Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel, Battersea Arts Centre


The intimate space of Ryan Van Winkle’s poetry performance, tucked away in a quiet corner of Battersea Arts Centre, is suffused with the warm glow of nostalgia. Photographs and souvenirs stud the walls and jostle on every surface, while a battered leather suitcase lies open on the floor, spilling keepsakes, and an old cassette player sits nestled at the back of a shelf. The taste of the past lies thick in the air, mingled with the faint aroma of woodsmoke from the fireplace. Memories breathe in the walls.

This is poetry given physical edges, an environment that seems to both birth and be born from the words. Van Winkle’s gentle, evocative piece is essentially a simple one-on-one poetry reading, yet to restrict it to that label feels inaccurate and dismissive. It begins unassumingly, as Ryan (it feels odd, given the intimacy, to keep referring to him by his last name) comes to greet me down in the BAC lobby, where I’m already settling into a state of mild bliss in my candy-striped armchair, grinning stupidly at the warmth and the hum of excited voices and the gorgeous neon sign left over from Tim Etchells’ last show. Ryan, a tad jittery with nervous energy, is attentively anxious to get my name right before he reels off a detailed description of how the show is going to work.

To condense and paraphrase Ryan’s charmingly precise account of the experience he has crafted, the sole audience member is led into the space (a cosy red bedroom draped in fairy lights and crammed with knick knacks), offered a cup of tea or a drop of port, and asked to pick one of four envelopes while Ryan switches on a CD soundtrack. In each of the envelopes is a selection of poems; Ryan then pulls a chair close and reads the poems from the chosen envelope, before quietly leaving to allow his guest to listen to the remainder of the CD and explore the room. The whole thing lasts a devastatingly brief, fleeting twenty minutes.

Oddly, given the state of heady captivation in which the performance held me, little of the content of Ryan’s poems stayed with me after leaving the room. Only torn-off scraps remain: geography, books, waves and sandcastles, love and loss. This is poetry made fluttering and ephemeral, rapidly dissipating into the warm air and attaching itself to objects and thoughts. Much of this is achieved by the gentle presence of Ryan himself, whose voice lulls and cradles, sending the mind on journeys.

Emerging from the gorgeous cocoon of the performance, I immediately wished that I had found the time during the feverish rush of Edinburgh to take a reviving step into Ryan’s room at Summerhall. In a ever faster spinning world, this space exhilaratingly offers us what we so frequently deny ourselves: the opportunity to stop, sit, absorb and dream. I was also struck by how the piece somehow manages to be both intensely personal and overwhelmingly generous. It as though, by indulging in this space of imagination and memory, Ryan offers us the room – in more than one way – to traverse our own imaginings and reminiscences.

When left alone, one object of the vast number collected around the room snatched particularly at my gaze: a postcard, emblazoned with the words “Nothing is not giving messages”. It is a statement that immediately invites multiple readings; it could mean that everything involuntarily emits messages, or that the definition of nothingness is the absence of messages, or even perhaps both. For me, it sits like a subtitle beneath the work, in which poetry and meaning live in more than just words, and which in its cluttered, soothing warmth seems firmly pitched against a void that is stripped of meaning, memories and messages.

One-on-one performances of Red, Like Our Room Used to Feel  are running at BAC between 18th-22nd December.