Seeing shows at Talbot Rice always feels slightly like opening a door onto Narnia. With one unobtrusive entryway leading onto the stairwell straight from a cobbled street, and the other tucked into a corner of Old College, emerging into the spacious, light-filled first room can leave you blinking at the snow-white glare. Flanked by the narrower, columned Georgian room, complete with overhead window domes, the gallery is always striking. The space itself seems part of any exhibition.
So, with this Narnia-effect sensed at all times, when the first thing encountered is a frozen bear, bathed in an icy blue light streaming from stained glass windows, the disorientation is immensely amplified. Opposite the bear a pianola stands, as if suddenly abandoned by its player. The second room echoes the first, yet is also its opposite, as the frosty panes are replaced by deep red and orange glasswork; where the first room is chilled the second is submerged in warm, yet distinctly threatening, bloody hues. Loud choral music and disembodied piano strains soar over the hauntingly sparse gallery floor. Ross Birrell and David Harding have expertly used the exhibition space to create three uncanny, melancholy, yet profoundly beautiful non-places. The White Gallery in particular has the feel of a solitary chapel.
This is appropriate given that another work draws the viewer into the Rothko Chapel. A video focuses on Rothko’s central work in this unique space; the Talbot Rice viewer is placed as if seated thousands of miles away, contemplating the dark paint from a bench in Houston.
Viola music fills the accompanying headphones: two instruments playing the same notes, yet just out of time and harmony. We are told one player is Israeli, one Palestinian. The discordant, unresolved notes of “Duet” need no further explanation. The listener, gazing at Rothko’s masterpiece, is left to sense and interpret for themselves the intricate connections between the density of references Harding and Birrell evoke, to feel both the music and the artwork.
However, there is the option of more information. While the videos, sculptures and small prints bear no labels – apparently to be taken on sight and hearing alone – there is an unassuming programme saturated with facts and quotations. It usually signals a poor show if the programme is either necessary for enjoyment, or stuffed with the special language only found in galleries – the kind that smacks of pretentions and pretence.
Neither of these are true of where language ends; it is definitely not a poor show. Yet, it does gain depth with the stories alluded to on the two A4 sheets. At first the information befuddles, as references to Nazi Germany are mixed with Mexican composers, Romantic poets, and a Polish bear. It is as if the Narnia world is being explained by Wes Anderson. Yet, as diverse stories of political oppression, conflict and creativity track the pieces, a sophisticated almost-narrative emerges. This is a show about the redemptive power of creativity, about how minds and emotions can be radically altered by art. It is about the survival of beauty in places and times of violence and horror. It is extremely clever, but can also be appreciated without words. Harding and Birrell have created something intangible, yet truly inspiring.
Photo: Imperial War Museum