Stifter's Dinge: who cares what it is? It's terrific
Richard Dorment reviews Stifter's Dinge sponsored by Artangel
A German avant-garde composer and theatre director; a performance inspired by the nature writings of an obscure 19th-century Austrian romantic writer; a venue in a underground bunker off London's Marylebone Road: to be honest, had Heiner Goebbels's Stifter's Dinge ("Stifter's Things") not been sponsored by Artangel, I'd have given it a miss.
But trot along I dutifully did, for time and again the people behind this remarkable organisation have opened my eyes (and ears and mind) to experiences I initially resisted but have never forgotten.
Stifter's Dinge is a performance with no performers and a concert with no musicians.
As you take your seat in the windowless vault (once used to test concrete for the Channel Tunnel by dropping it from great heights), you are confronted with a formal sculptural arrangement consisting of five pianos and a few bare branches.
On the floor below are three shallow rectangular pools and three fibreglass cubes.
Of the five pianos, two are uprights, played in the traditional way by hammers hitting strings - except that the keys are struck by invisible fingers, like player pianos. The rest are played by robotic "arms" sliding either across or up and down the strings.
Other sounds include shivers, shakes, rattles, scrapes, thumps and booms made - as far as I could figure out - with tin sheets, a tennis ball, concrete blocks, and blasts of air forced down a long drainpipe.
The performance starts as technicians flood the now illuminated rectangles with water to create ravishing pools of light, as songs from Papua New Guinea fill the air, and a hot disc of yellow light pours down like the sun over a jungle river.
Then the landscape changes and we are in Europe.
An unseen actor reads aloud a beautiful passage in which Adalbert Stifter describes eerie woodland covered in snow, while Jacob van Ruisdael's view of a marsh is projected on to a screen and the floor appears to become a frozen lake.
As soon as this ends, rain begins to fall and the mood shifts while the pianos pick out the melody from the second movement of JS Bach's Italian Concerto in F major.
There are more readings (Lévi-Strauss, William Burroughs, Malcolm X), projections (of Paolo Uccello's The Hunt) and music before a series of frenzied arpeggios lead up to a breathtaking finale when the roiling waters begin to bubble and steam in an evocation of some primordial landscape or volcanic eruption taking place before the beginning of time.
I know it sounds like the stuff of Pseuds' Corner, but I fell for it, hook line and sinker. If you are looking for meaning, it isn't difficult to see the structure of the work as progressing from the dawn of creation to the rise of civilisation and a return to the ooze.
But I think that may be the wrong way to look at it. That there are no live performers is important to the effect Goebbels is seeking.
You have to approach Stifter's Dinge not as theatre, but as an art work - an installation brought to life by sound and light and special effects borrowed from the theatre and opera.
The work lasts for only 80 minutes, finding the venue is part of the pleasure, and once again, Artangel has pulled a rabbit out of the hat.
P3, Marylebone Road, London NW1 (www.seetickets.com), until April 27.
16 April 2008