Visual Art and Theatre

Untitled #162  (Aeneas Wilder)

Workplace (Adel Abidin, Emily Jacir, João Onofre, Superflex, Pilvi Takala, John Wood and Paul Harrison)

As I wandered round Aeneas Wilder’s Untitled #162 in Warwick Art Centre’s Mead Gallery last October, a few words which Wilder was speaking from a screen nearby caught my attention: “this is theatre” he said of his work, before explaining the ways in which his Jenga-style structures are bound up with notions of performativity.

Continuing to walk around Wilder’s work, then, this phrase continued to play in my mind. I entered the structure, which consisted of two large spaces and a central corridor (see image below). I stood in the middle of the second ‘room’. I looked around.

But how exactly was this performance. No one, not even the two stewards sat in their chairs, was watching me. And yet I was having a dialogue with the piece itself which expanded out beyond the fragile walls and into the room beyond.

For if drama is all about the tension between two opposing ideas, Untitled #162 certainly fits the remit. Experiencing the piece, I constantly struggled not to throw my hand out and send the whole unglued, unsupported sculpture crashing to the floor. Like theatre, however, this brings out the best in us; throughout the entirety of its tenure in the Mead Gallery, the piece remained intact.

Pretty much everyone I chatted to about the piece commented on the mirror effect created by the angled at which the slats are placed; walking around the room, you become convinced that the opposite wall is reflecting what you see in front of you. What’s striking about this is that, though part of your brain tells you you’re seeing something reflected, your conscious self knows this can’t be the case because you can’t see your own body. This illusion also likens Untitled #162 to theatre, where we go to “see ourselves” reflected even though we are never able to discern ourself exactly represented on stage.

Famously, Wilder ends his exhibitions with a “kick-down”, during which an audience gathers to watch him literally kick down the structure, seeing the bricks come tumbling down in a final cacophony of noise and destruction. This final act is inherently performative and is as much part of the work as the material object in front of us (“If Aeneas Wilder kicks down Untitled #162 and no one is around to see it, has he actually destroyed anything?” etc). The whole piece is based around tensions of watching and being watched, creating and destroying, death and rebirth.

This term, the Mead Gallery is curating Workplace, which exists mainly as a series of video installations and short films poking fun at and interrogating the idea of a 9-5 office job. One sees two middle-aged men duelling using fluorescent lighting tubes, whilst in another an eagle sits perched on a desk.

More interesting, however, is the Arts Centre’s invitation on its website:

“During Workplace, the Mead Gallery is encouraging visitors to use the gallery as their own workplace, to have working (and non-working) lunches in there and to make use of desks and meeting spaces that may be booked in advance for free. This is a unique opportunity to become part of the art and escape your own workplace for a while.”

I’ve been to see the exhibit twice. The first time, late at night, the gallery was practically empty and I enjoyed a quiet coffee on my own whilst wandering around the chairs and tables set out for meetings. The second time, however, the exhibition was far busier, with groups sat in huddles chatting admin and a few people sat at computers tapping away. What struck me here was the theatricality of everything which was going on; large gestures were being made by those sat in groups, and one girl sat at a computer kept looking up to see who was watching. People were clearly acting up due to the ‘audience’ around them.

How much, then is this real life, and how much constitutes ‘art’ within the confines of the exhibition? Just as with Untitled #162, the space between what we can seriously count as ‘real’ and what is ‘fiction’. I’d suggest that nothing in this space can truly exist in reality, for though the policies or ideas being discussed by work groups may have some real-world effect, they are taking place within a space which encourages performance and necessitates the participant to think in a different way. The leader of each group has actively elected to ‘perform’ their meeting for the rest of us, turning their reality into our theatre.

Untitled #162 and Workplace are not, on the surface of things, pieces about performance. They are ‘about’ fragility and work respectively. But within each of these notions the artists have managed to sculpt troughs where the residues of theatre can exist. All it takes is a little imagination and they erupt into explorations of how we perform.

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