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Review: Waiting for the Main Event

Occasionally an exhibition clicks with me.  Many pieces of art are enjoyable on an intellectual level, once you get under the skin.  Others are aesthetically pleasurable.  Once, in a rare while, I respond to a collection intuitively.  The last time this happened was at Tate Liverpool in 2010 while embraced among the soft figures of Magdalena Abakanowicz’s Embryology.  Catherine Payton’s Waiting for the Main Event had a similar effect on me.  So much so that, for once, I wished that I hadn’t gone to the preview night.  I wished I’d encountered her work by myself, in silence, to allow the combined effect to wash over me.  But then I wouldn’t have had chance to meet Payton and she is as warm as she is perceptive.  Je Ne Regrette Rien.CP_web

Taken as a whole, Waiting for the Main Event is a statement about the human desire to believe in the impossible.  Linking neatly to the upcoming Showzam! festival of magic as well as the magic convention at the Winter Gardens, Payton confessed that she, like myself, wants to believe in magic.  It’s the audience’s willingness to believe which Payton alludes to in If you were in the middle of nowhere, on your own, and a stranger appeared as if by magic, and told you that they were a ______, a part of you, if not the whole of you would believe them (2012; from here on referred to as If you were…).  The title is a quote, Payton explained, vaguely remembered from the film Nightwatching (2007) by Peter Greenaway In her video, Payton appears to spin, like a disco ball, from the ceiling while she lets her arms fall down below her head, intermittenly reaching up to prevent her dress from revealing her pants.  This piece is reminiscent of her previous work, 13 Levitations which Payton told me was remarkably effective when exhibited at the Northern Gallery for Contemporary Art in Sunderland as the audience watched it in a dark room which was filled with stage smoke, so that the flashes of light remained imprinted on the retina for a short time.  In If you were… Payton points to the manipulation of timing in the success of an illusion.  If the audience is given sufficient time to observe levitation they soon begin to pick up on the physical signals which point to the methodology.

Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain (2013) provides a sparkling backdrop to the gallery space.  The material is over the top and immediately recognizable as belonging to the stage.  It points to the importance of dressing up an illusion, of creating cues which lead an audience to expect magic.  Derren Brown would no doubt hate the glittering fabric but it speaks to the many small details which help persuade an audience to take up the role of spectator rather than, say, performer.  This last point is all the more noticable in the reluctance felt to walking behind the curtain.  The rear part of the gallery, behind the curtain, feels off limits.  Only when invited to look through the curtain from the other side (it’s only transparent from one side so you can watch visitors but they can’t see you) did I feel permitted to cross that line.

The third exhibit, The Somnambulist (2013), is another video featuring Payton.  This time she is an androgynous face, whitened with thick make-up and wearing a black wig.  She drifts between snooze and sleep, with allusions to mesmerism and hypnosis.  Payton explained that she was inspired by another film, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) in which Cesare, a hypnotically-controlled somnambulist, is able to predict murders.  Payton’s film is particulary entrancing.  Her eyes move slowly beneath her eyelids.  She yawns.  Her eyes flick open very briefly.  All the while the audience concentrates intently on her face, waiting for communication, for a word or a wink.

The Idle Assistant (2013) is my favourite piece in the collection and features Payton, another curtain, lots of pink and an expanding ball.  She has perfected the thousand-yard stare for this film and sits forlornly, presumably off-stage, waiting for her moment to shine.  The subtext of this piece speaks to the obsession of magicians with the mystery of birth.  Rabbits from top hats, doves from sleeves, balls from cups – all of these are reminiscent of, as Payton put it, objects miraculously “appearing from dark holes”.  Once seen in this light, the assistant’s boredom becomes a humorous metaphor for both gestation and the commonplace aspect of this miracle which the magicians seek to emulate.

Incident (2013) completes the exhibition with another video, this time featuring an excitable chair which pokes fun at theories of mischievous creatures from the afterlife and TV shows such as Most Haunted.  Taken as a whole, this collection is an insightful and inventive exploration of the psychology behind illusion and the history of magic.  Payton is keen to further explore the nature of audience participation in, and desire for, illusion.  Keep an eye on her website for future exhibitions.

Waiting for the Main Event runs at Supercollider, 59 Cookston Street, Blackpool, from 8th February to 2nd March.

The gallery is open 12pm to 5pm, Wednesday to Saturday.

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