It’s weird what hype does, the way it changes your relationship to a piece of art. Where you might have gone in humble and receptive, you’re suddenly, subconsciously sitting up straighter, your shoulders squarer. ‘Oh yeah? You think you’re good?’. I thought about this reading the response to Hannah Gadsby’s new show and the way there was a kind of unspoken ‘takedown’ energy to the way people wrote, a sense that success that appears to be given too freely must be taken away. Which is stupid, because hype isn’t something artists make; it’s a function of marketing and a wider culture that’s ready to anoint something as exactly what it needs and wants right now.
Anyway, this is a long precursor to me saying that when I went to Art Heist it was already hyped in the distinct way that shows at the Edinburgh fringe can be; a full sell-out, across the whole run, off the back of two four star reviews in national newspapers, and the love for the company’s previous performance, Lights Over Tesco Car Park. And that although I tried to make my head as clear and level as I could, I still kind of wish I’d come in fresh and unweighted by expectation.
Anyway, this is, as the title suggests, a performance about stealing art, or at least trying to. In the old school way spelled out in a thousand heist movies, where you dodge lasers and security guards and scale walls with the precious burden of a priceless old master cable-tied to your nimble torso. It’s also a piece that destablises ideas of the value of art, by showing that value isn’t intrinsic; it comes from the story around an artwork, from people’s longing to possess it, from the prestige-heavy labels we put on it.
Poltergeist Theatre’s devising process is made endearingly visible. My favourite moments were the bits where you got the sense of them as a group of mates, batting around scenarios and ideas together. Three of the ensemble dream up new identities; they’re all art thieves, all trying to steal the same painting on the same night, outwitting a clueless security guard (Alice Boyd). A very funny Rosa Garland plays a woman who’s fallen in romantic love with this painting (shades of Ali Smith’s Like here). Serena Yagoub plays a seasoned robber who wants to sell it and retire, in time-honoured ‘one last job’ fashion. And Will Spence takes the rather-less-convincing part of a heist nerd, who despite his copious research still chooses to solve all problems by smashing them with a hammer.
They’re each so singlemindedly engaged in their quest to possess that they don’t notice the quite moments of synchronicity that are built into this performance; the single, fateful coin that rolls through each of their stories. Their heist is brought to life in slick multimedia style: a artfully-designed soundtrack, video screens and picture frames and so many gorgeous, quirkily witty moments of prop-based humour. I loved the bit where all three thieves collide in the gallery giftshop, larking about with novelty toys and posters and tiny plastic hands.
Heist movies tend to reach max momentum in their final quarter, accelerating to a breakneck screech. But this feels like a performance that builds and builds and builds; and then subsides, without really coming to a satisfying ending. Throughout the piece, audience members are called on stage to perform strange actions, in a way that feels like a distraction from the tense story; and the pay-off ending that brings them together doesn’t quite feel worth it. And there’s also this sense that the real passion behind this piece currently lies with the fun and humour of heists, and not in really interrogating the art world and its conceptions of value.
You can talk about brushstrokes and originals and rarity and genius all you like, but even the Mona Lisa’s real market value comes from ‘hype’; or, as Poltergeist Theatre adeptly explain, from the snowballing narrative that surrounds the painting, starting with the notorious moment when it was stolen and was missing for two days before anyone noticed. Hype makes an artwork bigger that itself, stops us seeing the real picture. But there’s more to the story. When I think of the art market I think about how a handful of billionaires (Guggenheim! Saatchi!) have shaped what art we see and how we see it. Of the way that artworks are investments in an overheated international stock market. Of the complex dynamics of prestige attached to Western art, and how they’re stoked by galleries who are necessarily interested in boosting the values of their own collections. In short, about capitalism.
This performance isn’t about those things and that’s fine, but I wish there was a little more to chew over when its pace slows. Still, where a painting is a finite object, unresponsive to the changing world around it, a performance is an evolving shifting thing. Art Heist is already exciting but it feels like it can grow, too, and break out of the many layers of frames it so expertly hangs up.
Art Heist is on at Underbelly at 1.55pm, as part of the 2019 Edinburgh fringe. More info and tickets here.