I visited Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in the early afternoon of a stormy Wednesday — there weren’t many people, only a few entangled couples lying next to me on the museum floor, observing the spectacle above and around: Philippe Parreno’s, Anywhen.

 

The visitor’s attention is drawn in immediately to the exhibition upon entering the museum, since its ambient sounds fill the entire space and its flickering lights cast shadows all around the walls. Its main space is composed of three large, moving white panels above, nine sideways, and one main panel serving as the ‘screen’ in the front, periodically descending and ascending, held by strings from the ceiling — its movement is determined by the activity of bacteria kept in a small laboratory at the other end of the hall.

The exhibition combines sound, light, space and moving images to invoke different impressions, sensations and emotions from the visitors. As said by Parreno himself, it is not told in a continuous narrative — at different times of the day, it offers the spectator a different story. Although being in a big, vast open hall, laying down and having the different white panels move closer and away from you, or form a square above your head generates the illusion of a restricted, closed space. It does this consciously every time it starts to screen a film — the spectator’s attention is directed to the screen and the outside world is locked out. It is a flexible treatment of space, which is ever-changing and completely at the curator’s will — an arbitrary construction of space with a constantly altering purpose.

Since the sounds are all very ambient and metallic, from the clean, geometric forms and from the cold temperature of the hall, you get a sensation you’re in a kind of sterile, futuristic, cavernous, hollow space. This is why I personally got the impression of being inside a spaceship. For me, the sounds and lights — and the curator himself, since he is this quasi- omniscient narrator regarding the construction of space — became my guide through a journey, and I was the subject in a story about the modern age I live in and man’s role in it.

Overall there is a combination of the mechanic and the organic in Anywhen. Any natural noise, such as the sound of waves, dogs barking or birds chirping, is always mixed with and as it were, distorted by an artificial sound such as that of a machine or industrial gritting. That combined with the footages of nature, untouched by man, almost brought the spectator to another dimension. This sensation was reinforced by the choice of colours — mostly grey or black — and playing with the light/dark contrast in the film. It has an uneasy, kind of threatening effect. You can feel the underlying presence of an unknown menace (perhaps humans). There is also a deliberate play with the human fear of the dark; at one point things were slowly closing onto a dark abyss (perhaps the mouth of a cave(?)), almost sucking the viewer into the dark, the sounds in the background growing louder and finally culminating in a demonic laughter, as it were, laughing at the viewer while gloating ‘I bet you were scared there weren’t you’.

The sensation of being completely vulnerable and exposed to the exhibition’s will is also strongly present. During the screening, the spectator is sucked in completely into the world of the exhibition. Sound merges with image, as in the case of the soft, trickling sound when the screen showed rocks covered by crystals, the hushing of grass as it was shown being brushed by the wind, or the low humming when black rocks appeared which made the viewer almost feel their own heat vibrating inside them. There was a fusion of sound, image and space in a way that engaged the viewer entirely. Another short film showed ventriloquist comedian, Nina Conti performing a monologue without opening her mouth, followed by beautiful close-up footage of a cuttlefish — the link between them being that neither communicate via actual sound.

Although the exhibition makes the spectator feel isolated from the outside world, it doesn’t let you become completely ‘lost’. By using sounds uncomfortable to the ear like a siren or a helicopter, breaking off the speaking voice, making the lights flicker, or stopping the film, it creates little gaps and makes the experience fragmented. It’s as though the viewer is yanked back to reality, leaving them in a limbo between that and the art experience. With the mentioned liberty of constructing its own space, the exhibition changes from a very closed sense of space to a very open one, also influencing the spectator’s focus.

It brings to mind techniques of epic theatre, a form introduced by Bertolt Brecht in the mid-twentieth century, which turned against the closed structure of theatre, consisting of separate scene-sequences, which in his view forced the spectator to remain active and to make choices. What’s crucial here is the so-called ‘Verfremdungseffekt’ or ‘estrangement effect’ consciously used by Brecht in order to maintain the detachment between the audience and the reality of the play. These effects could include turning on all the lights in the theatre, the breaking of the fourth wall, or using fragments of songs and dance to destroy the illusion, thereby deliberately breaking the state of emotional engagement and forcing the viewer to adopt a stance.

These techniques have become rather common in contemporary theatre and art generally, but I especially had this impression with Anywhen. It uses similar techniques of sound, light and space to draw the spectator in and out at will; quasi playing around with them. This is also one way in which the title of the exhibition can be interpreted — you never know what’s going to happen next.

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