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Last Seen Entering a Theatre

by Bryony White

The South London Gallery’s most recent exhibition Last Seen Entering the Biltmore urged me to want to visit the theatre. I wanted to queue up, stand there at a box office, choose a seat and buy a theatre ticket. Everything had changed, the theatre had been reconfigured; the walls had extended and the floors had grown deeper. The art, the materials of the theatre were different and I needed to go there, to the theatre, to sit in the dark and witness it all having changed.

Entering the exhibition, the room is starkly lit and there are objects, things, pieces, scattered across the room. A carved-out, bright cave of leftovers: Theatre Props. Theatre things. At first, there was a despondency; a sort-of, theatre without theatre that feels somewhat typical of an art gallery investing on the trudged-out, art-history-meets-theatre-history, so-called ‘artifice’ of the stage. However, spending time navigating the exhibition’s offerings, these objects, sculptures, films and installations are made through the theatre or, at least with the theatre in mind.

leavitt_cutawayview

William Leavitt, Cutaway Piece, 2008, mixed media Installation with acrylic on canvas painting.

Standing in front of William Leavitt’s Cutaway Piece, I needed to get behind the wall, I wanted to follow the picture-plane as it fell away into the backstage to know what might have been beneath and behind it all. As the picture juts out and off the wall a feeling that lies at the heart of the theatre simmers to the surface of the plane. It all happens in the suggestion. The picture as it leaves this wall simply suggests: a sly nod in the semi-dark. The same suggestion that feels reminiscent of a Strindberg play: the picture slopping off the wall is the never-seen presence of Miss Julie’s father. It is the suggestion that the only way for Miss Julie to escape the disaster of the mistake she has made is to commit the unspeakable. It is the nature of the suggestive that permeates the heart of any Chekhov play; a gesture to what might have happened off-stage. A gunshot perhaps. A furtive shrug just off-stage enough for us not to quite know.

Anna Gritz, in a gallery talk exploring the exhibition proposes that the exhibition explores the ‘art of the theatre’ by taking the theatrical position and re-working it in a new medium. Indeed, Leavitt’s Cutaway Piece takes that exact suggestive gesture of the theatre and morphs into it a sculptural form; taking, grabbing at it, distorting the perspective of the theatre in order to change it subtly and slightly to then offer us an alternative seat from which to look. What is it then to use theatre as a method, a set of ideas, a material, mould or stimulus? What does it mean to transpose the ‘artifice’ of the theatre into a gallery setting? I expected the unnecessary diatribes of Friedian antitheatricality to set in as soon as I walked through the doors. However, this reworking of theatricality through alternative mediums was refreshing – as if an Ibsen play was syncopated through and into a sculpture, or installation, and back again, changed somehow, other, with an extra notch on its theatrical belt.

Last Seen Entering the Biltmore is on at the South London Gallery until the 14th of September.

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