Friday, 8 June 2007

Space Cadets

"Space" is one of those words that's used an awful lot in theatrical discourse, drawing almost no attention. I've used the phrase "a really nice space" countless times to describe theatres I like. I caught myself doing it this evening. And yet if I said it to my mother she'd have no idea what I was talking about. "A really nice space?" A really nice emptiness, one might just as well say. A really nice nothing.

Because what we're actually talking about is the moulding of that space, what surrounds it and what encloses it. The context in which space is found, the angle at which you look at it and how many different places there are to stand, are all-important, but space itself is, well, space. That's it. It's what makes you look at it that counts. A good theatre will make you experience that emptiness and the filling of it with immediacy; a good show will fill it and sculpt its interruption with beauty and dynamism.

In my own practice I'm fairly neurotic about finding plenty to fill the emptiness. In the last week I've seen two things that have made me think about that afresh - neither of them theatre pieces.

First up, Anthony Gormley's Event Horizon, a collection of 31 casts of the artist placed on rooftops in central London. From the south end of Waterloo Bridge, standing alongside the most earthbound of the statues, I could count eighteen. And it has quite a dizzying effect, like the way you feel when seeing something utterly different through a kaleidoscope while knowing that the materials making up the image remain identical. How many of us, even those of us who think ourselves attentive to the city's landscape, have ever really stood and just tried to absorb it all? That's what this piece asks you to do. There's the fun of spot-the-statue, for sure, but added to that is a new sense of awe with each one. "How the hell did he get it up there?" "God, that building's massive." "And I've never even noticed it before."

The attention it demands forces you into a whole new relationship with the cityscape, with its space and with what mediates that space. Every new interruption by one of these bronze men is a fresh and satisfying surprise. And even more impressive is its unforceful but unavoidable insistence on the scale of the human in this city. It's astonishing from how far off you can spot the statues once you've got your eye in, but it's equally astonishing how tiny they are when, for example, on a roof just opposite St Pauls. It sounds banal to say that human beings look insignificant in a city the size of London, or small next to a building the size of St Pauls. But what Gormley has achieved is something that makes the viewer feel that afresh, in a manner akin to Schklovsky's notion of defamiliarisation.

And what's really beautiful about it is the way, in focusing your attention on these distant figures, it suddenly makes individual human beings appear less insignificant. Perhaps that's a trick of the light, but the piece is magnificent, and it's really good fun too. I'm looking forward to catching the rest of the Blind Light exhibition at the Hayward.

But it's fairly average compared to Andy Goldsworthy's new exhibition at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. This really marks the point where my very limited vocabulary for visual art begins to crumble, if it wasn't already doing so. So first, the facts.

The main part of the new exhibition consists of four large underground rooms, each containing a large-scale installation constructed out of materials found on the site of the sculpture park. Before you even go in, you see three large stone archways each constructed from perhaps thirty individual pieces of stone. Each is a pleasant, almost classical interruption to the landscape, until the moment you realise that each of them is entirely free standing and self-supporting. Suddenly walking through an archway is a terrifying experience and building one an awesome feat. And that's just the start of the warm-up gig: in the entrance to the gallery, but before entering any of the spaces, there's a twelve-foot pine cone constructed from piling and intertwining large logs. Again, it's entirely free-standing, an impressive testament to patient and laborious craftsmanship and a terrifying prospect to stand alongside. What if it falls down? What are the health and safety implications?

There's nothing about the spaces that will sound as impressive as they look and feel, so I'll keep it relatively short and just stick to the best one. The most impressive room has been transformed into a hut, again constructed of free-standing logs; going through the entrance you walk straight into something from the Viking era and the smell of sweet timber grabs you by the nose. The roof curves up smoothly to the centre of the room, where logs give way to twigs, and since the only place light can come in is the way visitors do, it's dark enough to give the sense of dim light flickering in the centre. One thinks of hunter-gatherers clad in animal skins gathered round a fire, giving off more smoke than winter warmth.

And if the giant pine cone was terrifying, this adds to that a sense that, if it were to collapse, one would be buried alive. It's truly awesome, in the Edmund Burke-eighteenth-century sense of the word; terrifying in scale yet also inspiring a delighted astonishment. And somehow the reflections it provokes are not on the great achievements of Andy Goldsworthy (well, not entirely), but on the achievements of Mother Nature (unforgiveable anthropomorphisation purely for rhetorical effect: sorry about that). Because we're never afraid that what she made might just collapse: while marvelling at them, one is simultaneously forced to confront the frailty of human achievements when compared with Scafell Pike, or Derwentwater. Whatever we might think about the awesome nature of these installations, the renewed sense of astonishment at the landscape and its sculpting over the millenia has produced something of considerably greater sublimity. One leaves the gallery into gawping sight of the magnificent vistas afforded by the YSP landscape and it feels as though the whole world is part of the exhibition, that everything has been put there for our delectation.

There is, of course, an extraordinary arrogance about such reflections if we allow them to centre entirely on ourselves; it makes the whole world appear like something from your latest hypomanic episode. But to simply revel anew in the natural landscape strikes me as a very worthwhile thing to do and it's also utterly thrilling. And although I drifted not for a moment to fearing for the future of our planet and its glories, that's something subsequent reflection taken me back to several times. Human figures can have an impact on the landscape, but the landscape is both more beautiful and more terrifying than anything we can muster.

How this relates back to my own practice, I'm not sure. But the question it presents to me is: how can we, in the theatre, most powerfully present to our audiences the sense of human scale in the world, of the fragility and beauty of individual lives against this vastest of backdrops? If we want to present great reckonings in little rooms, how do we compare this prison where we live unto the world?

1 comment:

alexf said...

Event Horizon is great, isn't it? I've really enjoyed the way that they've quite rapidly become assimilated into my sense of the natural shape of the London skyline, but that every now and again, they suddenly become strange again. I was at the Royal Festival Hall for the relaunch party/ celebration, and the various events taking place certainly were given another layer of meaning by the way the figures were overlooking them and us in the audience.