Friday, 6 November 2009

Madonna, Gok Wan and the Big Black Box

Walking along the South Bank towards Tate Modern I am distracted by a small crowd gathered by a tall black railing lying on the side opposite from the Thames. Intrigued I stroll diagonally across the grass in the direction of the assembly. A number less than twenty congregate by a gap in the shrubbery which hides the railing. This gap overlooks a private single-lane road. In the lane a black car and a silver-grey people carrier with blacked out windows idle. A ramp leads from the lane to a door standing on a small concrete terrace beneath a large anonymous brown and grey building, possibly the back of a hotel. There are murmurings among the crowd that a celebrity is about to leave the building for the blacked out vehicle. A sequence of figures – a driver, a security guard, a media type – appear one after the other on the terrace or in the lane to smoke a cigarette and/or talk into their iphone or Blackberry. There is a palpable sense of tension, a feeling that something is about to happen, but no one knows who it is we are waiting for, only that it is someone famous. Even the two paparazzi that are present poking their intrusive lenses through the black railings aren’t telling, or they don’t know. In the ten minutes that I join this communal experience I hear it could be Madonna, or Gok Wan, or more believably the lead in the current show on at the National Theatre just next door. No one knows, but it doesn’t seem to matter. It doesn’t alter the sense of an event about to happen and the shared desire to be a part of it.

Half an hour later I am in the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall participating in the latest work in the Unilever series. In the growing tradition of Turbine Hall works it is of spectacular scale and is ‘interactive’. Miraslaw Balka’s How It Is (ostensibly inspired by a Samuel Beckett novel of the same name, but I can’t help thinking of Michael Jackson’s incomplete and unknowingly presciently titled comeback This Is It) is a steel container seventy feet long by thirty feet wide and a similar height raised several feet off the ground with it’s far end open and approachable by a wide ramp. It sits quite at home in its industrial setting. Inside it is black. According to the blurb provided by the Tate it is designed to be both a personal and a group experience. A participant finds their own strategy for negotiating the darkness – do you strike out bravely into the middle arms outstretched, or do you make your way to the side and follow a wall – yet by stumbling into other explorers along the way you recognise one another as fellow travellers. Walking in makes me think of a mass voluntary alien abduction or a scene from Close Encounters of the Third Kind. It is, I suppose, meant to make us think of the unknown, or of death, an experience of absence, of the void, the nothingness of the universe, and yet, unfortunately, it doesn’t quite deliver. It doesn’t quite go far enough. Whether for dreaded Health and Safety reasons or merely flawed design you never quite leave the daylight zone. At the precise moment you reach the barrier of vision you hit the back wall. You cannot cross the threshold into absolute darkness. In this sense it is an Aporia, an impassable barrier where the unknown remains forever unknown. And because of this How It Is remains frustratingly disappointing.

There are reasons why I have presented these two seemingly disparate events, which occurred within minutes of each other, together, but I will not insult the intelligence of you, dear reader, by going to the trouble of explaining them in detail, save to say that I believe they both show fundamental human attributes in action, curiosity coupled with a desire to be part of something seemingly greater than ourselves, and that ultimately waiting for a non-existent famous person creates more tension and excitement than a big black box lined with felt. If you want to know darkness, go and sit in a cave.