogue. The artificial and the organic come together once again in this work, which occupies the RA’s Annenberg Courtyard in Piccadilly.
Entering this stone-dominated space, it is surprising to encounter a lush vegetal landscape emerging from the cobbled pavement. The plants surround and partially obscure a dark, box-like construction. Passing through the narrow entrance, it is not at all clear what might be inside. The clue, as is often the case with Iglesias’s work, lies in the title: Wet Labyrinth. Inside, walls molded with reliefs evoking dense foliage are kept moist with continuously dripping water. Time seems to slow down here, and it is easy to imagine the droplets eventually eroding the walls, the structure becoming a ruin consumed by nature. Dead ends, small apertures, and mirrors confuse and distort the relationship between inside and outside; surrounding buildings come in and out of view but remain beyond the visitor’s reach.
This is a room of sorts, but as in a traditional outdoor hedge maze, there is no ceiling, just the sky above. Natural light and air temperature change depending on the weather. The trickling water—hardly visible but clearly audible—acts as a constant companion. Its invisible presence recalls London’s network of subterranean rivers such as the Fleet (a subject directly engaged in Iglesias’s 2017 installation, Forgotten Streams), while the pungent odor of wet vegetation makes an unusual addition to the stony courtyard. The bas-relief walls inside the maze invite touch, and visitors are welcome to run their fingers across the wet, molded resin. This is a calm, reflective space, not unlike a grotto, that invites lingering.
Within Iglesias’s practice, sustainability of materials is an important consideration, and here, her approach aligns with the theme of the Summer Exhibition, which focuses on “Climate.” In Wet Labyrinth, a closed-circuit pump recycles the water so none is wasted, and all the plants will be replanted elsewhere at the end of the exhibition.
Like many of Iglesias’s works, Wet Labyrinth forms a private place in a public space, offering a degree of seclusion and intimacy. It is also a space of memory and imagination. The question we are left with is whether the interior reliefs are meant to convey nature rescued and nourished or decayed and fossilized. The presence of water in the labyrinth presents its own interpretive layers. Is it ritualistic, perhaps alluding to religious ceremonies? Is it symbolic of life? Or is it a resource, pure and simple, to be conserved and used sparingly? All of these aspects come into play, but given the theme of the Summer Exhibition, it is the idea of water as a precious, life-giving resource that comes to the fore. There is no false hope in Iglesias’s Wet Labyrinth, which offers the time and space to reflect once again on how humankind is impacting the environment and the climate.
Cristina Iglesias’s work can also been in London at Gagosian, where a solo show of recent pieces from her “Entwined” and “Growth” series is on view through August 19, 2022.