Deborah Warner
Manchester International Festival
The Factory, Manchester

Manchester from Kersal Moor Credit: William Wyld
Arcadia Credit: Andrew Brooks

Arcadia, Deborah Warner’s new sound and light installation at The Factory, was inspired partly by a painting of Manchester by William Wyld. The painting depicts balance between rural and urban living; the atmosphere is peaceful with rustic figures backed by fields and skies in ravishing colours. The industrial revolution seems far-off with rows of polluting factory chimneys in the far distance. If one was so inclined, it might be possible to detect an ominous hint of menace—the chimneys representing an encroachment upon paradise—but largely the painting gives a positive impression of the balance between country and town lifestyles.

Warner’s approach is not so benign. Her installation is based in The Factory, which will serve as a base for the Manchester International Festival but is currently still under construction. Arcadia, therefore, is squeezed in over a weekend between the end of construction works on Friday and their re-commencement on Monday. The unfinished nature of the site is apparent—the floors are rough concrete, full of puddles and with uneven walkways. As such, it represents the urban or industrial landscape—being shaped by intent and effort rather than evolving naturally as might be the case in a rural setting.

Mike Gunning’s lighting, with the exception of the brightly lit centrepiece, rarely rises above twilight. In the gloom, the audience moves around a series of glowing domes / tents (coloured orange and occasionally blue) while extracts from poems on the theme of nature echo around the site read by leading actors and musicians. It feels like a deliberately alien environment has been created within the mundane background of a construction site. There is a foreboding mood—the site may be peaceful at the moment, but you know it is going to revert to being busy and noisy again in the near future.

The centrepiece is taken from the natural, rural environment but feels just as much out of place as the glowing domes. Surrounded by screens comparing the Wyld painting with photographs of the current view from which it was painted, a pair of actors bring to life the scene shown in the painting. The stage upon which they are performing, however, is a chunk of earth that looks like it has been violently ripped out of the landscape. Not only are grass and flowers present but so too is a tree (for once the advertising for a show does not exaggerate) and the soil and roots are clearly visible. It looks like an example of the rural environment has been rudely extracted and dropped into an urban setting. The effect is unsettling—it feels like being at a zoo and observing a rare exhibit in an inappropriate setting.

Audience members take seriously the request to enjoy a period of quiet contemplation. Wandering around the dimly lit site, one has to be careful not to step on those who are sitting, lost in thought.

The point of the Arcadia installation may be peace and calm are not natural features of a busy urban environment and cannot be taken for granted. Therefore, some effort (reading poetry or listening to relaxing ambient music) or even adaptation (importing features more natural to a rural area) must be made to achieve serenity in such a setting. Having made an effort to shape the environment into a state suitable for industry or commerce, it becomes necessary to make further adaptations to allow for recreation or reflection.

Part of the motivation in visiting Arcadia is the chance to glimpse inside the MIF’s future base. In the current unfinished state, and late at night when the visit took place, it is hard to visualise the final form; but the sheer scale demonstrates the ambition of the MIF. Such a massive area offers the potential for impressive exhibitions and shows, and the quality of Arcadia gives hope these may be achieved.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

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