tue 20/10/2020

ReAnimate: a clever, confusing night out at the NPG | reviews, news & interviews

ReAnimate: a clever, confusing night out at the NPG

ReAnimate: a clever, confusing night out at the NPG

The Late Shift offers a free sensory experience among portraits of the great and good

With ReAnimate, the National Portrait Gallery’s Late Shift team were aiming high. The event sought to bring a free sensory experience throughout the entire building, promising to enchant the hordes away from Trafalgar Square and into a visionary evening of stimulation – not just of sight and sound, but also taste and smell.

It would do so through the combined curative powers of Karen Pearson and her award-winning radio production company, and Martyn Ware, electronic music pioneer famed for founding The Human League and Illustrious Company, the tech-savvy sound technology and collaborative company, also in on the ReAnimate act. Throw in cited influences from the 1400-odd portraits on show in the gallery, including those in the Road to 2012 exhibition, and you’ve got the potential for something very clever, or rather confused.


ReAnimate ended up being a bit of both. With four floors and several dozen rooms to fill, the broad range of musical, film, performance and participatory events happening within a few short hours could have turned the NPG into a thoroughly immersive entity for a night. Instead it teetered on the edge of a wild goose chase for difficult conceptual installations propped in a few select rooms.

One of the core concepts of ReAnimate was the Soundscape, a series of specially commissioned audio pieces played out to the portraits which inspired them. Marvin Ayre’s Anthropomorphic comprised jittery piano rhetoric to symbolise the feuding royalty of the Tudor portraits on the second floor, while Tracey Moberly’s SMS-based project heard a list of archived text messages read out amongst the experimental representations of scientific and medical greats in room 38. More effective was the understated performance of experimental musician Andreya Triana. Experimental in the loosest sense, she initially seemed a bit coffee table, a bit Radio 2, only to erupt into a triumphant beat-boxed cover of the Eurythmics’ "Sweet Dreams", an awesome vocal onslaught. Triana, guitarist and sampler, performed to a rapt, cross-legged audience and the topped-and-tailed politicians immortalised in The Road to Reform, all appearing to be turning to watch. It showed how good a venue a gallery can be when the act is right.

The NPG’s wig-heavy halls also provided a great space for happy discoveries like The Atmospheric Railway, a dance act involving the wearable instrumental creation of Di Mainstone and Adam Stark. Curious, interactively noisy and compelling, it was exactly the right thing to stumble upon around one of the many corners on the first floor. Around another was the Drop-In Drawing session. Nothing fancy, it did exactly what it said on the tin, and proved an especially popular way of spending a bit of a Friday night.

It was unfortunate that Under Your Skin, a short created by Goldsmiths Students, was so inaccessible. A piece which seemed to fulfill the evening’s creative aims - representing athletic presence and musical creativity in a sensory way - was tucked away in the Ondaatje Wing Theatre, playing either side of the ticketed philosophical discussions which were also part of ReAnimate. The film showed the training sessions of sportspeople, ranging from blind goalies to East End boxers and gangly pubescent swimmers, through lenses positioned on the body. They were at once queasy (flying full circle through the air with a gymnast) and invigorating: the barks of boxer Michael McCarthy as he hit the punchbag were more arresting than many of the Soundscapes around the rest of the gallery.

Watch Under Your Skin

Apart from, that is, Illum Sphere’s set, which transformed the NPG’s main hall from a space of transition to one of an essential hub. Removed from his more likely haunt of Elephant and Castle’s cheap but exclusive Corsica Studios, the Manchester DJ proved what a good combination music and art can be. The extent to which his set really did reflect silent witnesses Wordsworth, Byron and Brunel was debatable, but watching Sphere spinning from the main hall’s balcony was arguably as sublime as your average Romantic poem.

One evening, an odd collection of exhibits and possibly too much space in which to explore them. Thankfully, however, this is merely the start of NPG’s Late Shift series. It’s certainly a different sensory experience from that offered by the neighbouring Leicester Square on a Friday night.

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