Artangel Goes Subterranean With Heiner Goebbels' Stifter's Dinge

By Richard Moss | 20 February 2008
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a shadowy photo of an installation of suspended pianos and water

Photo © Mario del Curto

Artangel, the arts organisation that brought us Antony Gormley’s giant burning waste man of Margate and Jeremy Dellar’s recreation of the battle of Orgreave, is going underground for its next project.

Described as part musical box, part landscape painting, Stifter’s Dinge will resonate from April 14 until April 27 2008 within the massive cavernous interior of P3, a former construction hall where concrete was tested for the Westway flyover. The space is now a hidden subterranean part of Westminster University’s School of Architecture on London’s Marylebone Road.

The artwork, already seen in Europe, has been produced by German musician, composer and theatre director Heiner Goebbels. It's a bizarre alchemy of avant-garde music, theatre and a spectacular three-dimensional forest lagoon with upturned pianos that advance menacingly over steaming water. The whole thing is controlled by machines and is devoid of instrumentalists or performers of any kind.

A co-commission by Artangel and Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne in France, the starting point for the piece is the little known texts of the early 19th century Romantic writer Adalbert Stifter, from which Goebbels has choreographed a bewildering chain reaction of voices, music, images, light, mechanical objects and extreme weather.

Adalbert Stifter is by any standards an obscure catalyst from which to launch an ambitious poetical subterranean landscape. Even in his native Germany he is considered to be a rather boring and certainly obscure writer, but, says Goebbels, he is a man whose work is very much in tune with the times.

a photo showing several suspended pianos before a blue screen

Photo © Mario del Curto

“When you are interested in forces you don’t know, like nature and other material, then he can be a very exciting, modern and contemporary author,” he says. “So his work is about landscape, but not in a comfortable sense, but rather in a way which includes a lot of catastrophe and ecological disaster.”

In Stifter’s stories, a short conversation that may for example mention the approach of a thunderstorm is followed by page upon page of rich and detailed writing describing the elements at work in the thunderstorm. It’s these detailed Stifterian things and elements that feature in Stifter’s Dinge (Dinge is German for things).

Audiences can expect to be menaced by flying pianos and battered by rain and hail and mist and fog, but, promises Goebbels, these elements will be 'slowed down' so viewers will be able to indulge in a detailed perception that will raise the intensity of the experience - much like reading Stifter.

“You have to slow things down in an anti-spectacular way in order to enjoy the pleasure of a raindrop falling down all of a sudden,” says Goebbels. “Stifter's Dinge is defined by the separation of elements: you are seeing and listening but they do not necessarily link, which means the audience has a bigger part to play to complete the piece. There is a big participatory element to this work.”

For Goebbels, the ambitious work is also a departure, but those familiar with his music may find one or two recognizable elements. For example, the disembodied voices and sampled pieces of singing that float over the bubbling lagoon are reminiscent of his seventies avant rock group Casibah. Yet it is a piece that has an absence of any classical or theatrical convention, and the music is developed in the actual space it is installed.

“In four weeks I worked with stones, with space, with metal, with water, with light and with sounds,” he says, “and I could actually very specifically dedicate the whole composition process to what was happening also on the visual front.”

“In theatre you have the intensity of an actor who’s standing up front telling you what to think. With this piece people keep saying ‘there’s nobody there standing up front telling us what to think’, which means the whole construction leaves a bigger space for the imagination of the audience.”

a photo of an expanse of bubbling water with several pianos beyond it

Photo © Mario del Curto

As one would expect from a piece that makes music out of elemental material such as water, there is also a strong unpredictable improvised element that leaves plenty of room for suggestion and imagination.

“Water is a more difficult element to control, it has only one tendency to follow, which is gravity, which really gave us a hard time. So yes, there is a lot of improvisation and the whole piece, though it is remote control, it’s not that we can switch it on and go away.”

It’s a piece which is also open to the influence of the atmosphere of the place it is performed and with the concrete bunker of P3, Goebbels believes audiences should be experiencing Stifter’s Dinge in its optimum setting.

“I’m very happy about this London experience because it’s not a theatre,” he says. “The piece is not really supposed to be performed in theatres, it’s supposed to be performed in rather industrial spaces and I have seen this space last year and was immediately overwhelmed by its character which is so bizarre and unexpected.”

Audiences entering this subterranean realm had best be prepared for an overwhelming experience – one that has seen European audiences react very positively to an artwork in which they become one of the key elements.

“I’m very relieved by people’s response to this piece because it was completely experimental,” says Goebbels. “It’s very risky to do a piece without any performers, but what I get is a very big response, which is exactly what I was trying to achieve - that the audience make up the piece.”

Stifter’s Dinge runs from April 14 until April 27 2008 at P3, Westminster University School of Architecture on London’s Marylebone Road. Tickets are on sale now at

For more information about the work of Artangel see their website.

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