Symphony of a Swinging Pendulum

If you go to enough events, read enough books, see enough films, connections seem to appear, even when you haven’t been consciously collecting them. I think I’ve already mentioned here the unexpected appearance of areas and landmarks in London that previously didn’t mean much to me, such as Gloucester Road in Naipaul’s Bend in the River. Other connections take the form of confluences in the nature of experiences, such as occurred this weekend.

My companion had bought tickets for Symphony of a Missing Room, an event at the Royal Academy, associated with the LIFT Festival. Notwithstanding that It Felt Like A Kiss is one of my favourite ‘artworks’ ever, I’m a little bit wary of ‘immersive theatre’, and I was offered the chance to give away my ticket. However, I bore in mind advice from a friend and decided to go. Dealing with a bag involuntarily soaked in beer at Nine Inch Nails the previous night delayed me so much that my late arrival nearly caused an incident, the authorities being mollified by my companion. Auto-tsk.

At the moment the main galleries at Burlington House are closed for the fitting of the annual summer exhibition. We were ushered through the barriers and seated on some folding chairs, watching workmen in the next gallery, who were also peering at us. Colonised by headphones, we followed a lady striding carefully in time with the footsteps of our private soundtrack, and I was reminded of Russian Ark, Sokurov’s single-take journey around the St. Petersburg Hermitage. As I’d been advised from preparatory reading, eventually my glasses were niftily placed in my pocket, replaced by white gauze goggles, through which only impressions of light were visible. From then on, we were asked to walk around ourselves, or guided by fingers and hands we couldn’t see. The hands were eloquent, letting us know when something disturbing was coming up, conveying vertical and diagonal movements, all while we listened to our oral guide in her sound field of chatter and music and noises. At first, I wondered whether we were effectively walking on the spot, but that scepticism was easily swept away. I was conscious that probably two or three people were ensuring my progress at all times. How did they know where they were going, when they were probably watching me to see what I was doing, that I wasn’t about to bump into anything?

There is a lot more I could say. My usual description would be a shame, in case anyone reading will be attending (it’s on for a couple more weeks, though sold out), because part of the joy here is in the not knowing. What I will record is that as an immersion-sceptic I really enjoyed: the unexpectedness, the variety, the solicitude, the furtiveness, the dislocated camaraderie, the beauty and the sense of achievement.

The next day, we went to the Barbican, primarily to see United Visual Artists’ Momentum, in the Curve gallery. I’ve enjoyed other shows in that space, notwithstanding that I missed the one with the moving rain, owing to the persistently preposterous crowds. While this was a more traditional viewing experience, the common factor was the perception altered by darkness, with almost the only illumination coming from the swaying pendulums. There were rumbling, droning sounds coming from the surroundings, while I gradually realised that the pendulums themselves also made noises, related to their different patterns of movement. My companion had to remind a group that their nattering was out of place in an audio-visual installation.

If you stayed long enough, which many didn’t, you could see the cycles of different light sources, different movement patterns and concomitant scratchings, clicks and tocks. If there was something artificial in the dancing of the pendulums, something a little bit too lacking in uncertainty, compared with what you see in a grandfather clock, the choreography of the fleet arcing in time through the curved space was beautiful, and sometimes sinister. Two of them were hanging still and inert. I wondered whether they were having a rest, but perhaps they were just broken.

It was only because we came to see Momentum, that we were able to pick up tickets for The Testament of Mary later that afternoon, which is Another Story.

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