“Landscape II” by Melanie Wilson

at Battersea Arts Centre, Thursday 7th November 2013

*Originally written for Exeunt*

The landscapes of Melanie Wilson’s new piece are plural; aural, visual, verbal, physical. They are created not literally, but in the abstract, in the space between her words and her images. Throughout, you find yourself floating within the gaps, trying to grasp at what’s ‘real’, and just as something seems to be sliding into focus, it’s pulled away again and you’re in the dark again. It’s a beautiful, haunting piece, and makes some fascinating points about how we relate to past, present and future.

The set-up is deceptively simple. Wilson sits at a table, littered with papers, a laptop, a microphone and sound equipment. From here, she manipulates the soundscape and recounts a monologue from the perspective of Vivian, who reads letters by Beatrice from 1899 and remembers an encounter with Meena, a woman from another continent prosecuted for who she is. Wilson never moves from her table, which is situated within a mock-up of a cottage, with decaying floorboards and a huge moulding wall, onto which is projected videos filmed and edited by Will Duke. There’s something reminiscent of Kieran Hurley’s BEATS within the set-up, but the effect it has and the points it makes inhabit a different world altogether.

The narrative crosses temporal and geographic landscapes, asking questions about the treatment of women in different spaces and the relationship of one human being to another if the only thing that connects them is a letter. Wilson’s hypnotic voice glides across the story like slate slung into the sea, occasionally hitting on something concrete before leaping off again into the unknown. Thus we get flashes of clear, visceral images before it all disappears and we are left piecing bits together ourselves. Ultimately, it’s a monologue that questions the possibility of doing things “for the good of humanity”, weaving multiple stories together to try and find the moments which connect us to the world around us.

All of this is inextricably bound up with Wilson’s chosen form, which also reflects on witnessing versus acting. Duke’s videos, shot in sharp high definition, mimic the lens of a photographer, as pictures are lined up and snapped for the memory-bank. It gives us the micro and the macro, with videos of the ocean or vast moors juxtaposed with close-ups of individual body parts. While Wilson narrates, for example, an individual looking out of a window across a moor, we see the feet of said voyeur which tip-toe as the voice strains for a clearer view. The minute focus of the lens thus ensures we re-view common scenarios and consider how singular limbs or features can convey worlds of emotion.

Underneath all this is the live-manipulated sound design, which achieves a similar outcome. Sometimes, as in one particularly horrifying moment, our ears are bombarded with something as dramatic and full as the scenario described. Elsewhere, it does something completely different, offering up a calm within a storm. It’s tempting to describe it as ‘cinematic’, but that would do Wilson a disservice; it’s far more layered and textured than that.

It’s only now, two days after I saw Landscape II, that has this all actually begun to crystallise in my psyche. In the moments after the piece ends, you’re left raw and confused. But as your brain wonders elsewhere in the following hours, things start to become clearer, and images drift into view. It’s by no means a piece which immediately satisfies; it’s scope is far wider and all-encompassing than that. It lingers, taking you by surprise and shifting the way you define your relationship to words and places. In the moment, the suggestion that “Anything must be possible – even that which is unimagined or unheard of” seems a little farfetched. Give it time, however, and you begin to realise where Wilson is coming from.

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