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February 13, 2007

Wake Up and Hide


Art that Leaves

Art that leaves the room when you come in by Alastair Sooke; a review of Gary Stevens at Matt's Gallery, London, Telegraph.co.uk,/a>; In pictures: Gary Stevens at Matt's Gallery.

More often than not, works of art stay still. Not so the latest piece by British performance artist Gary Stevens. Wake Up and Hide, his two-screen video installation at Matt's Gallery in east London, is a fiendishly tricksy work that reacts to the viewer. When you walk into the gallery, you see a bunch of larger-than-life people silently staring at you from two almost identical oak-panelled interiors.

That in itself is fairly disconcerting, like wandering into a party to be confronted with a sudden, deathly hush. But it's nothing compared to what happens next. As soon as you make a noise – a cough, a footstep, a rustle - everyone on screen scarpers. On the left (Hide), five performers hurry to hide around the room: behind a bookcase, under the stripy sofa, wrapped up in a red plush curtain.

On the right (Wake Up ), another five leap up with cartoonish mannerisms – arms windmilling, grimacing expressions of exaggerated surprise – before sprinting out of shot like the slapstick Keystone Kops (Stevens's inspiration).

And that, believe me, is far, far more uncomfortable, like turning up at a party to find that your arrival prompts a rush for the door. People talk about portraits with eyes that follow you around the room, but I can't think of any work of art that actually leaves the room when you come in.

Stick around and stay quiet, though, and the 10 performers gradually return. In Hide, they re-emerge one by one, heads popping up from pieces of dark, heavy furniture like meerkats sniffing the wind for danger in an Attenborough doc.

In Wake Up, they come back looking tense, backs and necks ramrod-straight.

Then, if you do nothing, they start to unwind. In Hide, they gain confidence, venturing into the open, sizing each other up with sly, slanting looks. In Wake Up, their stiff postures begin to droop until, like melting snowmen, they seep on to the floor.

But make a noise, picked up by one of four sensitive microphones rigged up in the ceiling, and both videos jumpcut to another segment of film.

As before, one load of performers suddenly disappears around the room. The others vamoose. It's like playing peekaboo or grandmother's footsteps.

To create such a technical tour de force, Stevens uses tech-geek wizardry. Each time a sound triggers footage of the performers scurrying away, a computer selects one of five subtly different "narratives" tailored for both screens.

In one loop, a performer plays the piano; in the next, another starts to smoke.

Assuming you let them, of course. At first, Wake Up and Hide makes you feel unpopular: I tiptoed around to avoid disturbing the people on screen.

But as you figure out how the sound-sensitive installation works, you begin to clap or talk loudly so that the actors scramble at your beck and call. The piece provokes a strange, vaguely omnipotent rush.

That said, you can never get them to do exactly what you want. Which means that Wake Up and Hide functions as a witty satire of our interactive, press-the-red-button, you-decide-who-goes age.

In Stevens's world, we – the spectators – are blunderers, clumsily controlling the work only to disrupt it. If we send the performers skittering, we won't discover how the films unfold when left to play undisturbed.

And if we stay quiet so that the films unspool, then, really, the performers are the ones controlling us. It's a situation that would send Jade Goody's mind into meltdown. Until March 18. Information: 020 8983 1435

Posted by jo at February 13, 2007 03:54 PM