A couple of weeks ago, I went to see a multi-sensory mirror maze installation created by Es Devlin in Peckham, south-east London. Some may think of Peckham as an unlikely venue for cutting edge art but in recent years, Peckham and the areas around it have developed a burgeoning cultural scene.
After creating sets for the likes of Adele and Beyonce on their tours, Es Devlin’s first solo work was commissioned by cultural magazine i-D and perfumer Chanel. The installation consisted of four rooms inspired by happenings during the creators life and was live from 21st to 25th September 2016.
After around an hour of queueing I was led into the first room (obviously a popular attraction!). This room was dark and contained an oval doorway on the wall furthest from us. Soon after our entrance, projected video and sound design began, playing with the shape of the doorway and the mirrors we could see beyond. The video and sound showed a design in process with lines being drawn, using the doorway as a reference point. As the images developed, the theme progressed and this all culminated with the room going black and the elliptical doorway glowing around the edges after the visuals engulfed it in Bond-esque red smoke . I thought this section was a great introduction being at once creative and effective in building drama for what was ahead.
After the audio visual crescendo of the first room we were ushered into the main space, a mirror maze inspired by the mirror-laden staircase adorning Coco Chanel’s house. Unfortunately after the build-up and drama of the first space, this fell a little flat. It was a good contrast, being light and airy against the dense, enclosed space before but I felt it lacked what the previous crescendo had promised. For a mirror maze, it wasn't disorientating enough, which could really be down to the inspiration coming from a staircase, a threshold designed to be easy to use! The opulence of the source material was definitely present but overall this space didn't really play it’s part in continuing the story as an experienced storyteller might have it.
After wondering around the mirror maze for a bit I found a third room. This consisted of a darkish space with a catwalk flanked by dark water. The wall in front was a concave curve towards the viewer and video was projected onto the entire 180 degree expanse of the surface. Speakers were located behind the viewer, above and below, as well as in a horizontal array in front, along the curve. The idea here was to experience the sense of falling and the video used footage filmed by Devlin on her travels. The sound design also contributed to this. I spent quite a long time standing in front of the wall just staring at the video and listening, waiting for my perception to lose focus on the extraneous stimuli of people and my thoughts to see if I could soak it all in. Indeed, I did manage it and felt very disorientated! However, most others stayed for a bit, had a nonchalant look around and left; some even choosing to the film their experience with eyes glued to their camera phones instead of soaking up the atmosphere. If I were to do things differently here I may have tied the sound design closer to the video and made the whole experience less random - of course, random is good for disorientation but a tighter narrative would have left the audience leaving a little more satisfied that they had experienced something other than just ‘cool’.
Once I had popped out of the illusion I left this space back through the only entrance and wandered around the mirror maze a little more to find the fourth and last room. A seal covered the doorway, presumably to keep the promised fragrance located here inside. Sliding through the tight membrane covering the door worked fantastically as a spatial transition too, really giving the impression you are stepping into something special or another world. Inside, the room was bare brick and concrete, all painted white with a pink glow coming from the lighting. At one end, a smoke machine was letting out smoke to add to the atmosphere while a voice spoke words over the array of speakers hidden around the periphery of the room. These words related to perfume. I went over to the smoke machine, assuming the fog contained the fragrance but when I got there it just smelt like a normal smoke machine, all smokey and heavy, not the expected light, one-off fragrance created by Chanel. I looked around to see if I could see some other machines dishing out fragrance, at once thinking they might by hidden to add to the effect. I did spy two white machines flanking the entrance door though and made a couple of slow passes to see if I could pick up the scent. I got a faint fruity smell but I cant promise this wasn't coming from one of the occupants of the room. A little deflated by the promise of the culmination of the experience I left after wander around a bit and soaking up the atmosphere.
As you can tell, the experience as a whole left me a little underwhelmed but then the whole thing was touted as an experiment in the senses. I think the problem here was that Chanel, obviously part-funding the installation, must have strongly suggested certain things be a certain way, tying the hands of the artist creating the experience. Also, being a fantastically successful fragrance manufacturer and trader doesn't really mean you’ll be great at producing sensory installations - smell is just one sense. Along with i-D, the other funder they both are only interested in what’s cool and hip to further their image, not creating anything with any depth or intrigue. Such organisations don't create unique culture but respond to it (no matter how creative Coco Chanel was as a person - multi-national corporations are rarely creatively cutting edge).
Of course, this was a great experiment for Es Devlin to further her ideas of set design and creation into multi-sensory theatre and I’m sure she learnt a hell of a lot from it as does anyone of worth venturing into the unknown. She is obviously great at what she does and rightly jumped at a chance to develop her ideas. I think if I were to put my two pence in, I would say think about the linear and non-linear narrative more with a view to creating each space as a page turner and leaving the audience breathless and excited for more as they left. This is easier said than done of course but if something is too easy it’s probably not worth doing! I would also say look more to immersive theatre for inspiration rather than cultural regurgitators. By that though, I don't mean just add character actors but look to the way story is woven into the experience. Well, that’s my opinion anyway!