LONDON — “Have you seen Betty? She has big boobs! She has disappeared!”
A curious man dressed in worn-out clothes interrupts my thoughts while I’m standing in line to access “After After” (2013), a work by Laure Prouvost installed in Admiralty Arch, an Edwardian building near Trafalgar Square.
Together with nine other projects, Prouvost’s piece was part of Art Night, a new one-night-only summer festival that opened up some of London’s landmarks and usually inaccessible locations to the public last Saturday, July 2. Like the popular Nuit Blanche held annually in cities around the world, Art Night intends to bring together the artistic community and the art-going public for a single evening. It was free, although most of the events were accessible only by booking tickets, which quickly sold out. The project was founded by a collective of young entrepreneurs, Unlimited Productions, and guest curated by the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA) with Kathy Noble. Locations for the first edition were spread across the Northbank and Southwark: Joan Jonas and jazz pianist Jason Moran performed in Southwark Cathedral, Cecilia Bengolea projected a video in Covent Garden, Alexandra Bachzetsis presented a performance in a neo-Gothic building in Temple. In planning my visit, I realized that attempting to see every venue would be impossible, so I decide to focus on a selection of events close together, starting with Prouvost.
“Have you seen Betty? She has big boobs! She has disappeared!”
I can’t tell if the pungent stench of pee I smell comes from this man or from the spot where I’m standing. Is he drunk? Mustering all of my (fake) British composure, I smile politely and answer: no, I haven’t seen Betty. In fact, I’m very sorry, but I don’t know Betty at all.
The line moves quickly, and I leave the man behind to find myself in a corridor that leads to a pitch black room. People get impatient waiting for their eyes to adapt to the darkness and start using their torch apps to make some light. I get a glimpse of what looks like a seat before an array of film sequences and strobe lights begins spotlighting sculptures, paintings, and objects around the room. A recording of the artist’s voice — her French accent is recognizable — offers fragmented clues and narration. Someone called Betty is missing (I guess the man at the entrance wasn’t as random or as drunk as I thought). She liked to dance. Some footage of squids is projected on a wall, interlaced with colored lights turning on and off quickly.
I can’t concentrate on the voice because I’m too distracted by the confusion created by the installation. I see here many of Prouvost’s anti-narrative devices at play; she’s attempting to create multisensory experiences and even evoke synesthesia. When the voice describes a squid squirting ink, a real spurt of water splashes the audience.
I’m leaving the room completely spaced out when a disheveled, middle-aged woman appears from a door and whispers for me to come through her secret passage. I’m so overwhelmed by what I’ve just experienced that I don’t question her, nor does a small group of fellow spectators. We follow her through a bright, surreal space completely covered in white tiles to what she calls the “After After Party.”
“The Queen has been here last week, did you know that?” she asks me. I’m so puzzled I can’t manage a reply, although the image of Queen Elizabeth II going through this orchestrated mess makes me giggle.
I’m now in a small room with suffused blue lighting. A young lady who’s playing drunk offers me shots of a mysterious red drink. It seems rude not to accept, so I take a sip from a plastic cup. It’s pure vodka. She insists I have another shot. And another one. The messy lady magically reappears — where has she been? — and informs us it’s time to leave. I reach the street high on the experience and tipsy. A performance is about to start nearby.
On the steps leading to the Duke of York Column, the British artist and musician Linder has put together Destination Moon. You must not look at her!, a theatrical performance with live music. A choir, a tap dancer in garish attire, flamenco dancers, male models wearing jean onesies, and some curious characters in white rabbit costumes are all moving around on the makeshift stage, to music that’s slow but rhythmic, often spaced out by cymbals. The audience is a mix of passersby, tourists, and more committed viewers. Some seem to have come directly from the pro-EU march that has seen tens of thousands of people protesting the result of the Brexit referendum this morning. The guy next to me has painted his beard blue and stuck gold stars on it, to honor the EU flag.
I’m still recovering from Prouvost’s experience, so I leave Linder’s live collage for something quieter, in Charing Cross station. There, Korean artist Koo Jeong A has created “Odorama,” a site-specific installation on a disused Tube platform. “It’s where they shot Skyfall!” exclaims a James Bond fan in the crowd. As my precious event map confirms, it is, indeed, the same location.
Koo has created an installation with nothing more than lights and a particular scent, with the intention of altering the public’s sense of reality. As I walk downstairs, a sweet, earthy smell gets stronger and stronger. It comes from the wood of the Asian Agar tree, which is used around the world for various purposes. While the trees need to mature for hundreds of years before their wood can become useful, it is the resin they produce to fight fungus and mold that’s at the core of the scent. “We are not allowed to fell the naturally growing tree, as they are protected by law as endangered species,” reads an accompanying artist statement. “We can only collect fallen wood cut by lightning and thunder, moved by the winds and rivers over the years: the journey of this piece of wood is a long one.”
Although I find the story of the trees fascinating and the space truly uncanny, I struggle to find a convincing link between the two, to the point where the location becomes the real draw. I wander through the abandoned platform for a while, but the scent is so intense it goes to my head. I start sneezing; my hay fever doesn’t appreciate contemporary art, apparently. And I’m in good company: not far from me, a girl has the same symptoms. It’s time to move on.
Outside, my allergies are soothed, and I head to my last stop: the Store, a section of a disused Brutalist building overlooking the River Thames. British artist Celia Hempton has created a site-specific installation there.
Hempton is known for her paintings depicting the human body — male and female genitalia, in particular — in attractive pastel tones. For Art Night, she has built up a theatrical space composed of three of her signature wall paintings joined together. This temporary structure divides the room, offering two different spaces to hang her work. On the side facing an adjacent building site and the Thames, the artist is showing three large canvases of female nudes, while the other side features four little canvases depicting the source of the River Thames. Following a clever curatorial conceit, the nudes are installed to confront the building site, which is populated during the day by male workers. (Hempton has been attracted by such sites for a long time, occasionally painting them in situ.) The paintings of the source of the Thames are an ideal counterpart, as the artist depicts the spring in sensual terms: the water gushing from it makes a gentle crevice in the ground, the origin of the river, which the artist has sexualized to suggest female genitalia. Leaving the building, I think about the ancient anthropomorphic statues of rivers that are present around Rome, where Hempton lived for a while.
Although very enjoyable, the majority of the events I visited tonight slipped more towards entertainment than art. While Provoust’s employment of actors added new elements to her piece, the whole most closely resembled something like an elaborate murder mystery game. Engaging with the public in such a direct way certainly served the artist’s intention to make “a different kind of 3D film,” as she described it, but it also raised questions about the way art is experienced by the public. On the other hand, Hempton’s installation felt sincere and straight to the point, without jeopardizing the poetry of its concept. People seemed to enjoy it no less.
Walking home, I stop for a moment to watch the city at night: tourists are enjoying this rare warm evening by dining outdoors, some people are coming out of a theater, pubs are stuffed with soccer enthusiasts watching the European Championship. I’m ready to leave my critical conjectures and artistic concerns behind, when a thought strikes me: what on earth happened to Betty?
The first edition of Art Night took place at various locations around London on July 2.