A pair of binoculars sits on a windowsill, inviting you to peer out across the expansive grounds of Wollaton Hall and the surrounding landscape; and as I walk around the room I think this ‘peering’ articulately introduces this work. A new collaboration between Caroline Broadhead (objects), Nic Sandiland (video) and Angela Woodhouse (choreography), Close Distance presents five modified pieces of antique furniture around the Prospect Room.
The large and airy space, the highest floor of the Elizabethan mansion, produces a pleasurable and dynamic contrast to the close intimacies of sliding open these writing tables and cupboard doors, as we peer in on the screens embedded within. The images they hold are beautiful, and unrestrainedly modern in the richness of their colour and detail. Figures in period clothing move within their frames, across the architectures of the building and the grounds; figures trapped within social class. We’re invited to think about these objects, these images, and this setting: their beauty, the attendant labours that made them possible, and the politics of our attraction to, and relations with, these histories.
We’re in the broad genre of old-timey-house-with-class-tensions à la Downtown Abbey, and I’m curious about what the particular possibilities of dance might offer here. In one scene, two servants’ laboriously crawling offers a platform for a brief contact duet; a transfer of weight, an intimate kind of touch and silent connection. In another, female figures in a cramped cellar tenderly intertwine arms as they touch to each other and reach out into space.
Do these vignettes present this dancing as a kind of universally resonant truth – a truth in movement, in expression, or sensation – that timelessly manifests itself across this historic moment and the present? There’s a critical depiction of an upper-class woman moving within an open, sunny and outdoor space. She’s dressed in white folds, and sustains a light movement in her arms as she gently and melancholically steps around the grass – an image of an early Modern female artist, insisting on a now-problematically essentialist notions of womanhood and freedom – whose dancing implicates her more articulately within a socio-political position.
The most interesting for me through are the more abstract: the two figures peering through a door, into a further space hidden from us. We never see their faces, nor the object of their gaze; but this suspended gesture of their peering, captured beautifully in the frame of the doorway, echoes out to our own position of hungrily peering into a visually delicious past. Or in the last piece, two women in portrait, facing each other across an uncertain distance; who mutely and eternally howl at and recoil from each other. In these, and in glimpses of the others, articulate questions are raised over who is being looked at, and who is doing the looking. The citation and playing within of historic forms of portraiture, in the stark return of a gaze or in deliberate self-obfuscation, can be exciting and affecting: but can also collapse into a banal ‘Harry Potter’-style trick of animate painting.
Similarly, there’s mixed success in the relationship between the screen and the object; with particular successes making use of the frames found within the furniture itself. However, it remains uncertain if there’s a genuine attempt to seamlessly embed these screens (if nothing else, the trailing wires out the back of the object consistently present an issue); at times, it just looks like an iPhone or iPad partially covered in a bit of cloth.
While the use of this particular technology does bring up interesting connections to the feelings of intimacy, privacy and trespass, their visibility can sometimes register as an awkward inability to synthesise these elements. I wonder if a more overt acknowledgement of this distinct materials, and the unavoidably fictive or constructed representation of the past, might free up some of these anxieties and allow for a more broad and relaxed contemplation. There’s are some very beautiful and powerful possibilities evidenced across the installation, but unfortunately none of the sculptural objects remain without these issues, and overall the work fails to carve a position for itself within these complications.
For more information on Close Distance at Nottdance 2017, click here.