Buckets of glitter, coloured lights and a hall of mirrors. No, the carnival isn’t back in town. These are the raw ingredients for Ann Veronica Janssens’ sparkling takeover of South London Gallery (SLG). The glitter – iridescent blue with a hint of pink – has been strewn in armfuls across the wooden floor of SLG’s main Victorian gallery, like the offspring of Jackson Pollock’s studio floor and a Disney princess party. Walk past and it coruscates. Sneeze and it would shift. It’s so airy that it makes Katharina Grosse’s spray painting of the same space in 2017 look positively cumbersome. Midway through the show, the glitter will be swept up and thrown away, replaced with a set of highly polished bicycles that you are invited to ride, bouncing light around the room as you go.
Janssens works in the realm of floaty impermanence, playing with light, space, reflection and perception. Judged as simple sculptural forms, the Belgian artist’s work is restrained in the extreme: bicycles aside, this is largely a collection of cubes, sheets and rings. The objects’ liveliness emerges as they connect the person observing them with the surrounding space. Often they create the setting for a performance in which you star: perfect for our self-regarding era, though Janssens has been working this area for decades.
Leaning against the entrance wall, Magic Mirror (Blue) (2012) is a shimmering sandwich of shattered glass and coloured filters. Together the layers form a broken mirror, a symbolic object suggesting bad luck, madness, the folly of vanity or the illusion of truthful reflection. Janssens seems less interested in grappling burdensome art historical references and more in the spectacle of unstable reflection itself: your fragmented image appears to float in a mist of shifting colour inside the glass.
She is an artist of everyday magic, summoning phantasmagoria from phenomena such as vapour, polished surfaces and the separation of water and oil. While the glitter spill emphasises the empty grandeur of the old SLG building, works shown in the fire station opposite play on the intimacy of encounters in spaces of domestic scale.
Three Gaufrette (wafer) works are fine sheets of ribbed glass carrying PVC colour filters. Installed in a low-ceilinged room only just large enough to contain them, the mutating moiré colours that emerge as you walk to and fro have an otherworldly, ghostly presence that seems divorced from the solid works themselves.
Le Bain de Lumière (The Light Bath, 1995) is a glass vase formed of four stacked spheres filled with demineralised water. Placed on a window ledge, each ball acts as a lens, offering an inverted street view. The liquid-filled orbs work much as our eyes do, so in looking at them we unwittingly reproducing the trick a second time.
A cube-shaped vitrine filled with a combination of water and paraffin – Golden Dream (2011-16) – offers an expanding geometry of internal reflections and pops of metallic colour that shimmer in and out of sight.
While she shares her cool perfection with the light and space artists of postwar California, such as James Turrell or De Wain Valentine, Janssens also lets us see the working of her illusions. In a darkened space, two little spotlights blaze into a corner producing melding puddles of cyan, magenta and cobalt: the exhibition’s titular work Hot Pink Turquoise (2006). If you ill-advisedly stare into the lights you’ll discover the bulbs have been fitted with a dichroic filter. Each light is thus both potentially hot pink and turquoise simultaneously. This mundane detail is there for us to discover: the lights are simply standing on the floor, their wires on view.
Janssens has scattered treats around the gallery like Easter eggs, unannounced. A little liquid-filled cube with a suspended neon stripe sits outside an upper window. High up on one wall is a photograph of a figure pushing against an invisible surface.
The iridescence that Janssens favours recalls sequinned dance costumes, eye shadow and custom car bodywork. Pop, maybe a little vulgar. Someone dubbed her work “‘pornographic’ minimalism”. They invite unselfconscious pleasure.
Stacked informally on the floor is a pile of posters reading: “In the absence of light, it is possible to create the brightest images within oneself.” It’s a featherlight sentiment in a featherlight show – one that feels dedicated to playfulness and ephemerality. The maverick designer R Buckminster Fuller used to pose architects the question: “How much does your building weigh?” We might well ask the same question of sculptors. Sometimes a lack of substance can be a good thing. It feels the right moment for joy, light and air.
• Ann Veronica Janssens: Hot Pink Turquoise is at South London Gallery until 29 November.