First published in The Times, Wednesday March 2 2016
A single image can change the entire public conversation. The most powerful recent example was the picture of three-year-old Alan Kurdi’s lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach, which inspired a softening in attitudes towards the Syrian refugee crisis. Nonetheless, in today’s world, where we are bombarded with images of human suffering, online and on television, it is increasingly difficult to interrogate and fully process what we are seeing.
The latest production from the Glasgow-based company Vanishing Point takes as its starting point Jeff Wall’s famous 1978 photograph, The Destroyed Room, which compels viewers to create their own narrative as to what the painstakingly constructed scene of devastation before them means. Wall’s photograph was itself inspired by The Death of Sardanapalus, an 1827 painting of death and destruction by Eugène Delacroix, and would go on to grace the cover of a Sonic Youth album. In typically contrary fashion, Vanishing Point’s artistic director Matthew Lenton has chosen to explore the role of imagery in our lives almost entirely through words.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The meat of the performance is a staged conversation between three white, seemingly liberal westerners, in a space that recalls the set-up of the late-night discussion show After Dark, but with refreshment available in the manner of a backstage green room. What starts out as a relatively good-natured, engaging debate about the ubiquity of images of violence online and their effect on our behaviour and attitudes, descends into acrimony as the wine flows and the conversation increasingly touches upon the personal.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
The atmosphere is one of intimate exchange, punctured by the actors occasionally breaking the fourth wall and the presence of cameras relaying the participants’ faces onto a large screen. The performers (Elicia Daly, Pauline Goldsmith and Barnaby Power) succeed in making the overall flow of the conversation appear natural and spontaneous, even if at times all the pontificating makes you long for the ambiguity and shade of a fictional dramatic scenario. Ironically, it is in the final moments, when the stage floods and clips of refugees struggling in the Mediterranean are projected onto the screen, that the piece is at its most eloquent.