In For now we see through a mirror, darkly, Louise Ahl performs a kind alchemy, turning words into images and images into words (thought pictures into ancient symbols and sound shapes).
Jo Hellier, Ultimate Dancer and Peter McMaster are positioned onstage, making small, glitching, GIF-like movements. Their expressions are of blank astonishment. A recorded voice and projected text introduces us to what we’re watching – three figures (a meat stack, a jelly beast and a blood sack), who will perform a ritual work of four phases (Dry, Cool, Moist and Hot), with a strong fan behind the backdrop (a great wind) and a change in colour (black, white, yellow, red) signalling each change in phase.
What follows is, as the audio description warns, hard to describe (‘many voices have tried’) – my best attempt might be to say, ‘imagine if someone gave The Seventh Seal mercury poisoning, then turned it into a sausage’. But though its task is difficult, the voice doesn’t skimp on detail. Everything is assumed to be unfamiliar, and thus described in literal detail – hair is ‘fluffy dead body grass’, eyes are ‘jelly balls’ and a brain is ‘meat cauliflower’. The figures’ movements shift imperceptibly, their heads trace the outline of a star, they roll around like bloody newborns, shuffle, growl, ululate, scream and chant in an un-interpretable death-rite that takes them from the gloom of the living world and into the depths of hell, where bile flows in rivers, and prawns rain down like bullets.
Going in, I’d half-expected something wilfully oblique, portentous and po-faced – which, had we only been watching the movements on stage, it certainly would have been. But with the text (created with access consultation from artist Juliana Capes) framing the action, the relationship between what we’re being told we’re watching (a smiling snake, ‘flesh branches moving purposefully’) and what we’re actually watching (Peter McMaster with a demonic grin, striding across the stage and emitting a guttural bellow) means it’s genuinely, belly-laugh funny. The austere stage becomes a rich fantasy world – a Scandinavian landscape, in the Middle Ages perhaps, full of stench, piss and magick – in a way which takes both a genuine interest in, and the piss out of, its mystical aesthetic.
Weary pus-sacks that we Critics are, it’s increasingly rare that I see work whose form feels truly, distinctively original – but here, the audio-description and captioning function as both access tool and creative device in such symbiosis that it feels startlingly new. Moreover, its humour provides a different kind of access into work which is (gloriously) weird as literal hell. It becomes a kind of object lesson in interpretation, continuing Ahl’s interest in sensory perception in her previous work, YAYAYA AYAYAY (a maelstrom of sound and light inspired by her experience on a darkness retreat). Here the sense-instrument is language – it casts a spell, turning something uninterpretable, with its arbitrary rules, its blankness, its pretend-symbols of significance into something with texture, visual complexity and ticklish sensuality: ‘what is here but cannot be seen’. With our human essence reduced to jelly, flesh, blood and bile, it seems just as silly as it is essential to ascribe meaning to anything in this darkening, dripping world.
For now we see through a mirror, darkly is on at Greenside until 24th August, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here. For more on Ultimate Dancer’s work, read Diana Damian Martin’s interview with her.