We step behind the veil of secrecy to discover Artangel’s latest commission, exploring experiences of gay prisoners
Artangel commissions are getting harder and harder to review for fear of giving too much away. Ryan Gander’s Locked Room Scenario, for example – an empty warehouse in which unsuspecting viewers suddenly found themselves alone and drifting, wondering whether they had simply arrived too late – relied on audience ignorance; if visitors knew what to expect, having read some know-it-all review, wherein lies the punch?
Mark Storor’s ‘A Tender Subject’ is no different, as it too is surrounded by an essential subterfuge. And this presents a problem; namely, how to discuss the piece without citing it components. But it can’t hurt to reveal the basic setup, can it? Nevertheless, take heed: spoiler alert.
It’s public information that, the culmination of three years’ of collaborative workshops with gay prisoners and gay prison staff, ‘A Tender Subject’ is a performance installation based on their collected experiences. Initially coming up against the persistent myth that gay men simply did not exist in prison, Storor’s workshops gradually became a space where these ‘non-existent’ men could begin to express themselves, and reflect on the difficulties of being homosexual within the intensely hostile context of the UK prison system.
But what form the work would take in practice has been a hotly guarded secret. Arriving to join a group of 11, we have our phones confiscated before being transported from the recently-disclosed meeting point to a secret warehouse location. Greeted at the heavy door by a prison warden, we are told to line up in single file, and to follow. As we make our apprehensive way down a dank staircase, aware that the performance has started and scanning the walls for clues as to what is to come next, the door is violently slammed behind us. Playing the part of prisoners, we are directed into fluorescent-lit holding area by po-faced guards, and wait.
What follows is both nightmarish and flamboyant – an intricately stage-managed piece of theatre, with prison warden’s directing the audience’s every move as they are led from space to space, set to set. Far from being a literal interpretation of the experiences of gay prisoners, this is a highly ambiguous work alluding to, rather than detailing, moments of loving togetherness, intense isolation, violent retribution, ritual humiliation, and predatorial harassment.
Much use is made of the terrifying, warren-like building, with lamenting cries reverberating down the corridors, silhouetted figures, dazzling light, and pitch blackness all contributing to a sense of profound disorientation. When the time comes to leave, we are rudely thrust out on the streets of London – dazed, blinking, exhilarated, liberated. Now, which is the tube station nearest to ‘secret location’? Words: Thomas Keane © 2012 ArtLyst