In the Beginning Was the End

Tristan Sharp
Somerset House

In the Beginning Was the End Credit: Emma Critchley
In the Beginning Was the End Credit: Emma Critchley
In the Beginning Was the End Credit: Emma Critchley
In the Beginning Was the End Credit: Emma Critchley

When dreamthinkspeak was last at Somerset House, in the opposite wing in 2004, they combined the Orpheus legend with the building’s former history as Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Their latest creation, conceived and directed by Tristan Sharp, is much more difficult to interpret.

The show’s publicity says its inspiration lies in Leonardo da Vinci and the biblical Book of Revelation and there is a hint of apocalyptic drama and confusion in the first scenes. The Leonardo link seems to be with the idea of the scientist and inventor and perhaps the contrast between the warlike uses of his machines, the cold cut of his anatomist’s dissecting knife and the sublimity of his drawing.

The very title seems to be an allusion to the Book of Revelations, to the “great voice out of heaven that twice declares “I am Alpha and Omega. The beginning and the end.” We have all come through last year’s prediction of the world’s end unscathed but is this intended as another warning of where we are heading?

There is certainly an apocalyptic aura around the whey-faced black garbed guardians who bar the way, sit like watchful monitors or eyes-downcast point the way down to Hell or up to Heaven like Leonard’s Louvre St John the Baptist (the only direct reference that I registered).

These figures may restrict your wandering but for most of this exploration you choose your own path. Some doors are locked, some open, sometimes what you hear may lead you onward; sometimes someone will welcome or entreat you. There is no strict sequence, no linear narrative.

Each visitor’s journey can be a different one. Some locations may remain undiscovered, some episodes missed because you were there at the wrong moment. I certainly saw nothing to match the promotional image and, from the “programme” you don’t get until you leave, certainly seem to have missed at least one episode.

At times you are exploring subterranean Somerset House or gazing out of its elegant windows at its amber-lit courtyard but you are also in the offices and laboratories of an electronics company. This is not site-specific in the sense of the local. In fact the company now describes itself as “site-responsive”. They work internationally and this production does not depend on specific language or location. It could be adapted to any location that offers similar contrasting spaces.

From the discovery of some kind of financial collapse and a physical catastrophe, escape leads to rooms full of discarded electronics, cabinets that once held components, a shattered disaster zone but then a room where a boffin is still working, where you can turn knobs and tweak waveforms, catch sight of yourself in a monitor.

Move on and suddenly everything is alright again. You become visitors on a company open day. This is world where English is not the main language. The management seem to speak Italian, the scientists—or are they sales people—Spanish, Greek, Chinese as they demonstrate products. There is the voice of the perfect companion that you can have a row with or programme to always put you in the right.

There is self-targeting miniature weaponry and robots that make an ideal pet, a crèche full of them. You pass through Customer Services, where every computer screen seems to be carrying a letter of apology for a product gone wrong—and that is where things hot up.

There is an advance warning of both male and female nudity. Is this Leonardo’s Vitruvean Man reinstating himself (and herself?) wresting things back from a mad world of machines? Is that sequence of people clicking the remote and, if I’ve got it right, seeing themselves on the television where we have already arrived?

Sometimes you will find something you’ve already caught a view of on video, or even in maquette form. Is that video live and happening elsewhere in the building? When it keeps on repeating one wonders if perhaps all the humans are dead now? A broken machine keeps saying “Sorry”.

But there are other spaces: dark tunnels echoing with sweet sounds, a passage panelled with stars, rooms empty and elegant, and filled with music. But beware: there is a giant around that corner, has it got power? Who controls it? Or perhaps it is powerless; those days are over.

Each visitor must find their own story, their own meaning. For myself I would prefer ideas made a little more explicit, but then I like a story. I find watching episodes played out on television screens and without sound not very engaging but I am full of admiration for the live actors, engaging and clear in intention even when their language is not one you know—and totally in character, not even registering they know members of the audience personally as happened on press night. Bravo!

There is pleasure in simply exploring what are usually private spaces, though what you get from the installations may hugely depend on what you bring with you. One last final image seems to be trying to reconcile technology and nature before sending you up into the real world outside but it could also be a genuine site-specific glance back to the first Elizabethan house here. It is an appropriate finale.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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