The vast, yawning space of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, a stunning canvas of grey, is as much of a challenge as it is a beauty. The last time I was in this cavernous room, it was filled with bodies scattering and swarming and rhythmically chanting, a blank surface across which Tino Sehgal’s captivating These Associations gently rippled. During my three separate visits to the piece, the space struck me as being perfect for performance work, gifted as it is with gorgeously haunting acoustics and an awesome (in its literal sense of awe-inducing) backdrop. It’s the most striking stage an artist could wish for.
Yet it is also so very big and so very beautiful that it is almost impossible for its contents to eclipse it, especially when those contents are small human blots on its monolithic landscape. This is the difficulty faced by Clod Ensemble’s Silver Swan, an elliptical fusion of song and movement originally created for a much smaller space. As I opened by acknowledging, it is easy to see why Clod Ensemble have been drawn to the Turbine Hall, if just for the acoustics alone. The rich texture of Paul Clark’s score, inspired by two 17th century songs by John Smith and William Lawes and sung unaccompanied by a group of female singers, ricochets off the walls in exquisite yet unnerving ways, its melodies hypnotic but slightly impenetrable to my untrained ears.
Untrained seems like a helpful word to pick up, as I felt throughout as though I was not quite versed in how to watch or listen to what Clod Ensemble presented us with. Described simply, Silver Swan consists of two short acts. The first of these involves just the unaccompanied singers, who seem to float down into the space garbed all in white, bell-shaped dresses. Invited to advance towards these ethereal, singing figures, the audience moves gradually forwards through the space until we are split into two groups for the second act. This section of the performance, which I viewed from the bridge above, brings the addition of grey-clad dancers into the space. These figures, dwarfed against the vastness of the Turbine Hall, feel their way around the walls and investigate the environment with their bodies, alternately running, stumbling and falling.
The overall result is entrancing yet numbing. Initial thoughts about the hopeful, thwarted efforts of humanity were prompted by the creeping progress of the figures below, crumpled one by one under the huge weight of air in the Turbine Hall, while the singing inevitably conjures the choral hymns of the church, with the hall standing in for a particularly large, echoing and bleak place of worship. Beyond this, however, I found myself a little stumped. Instead, lulled by the enigmatic beauty of the music and the movement and the space itself, I was transformed into an unusually passive viewer, letting the cumulative effect wash over me. It was an experience paradoxically both relaxing and frustrating.
This may well be my failure as a spectator, as I’m happy to acknowledge that neither classical music nor dance represent areas of great knowledge for me. I can’t help wondering, however, if Clod Ensemble’s piece, much as it attempts to engage with both space and audience, isn’t just a little too small for this huge challenge. Transfixed but not transported, I too felt small in the middle of the gaping space around me, a space that Silver Swan enters into mesmerising dialogue with but that it never entirely fills.
Image: Hugo Glendinning