20:50 by Richard Wilson is one of the most striking installation pieces in contemporary art, quite literally obscuring the line between art and architecture. Upon entering the piece, the viewer’s path is confined to a narrow waist-height channel which penetrates into a reflecting plane that impossibly splits the room, repeating upper half below as well. The deep, rich reflection is the result of the room being flooded with recycled motor oil, from which the piece takes its name. This simple yet unconventional gesture so drastically alters the perception of space and orientation that, perhaps for the first time ever, oil arguably becomes an architectural material.
The effectiveness of the piece lies in its ability to shatter definitions we have built our entire lives: walls have thickness, the ground is below us, and under no circumstance is up “down”. Lesser reflections such as mirrors and bodies of water almost always reveal themselves in the details; ripples in the water and the seam between glass plates allow our brain to quickly dismiss the illusion. Here the illusion is so masterful and seamless that our brain struggles to piece together reality, and for a moment we escape.
As an architectural statement 20:50 is unquestionably effective, but as an “innovation” it is debatable. To be innovative, a concept must not only be original; it must also inspire and inform future work. The likelihood of motor-0il reflecting ponds appearing anywhere outside of a gallery is almost zero, especially if EPA has any say. Instead, 20:50 should rather be considered inspirational, and worthy of reflection.