The theatre backdrop is an artistic form often overlooked, but the overlooked is what Turkish artist Ayse Erkmen specialises in. Her previous work includes ‘Plan B’, the recreation of a working water filtration system, turned into a gallery installation – putting backstage mechanics in the spotlight.
This time, she’s literally backstage, in the Barbican’s Curve Gallery, which runs behind the venue’s concert hall. Erkmen picks up the theatrical theme with an exhibition of eleven theatre backdrops – newly painted recreations of designs dating back to the nineteenth century from theatre and opera productions including Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Mikado’ and Donizetti’s opera ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’. It’s as if she’d discovered them in the dusty archives of an old theatre.
The cloths are hung in random sequence in the corridor-like space, and automatically raised and lowered, periodically blocking the spectator’s path. The interest is not so much in the cloths themselves – although a deep blue sky with wispy clouds invites reverie, and a murky staircase inspired by Turner is broodingly atmospheric – but in the process of walking through them: the stop-start journey as your steps are interrupted by the falling cloth, and by the teasing reveal of other spectators standing behind the cloths as they raise.
In the white-walled space of the gallery, this theatrical idea lacks a bit of drama. But, kids are bound to take it as a challenge. Maybe there’ll be some limbo dancing. And expect at least one person to play out their Indiana Jones fantasies, rolling under the lowering cloth just in the nick of time.