The Project space has been painted a deep theatrical chocolate brown and now resembles the other spaces in the building. Clodagh Emoe’s installation feels like an echo or double, a pastiche of the other activities which go on in the Project. As a visual art deconstruction of the notion of a play, the work resembles a theatre set lying empty in all the down time when a set is installed but the play isn’t occurring: Perhaps the empty set for the duration of the run of a play could in general also be considered as a part of the play. The deconstruction of theatre here makes the viewer think about what it means to have one art form (theatre) deconstructed or examined by another (visual art) and makes one wonder in what sense this installation could be seen as an (albeit experimental) play or anti-play.
In the installation we are presented with three parts; an oval curtain through which we may enter, as if through an old fashioned picture frame, a small round stage, altar or temple, and a video of a masked ‘chorus’ appearing at twilight from the woods, at first visible only as flashlights, and then gradually zigzagging down the hillside until they appear facing us, staring out at the camera for a moment before the whole sequence begins again. With the accompanying sound it is effectively spooky although in a conventional way.
The work draws on Antiquity for inspiration. The chorus in Greek tragedy is usually a section of the community, Theban citizens for example, although on occasion it can be a group of outsiders. The chorus is a kind of ideal spectator within the play, one who comments upon the action, singing and dancing, celebrating and mourning, offering advice to characters. Like contemporary ‘relational’ art, the Greek chorus was formed from amateurs, although they were rigorously trained, whereas the actors themselves were professionals. Ancient precursors to Brecht or Boal, the chorus was the original ‘spectactor’. The chorus functioned alone historically before it was joined by actors creating what we know as Greek tragedy, so the installation evokes the dawn of tragedy as well as its twilight. In the light of contemporary art it is also interesting to note that the stories of Greek tragedy were also themselves always reenactments of real people’s lives who had died centuries before.
Dimensions of this circular-shaped structure are 2.14 metres in diameter x 4 metres high
The installation is reminiscent too of a technical rehearsal where the multimedia element of a play is being endlessly tested or of how empty stage sets sometimes get animated by talks, lectures at cross purposes to the original intention, as occurred on the closing night with the lectures and performance entitled ‘The Long Dark Night’. While seemingly tangential to the exhibition, these echoed the theatrical anticipation of some kind of seemingly impossible redemption in the language of politics.
At some point it probably dawns on the viewer that here we have a set, a chorus, but no actors so that we ourselves have perhaps also become an unwitting ‘spectactor’, in the existentialist ‘double’ or self-conscious position of watching ourselves. It is we who the silent chorus may comment upon (although their seeming vow of silence means that it will be in our imaginations only that they will dance and sing their answers). It is we the viewers who have unknowingly approached this video oracle and are as a result in a play we never knew we were in. If we think about the concept of what an actor is – someone who empties him or herself and takes on a second persona – then this is rather like what might happen in a cult – the cult of the title, which refers also to the Dionysian cult from which Greek tragedy sprang. This doubling occurs as a theme throughout the installation as a metaphor for the actor’s work; the splitting of viewer into spectator and actor; Celtic (the video was filmed in Glendalough) and Greek ancient civilizations and mythologies; the installation as double of other spaces within the Project; the doubling or multiplying of a single identity in any group; the double languages of theatre and visual art.
This extends further when we ‘meet’ the chorus. As they approach us slowly from the woods and then come to stare face on at us, it is a kind of (mis)recognition. We do not know whether they have come to help us or to persuade us to join their cult. Recalling film where a character will suddenly break the fourth-wall taboo and look directly at the camera, creating an illusion of intimacy as if the actor sees the viewer, the chorus repeats this gesture and we have a specular situation; a kind of magic mirror of exchange of gazes between the so-called ‘ideal’ spectator and the ‘real’ spectator, as if each looks to the other for some kind of meaning or interpretation. This replays the recognition scenes (Anagnorisis) in Greek tragedy when a character recognises something important about themselves, makes an important discovery about their identity. Video here gives a sense of pastness to the chorus as opposed to the liveness of theatre, creating ghosts of the chorus, who begin to seem like some kind of return of the repressed continually coming from the woods of the Unconscious but never able to materialise live on the ever expectant stage.
Some of these themes are familiar within contemporary art but the exhibition nevertheless left me with questions about theatre and also about the problem and perhaps perilous position of giving up one’s individual identity, or at least subsuming it within another identity – as an actor playing a role, or to any plural identity; a cause larger than oneself, a cult, a religion, a political ideology or to art itself.
Susan Thomson is an artist and freelance writer; see www.susanthomson.co.uk. This text was originally commissioned for spring 2010 issue of Circa Art Magazine, number 131, which did not appear.