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Issue 26

A Night at the Show

BY Sjoukje van der Meulen in Reviews | 01 SEP 96

More and more exhibitions are turning into 'ambiences': lively meeting places where artworks and multimedia performances are developed and shown. There is, in other words, a tendency towards exhibition environments. The problem with artificial environments that try to transform the traditional exhibition space into something between a pub, a cinema and a theatre, is that they are rarely exiting. But this was not the case in Zurich, where a temporary art space recently opened, initiated by Harm Lux and Theo Tegelaars. People visited the nightclub-cum-exhibition space, called 'A Night at the Show', to drink, dance, and discuss, while at the same time looking at artworks, 'pulp-performance' and cabaret - observing, relaxing and, above all, simply enjoying hanging out. The two curators were looking for a way of making a show that was constantly in progress, and thus the opening lasted over a week, during which time performances and events took place every night.

The transformation of white gallery walls into a narrative, active and energetic art space was achieved by building theatrical structures - a stage, a podium and a labyrinth - decorated with a variety of artworks: a life-size cherry tree by Steven Bachelder on which plastic blossoms grew, Portable Sky (1995) by Eran Schaerf, a garden by Mike Tyler and a series of videos. Beneath the stage, Dutch artist Bob Gramsma created the underground maze, in which could be found a room with videos by Cecilia Parsberg and Eric Pauser. On multiple screens, small children from all parts of the globe constantly repeated the words 'hello', 'bye', 'hello', 'bye'.

Though this was visually pleasing, it merely addressed emotional stereotypes, resulting in a rather clichéd statement about cultural diversity. Elsewhere in the labyrinth was Mike Tyler's exquisitely lit art garden (a kind of contemplative sand garden that referred to Japanese Zen gardens) in which the artist cultivated plants. Tyler's ecological environments question notions of both culture and nature: culture becomes nature (not civilised), whereas the garden (normally seen as nature) turns into culture (by cultivating artificial plants in an art space).

The show was conceived as an interactive artistic environment too: with colourful drapery, Mikala Dwyer created a theatrical setting on the podium, from which the audience could look at the installations and performances below. At the entrance you could buy 'healing water' from artist Jan Vos, and when you touched Janet Cardiff's wooden table surrounded by loudspeakers, sounds emanated from three different directions, activated by sensors in the table.

'A Night at the Show' created a fluid combination of lively atmosphere and layered settings, constantly shifting from fiction to reality, from eco- to info-systems, from theatre and performance to artworks. Although the play between speed and slowness was referenced throughout the entire exhibition, it was most visible in the video installations. In the screen-projected compilation tape Obsessive Observations assembled by the curators, the theme was movement and speed based on the idea of 'observing and 'interpreting' people. The tape included a clip in which someone followed New York street life, another in which museum visitors were watched, and a third recorded a girl walking through a flock of doves in Piazza San Marco, Venice. At the opposite side of the space, four videos free-associated on slowness: a piece by Michel Francois comprising odd, ponderous images, such as two calves licking each other's tongues, and a rather boring piece by Carsten Höller in which a man and woman make love. The four videos functioned primarily as decoration for an exhibition that did not include a single painting.

At night, performance took place on stage. Dick Verdult played the fool, talking nonsense about Catholics, Protestants, football, Amsterdam and Zurich, in long monologues from behind a veil of hair. Eric Wesseloo, another Dutch artist (14 of the 35 artists in the show were from the Netherlands) 'ironically' played simple, emotional pop songs in front of B-movie images on a screen. Finally, there was a performance by the Swedish artist Stig Sjolund, who put on a kind of transvestite show that climaxed into the famous Can Can.

Some of the best performances did not take place on stage, but out on the fringe: the Pyjama Drama by Aernout Mik, who made his actors smoke until exhaustion; or Elin Wickstrom's, who made someone wait at the bar, doing nothing. In the meantime, Federico d'Orazio blew up a computer, Pascal Gatsen dressed the audience in her clothes, and Dick Verdult and Eric Wesseloo performed knitted together as Siamese twins.

This was the most engaging aspect of the show: the lively, constantly developing space that I imagine to be very much like the early days of the De Appel Foundation in Amsterdam or The Kitchen in New York. The performances should be judged not so much as a critique of current art practice, but more as entertainment - art as leisure. The show was a fusion of reality and fiction, the real and the surreal, exhibition and performance; or, as Harm Lux put it, 'a space where playful thoughts and imaginative relationships meet'.