You don’t see a lot of painted scenery in modern theatre; so much is constructed now to give you a more naturalistic 3D effect – rooms, forests, even sunsets are a combination of lighting designs. Ayse Erkmen’s small exhibition at the Barbican celebrates the artistic value of painted backdrops, mixing a variety of styles as the inspiration for each scene, ranging from the Mikado, to Turner and a Parisian clock face, all prepared by established scenic painters.
Erkmen is famous for designing her creations around the location where they will be shown, so this exhibition not only fits the Curve gallery, but draws on the history and purpose of the Barbican. The result is a small but intriguing 10 minute walk through a series of large scale paintings which are raised and lowered on pulley systems. Mimicking the idea of a theatre backdrop being lowered into place, the 11 pieces here stop in front of you, and are then raised to just above head height allowing you to move forward to the next. The spacing between each piece is uneven and the rate at which they move is deliberately uncoordinated, blurring, according to the notes, ‘the performance space and the backstage…each “backstage” becomes a new stage for action, and we in turn become actors in Erkman’s production.’ Well, I don’t know about that, but the effect she creates is quite compelling, particularly in restricting your progress through the exhibition and unusually allowing the artist, rather than the viewer to set the pace.
In some ways, it’s like those scenes in Indiana Jones films where he tries to get through a lowering door before it slides shut, just rescuing his errant hat in time. Here too there’s a childlike reflex to get through before the backdrop gets too low and you’re trapped (for a couple of minutes). The quality of the artwork varies so sometimes the impulse to rush on is stronger, whereas with others you’re happy to stop and enjoy. It’s an interesting concept focusing on the mechanism of display rather than the work itself, which belongs to a variety of other people, and as well as saying very serious things about performance and reality, it’s also quite fun. If you’re heading to the Barbican for the Pop Art Design exhibition or the lovely Christmas market, make sure you see this as well.
Ayse Erkmen’s Intervals is in the Curve Gallery at the Barbican until 5 January and is free to attend.