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What would The Pooters think?

Artist Blue Firth’s Same Old, Same Old installation raises teasing questions about perceptions of architecture in an accidentally formed space at the Royal Academy, writes Jay Merrick

The Architecture Space at the Royal Academy is Neo-classical junkspace, a gently sloping passage which links the ‘alley’ running along the western side of the RA’s main staircase to the western staircase and restaurant. Throngs of people pass constantly through this archaic gullet, which used to be open to the sky.

The new installation here, by the artist Blue Firth, is designed to make us experience the historical and material presence of the space in a neo-mythical way. Her premise is that relatively unnoticed architectural facts can be sensually heightened by more obviously noticed architectural fictions.  

The installation raises teasing questions about the language and perception of architecture as a dynamic memorial phenomenon

Some will file Firth’s intervention under ‘arty PoMo incident’. Others may find the visual conceits too simplistic. However, the installation raises teasing questions about the language and perception of architecture as a dynamic memorial phenomenon. And it will segue neatly into the Living Stains event at the RA in April. This will bring together Mark Pilkington (aka Strange Attractor), Andy Sharp (aka English Heretic) and the eminent neurosurgeon Dr John Firth (aka ‘Dad’ to Blue Firth) to discuss the perception of movement in landscape.

The walls of the Architecture Space were originally external – three stuccoed surfaces, two by Richard Norman Shaw and one by Samuel Ware, and a brick wall that encases part of Smirke’s main galleries. Above the Architecture Space, the 1991 Foster scheme to create the Sackler Galleries used this 4.25m-wide, multi-storey gap to insert a glass and steel staircase – a hovering, Modernist spook.

Firth’s installation, Same Old, Same Old, consists of large pixellated abstractions of Shaw’s stucco, in a continuous eight-section vinyl tableau of textures in pale greens, greys and browns. This velvety micro-pointillism, with moiré effects, covers most of the brick north wall. Conceptually, it might be compared with Simon Patterson’s massive, horizontal LED moonscape installation in Plantation Lane in the City of London, which blazes colourfully under the cornice of Wren’s medieval-styled St Margaret Pattens church at the western end of the passage.    

Firth has wrapped the thin metal columns at each end of the steel handrail running axially through the Architecture Space with a stark pattern of skinny black-and-white rectangles – Op Art subversions
which astigmatise the verticality of the otherwise unremarkable posts. There is also a site-specific ‘textural noise’ audio soundtrack, receivable on mobile phones – a nod to Nigel Kneale’s eerie 1972 television play The Stone Tape.

‘The space is a hinterland,’ says Firth, ‘a thoroughfare. It’s hard to get people to stop and encounter something. It’s this idea of [creating] a residual feeling of having been there before. A place of intention, and you feel you’re part of the intention. I first experienced this at a stone circle in Orkney. I’m trying to create a feeling of “persistence”. The installation is not a one-liner.’

It is a metaphorical visual exercise, an installed situation about the idea of memory or haunting

It is, however, a metaphorical visual exercise, an installed situation about the idea of memory or haunting. Can it summon, or heighten, historic architectural presence? Owen Hopkins, acting manager of the RA’s architecture programme, says Firth is attempting to confront the existing character of the space, physically and psychologically. Hopkins, an art historian and Hawksmoor specialist, speaks of the ‘loosely Gothic’ effect of the patterned columns, and of Firth’s ‘unpicking of assumptions about the space’.

Do we feel enmeshed in an incantation, a palpably different memorial aura? Firth’s ‘persistence’?

Despite the antimatter stucco, and columns as abstracted flutings, the historic architecture and its fictionalised metaphors are stand-offish. There isn’t quite the twisting fusion of image and meaning that we find in, say, Francis Ponge’s magical little canticle to candles: ‘Night sometimes brings to life an unusual plant whose gleam decomposes furnished rooms into clumps of shadow.’             

Adolphe Appia, who pioneered three-dimensional stage sets (and most famously for Wagner’s operas) spoke of designing a situation of dédoublement – spaces and forms that provoked dual points of view: an objective observation of phenomena; and, simultaneously, a vision beyond the objective to the essence of symbolic meaning.

The symbolic meaning of architecture, like Wagnerian opera, is rooted in the movement of light, time, space, and the specific and atavistic human visual memories that inform different kinds of recognition and emotion. 

These effects are heightened, or reduced, by particular situations that either codify our reactions, or release them. If we visit an English Heritage site we are braced to receive history with a capital ‘H’. But if the experience fails to trigger memory and emotion in primal ways, there may be little sense of an involvement with history or architecture as manifestations of change and memory as a kind of otherness beyond fact. 

In general, the ‘heritage experience’ – and the Architecture Space is one of them – tends to encase historic architecture, and Mr and Mrs Pooter, in something like the psychic body armour described by the Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich. We cannot, of course, be hyper-responsive to every detail of space and form all the time, or we would find ourselves in the same Groundhog Days of perpetual reaction as poor Mr Gove; or any architect convinced that their brilliantly contrived arrays of ‘significant’ abstract historical detail could not possibly be misunderstood by the gallant Pooters as a private historical riddle.

Firth’s installation is not a private riddle, even if it recalls Marc Augé’s idea about Modernist ‘singularities of all sorts that constitute a paradoxical counterpoint to the procedures of interrelation’. Her installation is discrete enough, and perhaps it’s just strangely referential enough, not to be experienced as a sensual-historical procedure.

And it provokes one salient effect: it makes you wonder what the space has been for. That, alone, is a valuable reaction in an accidentally formed, three-authored corridor whose architectural character is normally barely noticed by those moving through it for 10 or 15 seconds, on their way to or from the RA’s neo-Brief Encounter restaurant.

The installation makes an interesting preface to the RA’s forthcoming Living Stains event. Be assured that Dr John Firth is fascinating on the memorial and emotional effects of sight and architecture, and on the relation between monochrome analogue perception and the way we process (and can’t quite remember) pixellated colour images. We may learn something surprising about Louis Kahn’s ‘treasury of shadow’.

Jay Merrick is the architecture critic of The Independent

Installation: Same Old Same Old, by Blue Firth, in the Architecture Space at the Royal Academy, London W1, until 26 May

Event: Living Stains, RA Reynolds Room, 5 April, 6.30-8pm

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