"The World as a Stage," the muddy new exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, calls theater its inspiration. Art has taken many cues from theater in the last 50 or so years. Spectacle and performance have crossed over from stages to galleries. Installation art may incorporate lighting and props. Beyond the art world, as the exhibit's title, from Shakespeare's "As You Like It," suggests, we're all staging some kind of artifice, whether it's on YouTube or just in conversation.
The problem with the exhibit is that it attempts to cover all these themes. Curators Jessica Morgan and Catherine Moore of the Tate Modern, where the show originated, have organized it in a haphazard fashion, so the ideas all run together and get lost.
The best art in "The World as a Stage," which claims to draw inspiration from London's rich theatrical tradition, brandishes a theatrical razzle-dazzle. Part of what makes it good is a delightful bait-and-switch with the audience, turning the viewer into the actor. This is the meatiest topic in the show.
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's moody and beautiful "Séance de Shadow II (bleu)" neatly collapses viewer into performer. Enter the dark, empty room, and you trigger lights near the floor, which throw your shadow up against a blue wall. The lights go on and off as others pass or as you stand still, and the play of shadows constantly changes. The intimate experience brings many of theater's magical qualities to the fore: the quiet, the darkening of the house, dramatic lighting, the sense of a performance before your eyes - and it's all the viewer's one-person-show.
When it comes to spectacle, Jeppe Hein's "Rotating Labyrinth" feels like an Op-Art merry-go-round come to life. Hein has erected mirrored pillars on turntables, one inside the next and spinning in opposite directions. It's dazzling to watch from the outside as reflections merge and separate. Step inside, and you're caught in a slow-moving mirrored hall, with the outside world regularly winking in. With all those reflections, once again the viewer becomes the actor.
"Arena," Rita McBride's enormous, curving set of bleachers, sits outside "Rotating Labyrinth." The placement suggests that "Labyrinth" is a stage and "Arena" the place for the audience, but the connection feels forced because the formal theatrical separation between stage and audience does not exist in a museum. "Arena" is as much a stage as "Labyrinth," just not nearly as fun and provocative.
Video art embraces both spectacle and performance. Jeremy Deller's stirring video "The Battle of Orgreave," for which he had locals re-enact a violent face-off that took place between police and miners during a miners' strike in Britain in the mid-1980s, is moving precisely because some of the re-enactors were involved in the strike. The staging was an ambitious piece of theater that entwined history, memory, the healing power of retelling a trauma, and landscape.
Andrea Fraser's video "Little Frank and His Carp" hilariously sends up the self-importance (and, indeed, theatricality) of museum audio tours - in this case, Guggenheim Bilbao's architectural tour. And Catherine Sullivan intricately choreographed seemingly random movements by stock characters (the muscleman, the damsel in distress) in "The Chittendens: The Resuscitation of Uplifting." It would make a comic live performance.
You could call Mario Ybarra Jr.'s "Sweeney Tate" a spectacle: It's a gaudy, tongue-in-cheek barbershop installation. What it has to do with theater, other than an offhand nod to Stephen Sondheim's ferocious barber, I don't know. The curators propose that the installation is like a stage set, but audience members don't usually walk onto stage sets.
Indeed, that's the central problem with Morgan and Moore's theatrical theme: Aside from such popular pabulum as "Joey & Maria's Comedy Italian Wedding" and "Blue Man Group," theater does not tend to be interactive; it does not invite the audience member to be an actor. Perhaps that's one reason why the work that most explicitly refers to theater, such as the bleacher seats in "Arena," falls flattest.
Ulla von Brandenburg's "Curtain," a re-creation of the patchwork curtain made for the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon in 1932, is another example. If it's supposed to generate the excitement, either in audience member or actor, of the moment before the curtain opens, it doesn't. It's just a pretty object hanging on a museum wall. Likewise, Renata Lucas's "Falha" is supposed to remind us of a temporary stage: It features plywood planks with handles and hinges, which you're invited to manipulate along the gallery floor. Really, it feels more like a trip to
The first piece of conceptual art I ever saw, when I was 15, was called "Play for a Found Cast." The audience showed up at a theater, and along with the program, each person was handed a numbered line to read. We sat staring at the empty stage until the artist, (who was my high school art teacher), read the first line. One by one, audience members stood up to recite their text, and the plot unfolded, telling the story of a group of frustrated theatergoers waiting for the curtain to rise. It was smart and subversive, cleverly turning the viewer into an actor.
That was back in the late 1970s, and it achieved most of what Morgan and Moore strive for here, effectively marrying art and theater. "Play for a Found Cast" was a performance piece, and the ICA has several site-specific performances scheduled during the run of "The World as a Stage." Go during one of those - it may be the best way to see the show.