Text by Nathan Breeze
Built in 1962 by the Architects Robert Matthew, Johnson-Marshall and Partners, The Commonwealth Institute, characterised by a distinctive parabolic copper roof, became a prominent centre of education comprising of permanent exhibitions, a dedicated library and played host to special events. Forty years later, as popularity waned and its funding was cut, the Institute closed with the collection disbanded across various other cultural organisations.
Since its closure a failed attempt was made to remove the building’s Grade 2 Listed status in order to completely redevelop the site to the south of Holland Park. Subsequent talks on how best to develop the existing building ended with it being named as the future home of the Design Museum, expected to open in 2014.
With its future secured and work shortly to begin on its extensive renovation, the former Commonwealth Institute was temporarily reopened to the public for a site specific ‘audio-kinetic’ journey of discovery entitled Common Sounds; Touching the Void. Taking the unique, liminal state of the building as inspiration, a diverse and overlapping collection of immersive theatre and dance performances, art installations, sculpture and classical music, aimed to reawaken this sleeping architectural gem; exploring its past, present and future.
Welcomed by Neo Futurist Invigilators, seemingly the last remaining inhabitants of the building, we were first led along a series of dimly lit corridors to a ‘secret garden’. In Something Green; an installation by artist Hannah Jerrom, grass grows out of the dilapidated carpet of a damp room. Offering a Post-Industrial vision, it reveals the fragility and impermanence of a once important civic building eventually and inevitably consumed by nature.
From there we moved through to the breathtaking exhibition hall; centralised in plan with tiered levels climbing up under a sweeping concrete roof dramatically penetrated by natural light on two sides. Visitors were given the freedom to explore and wander through the shadowy spaces with a string quartet playing on the lower level, images projects on the top and choreographed dance throughout the space. Entitled People in Transit the movements of the dancers and the accompanying music explored transitional spaces where a multitude of different narratives and languages are heard.
As we stood on the top level looking down on the immersive multi-sensorial spectacle, dancers moved through the visitors to the extent that one wasn’t sure which was which. This interaction came to a climax when audience members were chosen to wear red boiler suits and take part in a fascinating ritualistic dance entitled Battle – Wasteland. Following the instruction of a man using a megaphone, they ‘clashed’ with members of the London Contemporary Dance School and Rambert Dance Company who circled around them utilising the generous series of stairs and landings around the performance space. The boiler suits, the megaphone and the dramatic music and lighting conjured an almost dystopian vision.
The final section of the night was entitled Orpheus and the Underworld; an intimate and beautiful combination of opera, classical music, contemporary dance and visuals projected in the old cinema space.
After over two and half hours of overlapping performances I felt the evening verged on being slightly overwhelming and there were certainly instances when dances and musical pieces, beautiful in their own right, competed for the audience’s attention. It is however a credit to the production team for bringing together a multi-disciplinary cast of over 100 in a largely coherent manner, doing justice to an extraordinary space
Common Sounds; Touching the Void was the launch event for the InTRANSIT Festival organised by the Arts Team at the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Described as the only arts festival that geographically (as well as emotionally) moves its visitors, InTRANSIT includes a rich variety of inexpensive events in a series of forgotten and undiscovered places across the borough.
Particular highlights include the return of the pedal powered Cycle-in Cinema produced by Magnificent Revolution. With the help of at least 20 cyclists hooked up to a generator they will be screening the Belgian Animation A Town called Panic. Furthermore the Zero Hour Bus Tours produced by Forest Fringe will transport visitors across London with a series of audio pieces design to accentuate this surreal journey.
This festival and the future relocation of the Design Museum form part of an impressive series of developments (including the Amanda Levete’s V&A extension as well as the Zaha Hadid’s new Sackler gallery for the Serpentine gallery) that will further establish the Borough as one of London’s prominent artistic and cultural centres.
The InTRANSIT festival takes place between the 22-31 of July across various locations in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
We hope you enjoying reading the Aesthetica Blog, if you want to explore more of the best in contemporary arts and culture you should read us in print too. In the spirit of celebration, Issue 41 includes a piece on Guggenheimn Bilbao where the Luminous Interval features internationally acclaimed artists such as Louise Bourgeois, Kiki Smith and Damien Hirst, ArtAngel’s new commission at MIF, Bruce Nauman’s retrospective at The Kunsthalle Mannheim and Cory Arcangel’s Pro Tools at the Whitney in NYC. You can buy it today by calling +44(0)1904 479 168. Even better, subscribe to Aesthetica and save 20%. Go on, enjoy!
Common Sounds: Touching the Void
Dane Hurst, Dancer
Fruit for the Apocalypse
© Zhana Malaya