Interactive Artists Close 2008 Season At East Wing Somerset House

By Ben Miller Published: 04 December 2008

A picture of Harald Smykla sitting by a projector moving a pen with his hand to create re-projections onto walls

Harald Smykla will be drawing on walls with the aid of a projector when the East Wing opens on Friday night. © Grace Pattison and the East Wing Collection

Somerset House’s East Wing only opens to the public occasionally, so when it does the results tend to be spectacular. Friday December 5 2008 marks the last chance of the year for art-goers to peek inside this hidden gem, and the rewards on offer include a chance to have conversations turned into sketches and to dowse the walls with virtual graffiti.

“There is nothing else like East Wing within London,” muses organiser Chloe Nelkin, who promises a “particularly exciting evening” ahead of a break until the end of January. “Obviously using a working space to exhibit has its problems," she says, "but equally it is the eccentricity and unique aspect of the East Wing that makes it so special.”

Despite only welcoming guests on sporadic evenings and weekends, more than 3,000 visitors have attended events at a space Nelkin summarises as “large and quirky”.

Spread over five floors of the landmark cultural centre, works wind through corridors and up stairwells of the maze-like interior in an unusual layout which almost invites the type of illuminative experimentation Harald Smykla will be producing on Friday.

Smykla will be beaming light onto the classical architecture, embellishing the walls with patterns and sketching people midway up the stairs to create beautiful, theatrical effects.

A picture of the East Wing inside Somerset House with elaborate winding staircases

Art winds along the staircases of the East Wing. © Grace Pattison and the East Wing Collection

“This is a process that is photographic in more than the literal sense of drawing with light,” explains the artist. “Like a camera, my brain is processing reality as a reverse image that is most precise or in focus when its components are static or keep still. I need long exposure times.”

Smykla’s ‘re-projection’ technique merges actual space with its graphic representation, tracing overhead projector-illuminated site features with the shadow of his pen. The image evolving on the projector is cast back onto the “fluidly changing reality” of the room, which itself becomes both stage set and plot.

Both static architecture and audiences moving within the field of light become the incidental cast of an immersive performance that plays with our notions of time and space, presence and absence.

On Friday, Smykla has cunning plans for the classical interior of the building, creeping coloured lines along the architectural features and enhancing the plaster ornament with vivid whirls of turquoise or purple.

He likens the method to a page in a children’s colouring book. Members of the audience are liable to get drawn upon, have their clothes redesigned or receive hair colouring and make-up treatment.

A picture of cartoon-style red figures drawn onto the staircase walls of Somerset House by Harald Smyka's projections

Harald Smykla's projections will illuminate the walls. © Grace Pattison and the East Wing Collection

“They will exit the light field in the same state as they entered, but leave their luminous images behind,” says Smykla, sounding a little sad at the fleeting nature of his escapist endeavours. “Just hit the off button of the overhead projector and reality returns to its mundane everyday state.”

Interactivity is also the method of choice for Rebecca Birch, an East Wing regular who has produced a psychogeographically poignant project by illustratively reproducing her conversations with residents of Happisburgh as they speak.

The Norfolk town’s location is a precariously fragile one, constantly susceptible to the devastating effects of coastal erosion. Birch describes her work as “performance art”, feverishly formulating a series of pencil sketches as her subjects talk.

“Everyone who sees Harald’s work is always mesmerised and can’t help but stand and watch his metamorphoses, but Rebecca’s work is quite different,” suggests Nelkin. “Viewers are invited to sit and talk to Rebecca, who draws and records her conversations. They vary according to the viewers’ prior knowledge, what questions they ask, and so on.”

A picture of artist Rebecca Birch frantically sketching pencil drawings onto sheets of paper as a young man sits opposite her speaking

Rebecca Birch produces rapid-fire pencil sketches as her interviewees talk. © Rebecca Birch

Visitors who aren’t too busy chatting about storm-battered cliffs or being framed in beams of light can also get a guided tour around the On Time exhibition, a collection of work by more than 30 artists including last year’s Turner Prize winner, Mark Wallinger.

“Some people are initially quite hesitant about being chaperoned, but they always come back with positive feedback and praise for their guide,” reports Nelkin, who organises a roster of student volunteers to commentate on the pieces.

“To be honest, this takes an huge amount of organisation, but seeing a successful opening where people are able to enjoy the collection is truly rewarding,” she adds. “I hope Friday will be a great success, highlighting the importance of performance within the London art scene.”

East Wing VIII: On Time is open between 6.30pm and 9pm tomorrow (Friday, December 5)

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