The curtain rises

Ayşe Erkmen at the Barbican

By Victoria Khroundina | November 25, 2013


The attendant at the entrance to the Curve at the Barbican Centre asks if I have seven minutes to spare. That is how long it will apparently take to go through Ayşe Erkmen’s new exhibition, Intervals. The reason for this is that each of the 11 pieces on show is presented as a massive moving canvas, slowly lowered and raised (thanks to a custom-built automated fly system) on a winding path through the semi-circular venue. When the canvases are completely lowered, your path is blocked. Thus the time warning. 

In reality, it takes a good 10–12 minutes, or even slightly longer, to contemplate each work, and maybe take a picture or two. However long it takes you, however, it will be worth it to see something unique, grand and ambitiously presented.

Istanbul-born Erkmen is a sculptor by trade, though she also works in other mediums and is known for her site-specific installations. She has presented at numerous international biennales, including Venice, where she represented Turkey with her work Plan B, a system of pipes designed to question Venice's ineluctable and complex relationship with water.

In Intervals – as with her other works – Erkmen aims to explore the ‘hidden story of a site’. This time she tackles theatre. Each of the 11 backdrops refers to a different style or tradition in theatre design, and was created by professional scenic painters. All the world might be a stage, but here Erkmen is engaged with the story of the backstage. The crux of Erkmen's exhibition is the theatrical device of the interval – she wants the viewer to contemplate this pause between acts and the line it draws between the worlds of performance and reality.

The gaudiest backdrop – but also the most pertinent to the theme – is the one above, based on a traditional theatre drape designed and painted by Julie Perren. You would expect this to be the opening backdrop, but Erkmen places it seventh in the series.

My favourites were the more understated pieces, such as this backdrop of swirly leaves based on an original design by William Morris for JM Barrie’s 1917 play Dear Brutus, staged at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London in 2011. It was designed by Susannah Henry, and painted by three students from Guildhall (with assistance from Lionel Stanhope).

The plaster wall backdrop above was painted by Nancy Nicholson, based on a set design by William Dudley for the Jacobean tragedy The Challenging, staged at London's National Theatre in 1988. It looks authentic; the cloth it is painted on adds a surprising dimension of texture and depth. 

More scenic, natural backdrops follow with the above (front), based on a still from Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 animated film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, painted by John Campbell. Reiniger used a silhouette animation technique similar to shadow play in his film – the oldest surviving work of animation – and the backdrop captures this essence. Campbell also painted the next backdrop (above back), which was based on GF Handel’s Ariodante, staged by English National Opera in 1996. The muted clouds work well for an opera in which each act contains opportunities for dance and movement.

The most touted of the backdrops is the above, based on a design by Hawes Craven for Gilbert and Sullivan’s critically acclaimed The Mikado, staged at the Savoy Theatre in 1885 (and many times after that). Julie Perren’s interpretation stays true to the pastel colours and soft contours that characterised the original backdrop.

I also liked the above, based on a map of Turkey and the Mediterranean, which was designed and painted by James Rowse for the exhibition. It’s a nice touch from the artist, paying tribute to her roots, and reminded me of a chalkboard found in a geography class.

There are more backdrops to discover, so if you find yourself in London, do stop by the Barbican to see this unparalleled exhibition. 

The exhibition runs until January 5, 2014.

Posted in Contemporary Art, Exhibitions
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