Theatre Critic and Journalist

Review: Symphony of a Missing Room, Royal Academy

Review: Symphony of a Missing Room, Royal Academy

Published in the Telegraph, 22.05.2014

Alice had her looking glass and Harry Potter, Platform 9¾. Now there’s this from Swedish artists Christer Lundahl and Martina Seitl: a whole world somewhere behind, beneath, maybe even in the walls of the Royal Academy at Burlington House. Their missing room contains multitudes: forests and canyons, parties and fountains, histories and futures – all of them spun from suggestion and sensation.

The Royal Academy’s Summer Exhibition hasn’t opened yet, but already its galleries are jumbled with artworks. A guide gives us headphones and leads us on a circuit. Hundreds of pictures line the walls. Sculptures fill the floors. Workmen (or actors?) are still adding more: assembling models, hanging canvases, painting over cracks in the walls. There’s no time to take in individual artworks, only the room as a whole, cluttered with colour and shapes.

Then, on top of the headphones, Lundahl and Seitl blindfold us with whited-out goggles. We’re led this way and that by hands, so light they seem to be floating, and a voice that whispers instructions in our ears. Sound effects and lighting states change to shift the location. Entire, indistinct landscapes form in your mind’s eye – but you feel them too, through the air quality, textures underfoot and strange kinaesthetic intuitions of height, proximity or expanse.

One moment you’re in a courtyard – dappled light breaking through the canopy. The next, you’re being twirled around a Viennese ballroom, filled with laughter and waltzing strings. There are lifts that rumble up into the sky and cliff tops where you feel the wind in your face and a drop at your feet. You go through tunnels, down stairs, up slopes – yet you know you’re still in the Royal Academy. Aren’t you?

All this is delightful – partly because you know it as trickery, partly because it’s so blissfully, soothingly passive – and the technical execution is always accomplished. But the journey is too arbitrary – a generic fairytale quest that relies on recognisable archetypes – and it starts to feel like a string of effects, rather than a deliberate narrative.

It leaves Symphony’s meaning rather banal: a vague meditation on absence and art’s ability to transport us – a simplistic understanding that can’t accommodate abstract or linguistic work. We “wake up” in the gallery’s vaults, surrounded by artworks in storage, filed away and forgotten. It’s not long before this experience – so ticklish in the moment – goes the same way.

Photograph: Lundahl and Seitl

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