Wild Palms


Left: Cerith Wyn Evans. (Photo: Ali Janka) Right: Kembang Kirang, playing the gamelan. (Photo: Polly Braden)

Full of honeyed light, looming tropical fronds, and lazily splashing koi, the third-floor conservatory is one of the quieter corners in that Brutalist warren of exhibition and concert halls known as the Barbican Center. It’d be a good place to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon in its own right, but add in the fact that Cerith Wyn Evans has mobilized this paradisiacal green zone with a chancy, multistrand sound piece—not to mention that the city’s feeling somewhat torn and frayed thanks to the recent terrorist bombings and the police killing of an innocent suspect—and, as was clear from the crowds that showed up last weekend, you’ve got a winner.

Entitled Eaux D’artifice (For K.A.), Wyn Evans’s five-hour work—on this date a combination of live performance and recorded tracks—takes as its reference points a 1953 short film by Kenneth Anger set in an eighteenth-century pleasure garden and the chance operations of keen gardener John Cage. Getting there early, I found the space all but empty and the piece drowsily rousing itself. David Bowie’s version of Across the Universe faded into a selection of softly keening vocals-and-cello pieces by the late Arthur Russell; moving through the maze of discreetly placed loudspeakers, one could hear snatches of birdsong—the sort of atmospheric filler Brian Eno used to call “MSG” and stir into a mix that wasn’t going well. Wandering across to an annex bursting with cacti turned up a live vocal quintet who didn’t seem to be performing their Elizabethan songs so much as scrappily rehearsing them, collapsing regularly into tinkling laughter. Soothing as this all was, I wasn’t up for five hours of it—so once my heartbeat had slowed to a crawl and I’d woken my companion up, we headed downstairs to the Barbican’s ground floor, where a very different kind of performance was scheduled.

Left: Voices Adastra. (Photo: Ariella Yedgar) Right: The Derby Tup, performed by the Harthill Tuppers. (Photo: Polly Braden)

About to close was “Folk Archive,” a knockabout exhibition of British folk art cocurated by Alan Kane and Jeremy Deller, last year’s Turner Prize winner. Standing in the exhibition hall, greeting family friends, and enthusing about a forthcoming stint as a judge of a competition for gurners—facial contortionists expert in pulling their lower lips over their noses—Deller directed us to the show’s live component of traditional Mummers’ plays, about to commence nearby. “You won’t be able to miss them,” he said, somewhat ominously. And so it proved. With a jingle of bells and a clatter of sticks, a troupe of “Tuppers” from Yorkshire—one in boisterous drag—knocked out an impromptu Morris Dance (a centuries-old English collective dance involving blunt swords called “rappers”—which might lead to some confusion if it ever crosses the pond) prior to performing the Derby Tup, an old fundraising playlet about an unfortunate ram that gets lustily slaughtered. (Cue a butcher asking female members of the audience if they’d like to stroke his blade.) Next up, in dusty Dickensian dress, were an octet of “hoodeners” from Whitstable, on the Kent coast, who swore that what they were about to relate—an inscrutable story that involved chasing a wooden-headed horse around and eventually coaxing an audience member to ride it—was still performed in their local pubs in the run-up to Christmas. Surreally entertaining (and well, if bemusedly, received) as it was, this double bill nevertheless made me faintly thankful I no longer live in either Whitstable or Yorkshire.

Back upstairs, Wyn Evans’ piece was in full gear. Added to the vocal group was another, specializing in snaky Renaissance polyphony; a wind quintet, perched on a walkway, essaying some Bartók-ish modernism; and, best of all, a full gamelan orchestra, bent over their mallets in natty green and orange uniforms and drumming up a funky yet decorous storm. Bowie was back on the stereo. Cacophony was avoided thanks to careful spacing of these attractions and weird fortuities of acoustics, allowing one to create one’s own mash-up of eras and cultures—a dizygotheca elegantissima, to borrow the fortuitous name of one of the plants. It was evident, though, from the sultry looks ricocheting among the single audience members—and the percentage that’d paired off under shady date palms—that the place had also developed an extramural purpose. For a few hours, this aleatory hothouse may well have been the best pick-up spot in town.