National Gallery May 18th, 2018
Looking and Walking Away, a public performance, is the culmination of a series of 6 workshops delivered at the National Gallery calledLearning to Look. In these participatory, gallery-based sessions, Dr Christina Bradstreet (National Gallery) and I have been investigating the practice of looking in The National Gallery.
With this body of work we wanted to further understand the visitor experience and how the National Gallery could enhance it. Through it, we were able to explore and articulate the ‘practice of looking’ in the context of a busy international gallery. And it gave us an opportunity to present abstract aspects of our findings in the gallery to the public, through subjective, immersive, experiential participatory research.
In creating this performance, the question we were asking ourselves was “Can performative acts of looking in the gallery increase our pleasure and understanding of the paintings by offering us time to dwell with the works and notice previously unseen aspects?”
20 strangers came together at The National Gallery in May 2018, observed the movements of visitors looking at the paintings and, guided by Alice Fox, turned their observations into a performance in Gallery 34, This Gallery, which holds significant pieces by Gainsborough, Stubbs, Turner and Constable, provided the inspiration and backdrop.
Unsuspecting visitors were slowly joined by the performers, who quietly duetted through the gallery, making and holding looking poses against the background of an enhanced gallery ambience soundscape. This built into more exaggerated group movements in front of the works, accompanied by waves of abstract noise, peppered with sounds suggested by the paintings, such as a child crying, waves and a dog barking. The performers then suddenly dashed across Gallery 34 into the small space in front of Constable’s Hay Wain and, accompanied by a frenetic wall of sound chaos, they swiftly dodged and jostled each other to catch a view of the painting. The gallery became silent as the performers froze, looking at The Hay Wain with curiosity. After a few seconds, the silence was broken by ‘stings’ of now familiar sounds from the paintings: a steam train, a horse, a flute and so on. One-by-one the performers slowly walked away.