‘It’s not who you are, it’s how you are’

By Olivia Howcroft

Alice Theobald’s first solo exhibition at the BALTIC Centre wants to intrigue and to unsettle you in a mysterious way.  It is questions the ideas of domesticity, routine, along with the poignant themes of estrangement and association. Atomik Architecture’s contribution is core to these themes. They are a young practice of architects and designers based in London, Almaty and Kazakhstan, who focus their energy on creating stimulating, intuitive and beautifully constructed designs. Their belief in the portrayal of human relationships throughout a lifetime, is a key feature in the ‘It’s not who you are, it’s how you are’ exhibition.

Upon walking into the exhibition, you are taken through a series of wooden edifices, cushioned with white duvets, where the words ‘it’s not who you are, it’s how you are’ encircle you. These duvets are thick and pristine white, indicating the human to desire to make where we reside more homely. Standing in the centre of the edifices, surrounded by these cloud-like duvets, creates a sense dreaminess and melancholic reverence, an atmosphere heightened by the accompanying music, composed by Theobald. A prominent theme in Theobald’s exhibition is the role of the house as a shield against problems that are potentially too painful to face, and this is portrayed through the materials used. The exhibition shows our attempts to cushion ourselves from the hard impact of reality, to cushion the confrontation between our own thoughts and those of the outside world.

At the top of each of the structures of the exhibition, there are white washed glass panels with crude writing resembling what you’d expect to see on a white van. ‘Yes’ is the only word that can be made out, as everything else appears to be illegible scrawlings. I wonder if this is intentional, an indication of how the artist admonishes voyeurism or feels that some thoughts should remain unreadable. There is a sense od dereliction, of loneliness and lack of love, themes that are expressed strongly in the music that accompanies the work.

Theobald’s musical score is the most striking component of the exhibition for me. The music comprises three main sections on a loop, coupled with confusing and seemingly random questions asked by the performers. The choral section has a simplistic melody, and is followed by an interlude of delicate piano melody, and a section where live performers ask questions.

The latter section starts with a slow and solemn feel as the first questions appear to be merely ponderous contemplations, but these questions quickly intensify accompanied by unexpected twists, turns and intricacies in the music. The listener is bombarded with questions from someone whose mind is obviously racing, questions such as ‘What’s your position?’ ‘Sometimes I forget’ ‘where to go and how to be and how to hold myself’ ‘with your own arms’ ‘too heavy alone.’ These questions are personal and perplexing and are undoubtedly an effective way of engaging the viewer.

Theobald’s composition is effective, the viewer is taken out of their comfort zone by the sudden changes in the mood and the then subsequent relapse back into the steady, predictable pattern of melody. The addition of minor chords highlights how we are at risk of being emotionally dependant on others, and being unnerved by the responses of those around us.

Domesticity is a prominent theme in the exhibition, is the home is too safe and familiar to the point where it can become monotonous and choreographed? Theobald explores this question through the words uttered in the composition ‘I’m getting tired’ I’m getting sick’ ‘we need some limitations, some boundaries’ and through the movements of the performer, chosen by Theobald, who walks along the centre of a stage in an unnatural daze; it is clear that his every movement has been choreographed. Theobald is presenting us with the idea of how something that was once deemed creative can lose its individuality, as it has been taken up by the masses.

The exhibition is short yet unmistakably thought provoking, asking questions about social and individual estrangement, alienation, exile, and homelessness. The way in which such a complex and vast array of ideas is portrayed in such a simple way is impressive and makes the exhibition an accessible and enlightening experience.

Until the 10th April 2016

Photo Credit: Jacqui Duan


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