Standing at the top of the stairs, I tentatively, by minuscule measurements, reach one foot towards the edge, feeling for the place where the ground gives way to nothingness. My hand drifts in the air next to me, searching for the bannister I know must be somewhere near my fingertips. The urge to open my eyes is almost unbearable. This is definitely different from how I’ve experienced shows at the Fruitmarket Gallery before.
Perhaps I should explain more fully. I am not wavering about on a gallery’s stairs as part of my own individual performance art piece, I am being guided – one hand in mine, one on the small of my back – by someone who has their eyes entirely open (someone who, ten minutes previously, I made take the blind top-of-the-stairs plunge), and this is all part of a Fruitmarket workshop. Around the whole gallery pairs are negotiating corners and narrow pathways, all as part of Topsy Turvy, an intensive weekend workshop of movement and contact improvisation, as a response to Phyllida Barlow’s ‘SET’, Fruitmarket’s current exhibition. The entire point of the weekend is to make you see the artwork in a new way – not being able to see it at all is just the starting point.
Bringing together visual art and movement is not new, but it doesn’t happen all that often. It especially doesn’t happen often for people outside either the art or dance worlds – usually the only people able to throw themselves around near valuable artworks are seasoned professionals. So Fruitmarket gathering a group of twelve young people, for whom the only requirement is interest, for free, is a pretty incredible thing. Allowed into the gallery when closed to the public, given time to study the pieces and taught the principles of contact improvisation in the Dance Base studio space, with professional dancer and choreographer Rosalind Masson leading the weekend’s movement, Goat Media filming the workshop’s process and developments and the gallery laying on coffee and refreshments the entire weekend feels like a fantastic, sneaky privilege.
As well as being an enjoyably different way to experience Fruitmarket’s space, it is also an extremely clever enterprise, for Barlow’s works do indeed seem to call for a physical response to them. Built with hidden spaces, cul-de-sac entryways and jutting slabs there is an intrinsic desire to crawl into, climb on and clamber over the pieces. They seem to only really come into their own with human activity around them. Works of large size but very careful balance, relying on the support of other pieces, Barlow’s SET manages to seem both planned and spontaneous, solid and fragile. Contact improvisation, which relies on bodyweight support, balance and, of course, close contact with others, is a perfect fit.
I saw Barlow’s show when it opened in late July. I liked it, but I must admit, I wasn’t blown away. I thought the giant sculptures that engulf the gallery were impressive, that the layered textures were appealing, that some of the shapes were interesting, but it wasn’t a love-at-first-sight moment. But, if you can carry blind date metaphors into the art world, I am immensely glad the lack of immediate spark didn’t stop me returning. It turns out signing up for a full weekend getting close and personal with the pieces kindled the slow burn; even halfway through the first day I felt my relationship to the artworks changing and intensifying. Both the individual pieces downstairs and the enormous structure filling the upstairs gallery seemed cleverer, yet also more playful. Watching others moving amongst the sculptures gave them a new depth and animation; the gallery seemed to come alive. Perhaps all art shows would benefit from an injection of active reaction.