As I climb the steep stairs, the scuff marks covering the walls are jumping out at me. I feel a bit overdressed as I climb, turning right after every five or six steps. These steps look like they could do with a coat of paint. A thought passes through my mind, “I hope this goes somewhere”. Turn right. “Is that voices coming from somewhere above me?” Turn right again, keep climbing. “Yes, a bit of life at the end of this ‘tunnel’!” Last right turn… My instinct is to slow down as my eyes adjust to the sudden change of lighting.
It’s the opening night of the first show at Metro Arts for 2016. I am not sure what to expect, rather just trying to keep my mind open, armed with a pen, a notepad and my iPhone. The building looked so quiet from outside, it was hard to imagine that something was ever happening on its top floor. The promise of the exhibition program is “the impression of the gallery mediated by its art” – an exhibition by Meagan Steader, entitled W-inter.
I step tentatively through a dark opening into the top floor alternate reality. The murmur inside suggests a crowd of people, although I can’t see them from where I am. As I step further, I find myself in an architectural maze of lit up frames. The bright beams of light seem to reflect perfectly off the posts in the hall, creating frames after frames, arranged in panels. Each time I approach a new panel, I feel compelled to put my hand out just to make sure I don’t walk into an invisible mirror. This is a transcending world of overlapping realities, where the work is the space, and the space is the art.
Ridding the space of reassuring white walls, lost in the artificial darkness, the artist invites us to imagine our own pathways through the re-imagined space. It’s a conversation between obstruction and freedom of movement, but a conversation consisting of short repeating phrases and sentences, as the viewer moves through the recurring pattern and discovers the invisible space made visible.
The sameness of the floor only increases the sense of repeating pattern. People in the dark seem like reflections in the mirror – only the images on this side and the other do not match. Or do they? The space feels like a mirror room, where it is impossible to tell which person is real and which is the reflection. Maybe they are all reflections of our individual reality. I feel a bit like Alice, sneaking behind the looking glass. I love the Russian word for it: зазеркалье (zazerkal’ye, or ‘other side of mirror’) – it sums up beautifully in one word this entire experience.
It occurs to me that this exhibition needs people to achieve the desired effect of confusion between the reality and its reflection. I am lucky enough to see this exhibition on the opening night – lots of people, accompanied by enough murmur and noise to create the right ambiance. What would happen if I came back the next morning, when people are at work? Would it have the same effect? It would likely be an entirely different experience: an exploration of the space rather than the art. In a way, this exhibition curates itself by creating a unique experience for the audience and challenging their perceptions. That’s the requirement of good curatorship, isn’t it? Especially in contemporary installation art!
Since the exhibition requires an audience, the audience becomes part of the artwork. Although this can actually be limiting. If an exhibition can only achieve its full power where a minimum number of people are present, I feel it makes it less timeless and approximates it to theatre arts. Of course, we can argue that every artwork (in whatever genre) requires an audience to satisfy its basic definition.
With W-inter, Steader has created a fine balance between a self-curated experience and a concept of identity of the installation rooted in the space it occupies. In the art world today this actually fits beautifully. Contemporary artists are looking to push boundaries, to challenge our senses and to provoke thought. A few succeed. That has been true for every century. So while I am here, I’m going to enjoy this weird and magical wander through the space behind the looking glass before my sensory limit is reached.
A man in front of me steps mindfully over the bright line on the floor, but the vertical continuation of it cuts his body into two. Is it the same person, or his reflection? As I turn the corner, another layer of ‘mirrors’ opens up, like mirror rooms where we can lose reality in the endless reflections. Two girls nearby are playing ‘mirror’, facing each other as one tries to follow the movement of the other. I must not be the only one feeling like this! My mind tells me that there is no reflection, and so it must be possible to walk through. I know I can step on the lines, but my foot subconsciously lifts, unwilling to break the sense of block. The strength of this virtual presence in an open space creates a sense of NOW. HERE. ME. Cutting through.
Metro Arts exhibition list for 2016 can be found here.