from catalogue published by the Art Gallery of York University accompanying the show "And so the animal looked back"
A Stage Set for Unclassifiable Species
Sometimes set design is not all smoke and mirrors. Sometimes it’s fog and reflective Mylar. And sometimes theatre doesn’t take place in a theatre at all but in an art gallery instead. This shift from a theatrical scene to an exhibition space—from deception to reflection, from lights down low to the full glare of spotlights—sets a new stage, so to speak, for the creative refashioning of established categories. And so…, the collaboration between the Art Gallery of York University and the theatrical team of playwright Alex Wolfson and stage designer Bojana Stancic was born. If not two equal players, at least theatre and gallery were brought together in a production that transcended the borders of both.
Wolfson and Stancic were invited by the AGYU to create a new theatrical work in part because of their stage work in art galleries. But this time, the request was to radically rethink the relationship of both in the context of an extended period of time—that is, a context that extends beyond the world of the play into the realm of gallery installation. What resulted was a chimerical work: And so, the animal looked back…, two parts of a play that bookended a gallery installation extending over the course of a three-month period.
Half theatre, half immersive installation, a new species of artistic production was born.
A new stage was built in the gallery as a platform for hybridity. Reflective of the play, the stage was set to challenge our tendency to divide things into opposing categories that facilitate a dichotomous understanding of our place within the world. Redefining our historically entrenched relationship to the “other” (represented here by the animal world), a democratic space was created that operated on strategies of recombination rather than division. Between performances, and without actors, gallery visitors could climb the stairs, mounting the stage to inhabit another world: the end and beginnings of worlds.
Half audience, half performer, a new species of viewer was born.
Being between the world of the play and the mise-en-scene of the exhibition installation, the viewer literally is reflected within the figuration of the set design, seeing objects otherwise than from the foot of the stage. With no actors present, objects are animate as much as symbolic. Objects on the stage pass between theatrical staging and sculptural installation, a constellation of symbolic and material presence. Within this obscure world, the set spoke equally of our dreamy impulses as much as of our need to maintain control.
In the post-apocalyptic haze of the fog that opens the first play, set elements are suggestively rendered as crude hand-made shapes that evoke a lost world rather than simply literalize it. Later, in the second play, in the shimmering cold blue light of the projector that sharpens their edges they take on a more menacing, symbolic quality. Sharp edges and geometric forms demarcate man’s need to control and manipulate. The play is always passing, within the same set, from stone-age cave to scientific laboratory.
The hand that makes is as central to the play as to the set. On stage right, a giant hand of a man, the icon of civilization, towers over the other objects on stage. The products that surround it are its handiwork, among them the automatons. The hand is a remnant of time-past but also the shaping of the dawn of a new beginning. Yet its obsessive products are detritus as well, reckoned in the second play by the piles of paper in the scientists’ laboratory suffocating every surface. The overbearing need for scientific discourse, represented by the papers strewn to every corner of the stage, is at the same time a representation of an entropic dismantling of established knowledge systems. Only when we enter the set, as if traversing a ruin, does this chaos manifest itself.
We visit, but it is the characters that are enclosed within this set—even though they pass between different worlds and different times. In the first play characters are framed by the stage itself with the audience looking in as if at a flattened image from a medieval book of hours. In the second play, however, the actors look out through a hanging frame, a layering of space (dividing audience and actors, moreover) that is more akin to the devices of two-point perspective invented during the Renaissance which, as we know, was a new order of spatial configuration based on scientific principles. Framing and containing both, the metallic Mylar set encompasses all, confounding and temporally telescoping cave man and space age.
Half medieval, half futuristic, a new species of time is born to the present.
As audience and viewers, we place ourselves within these demarcations flowing between two opposing periods with their differing temporal and spatial modes. The objects in the set, too, shift in this flickering light of time, reflecting different historical and mythical periods at different points of the two parts of the play. On stage left, a fountain symbolizes contained nature while a sundial, without a gnomon, symbolizes antique time stood still. Headpieces on plinths depicting real and fantastical animals line the back of the stage. They allude equally to Noah’s ark and medieval bestiaries, mixing the biblical with the encyclopedic and thus confounding different methods of classification. Each, however, is a technological artifact, whether it remains from history or mythology and appears on stage as if unearthed and left in situ from an archeological dig, each suggestive of differing stages of civilization’s domination of the natural world. But each object equally is an apparatus within a laboratory. Biblical and post-modern dread is paralleled on stage.
If the past and the future assume equal roles in this play, the installation itself sits somewhere in between. In this newly found present, remnants of the past and the foreboding of the future always co-exist. The play allows us to straddle this situation. And so, within this uncertainty, in And so, the animal looked back…, an altogether new species is born, even if we don’t presently have the language to define it, or, in other words, an established method to classify it.