Parfums Pourpres du Soleil des Poles @ South London Gallery 27th Jan 2011

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If every human brain functioned perfectly, there would be no psychosis. Nor would there be genius, or other more gentle forms of psychological variation. Synesthesia; the automatic process of linking one sense to another is often considered to be a departure from conventional neurological functioning. Yet according to physician Oliver Sacks, it is in fact inducible in anyone with the correct dose of drugs or hypnosis. ‘Parfums Pourpres du Soleil des Pôles’ was a performance inspired by the synesthesic experience.

It sold out South London Gallery for this one off event, with many audience members drawn by the involvement of German visual artist Ulla Von Brandenburg, who is well known in the city after recent exhibitions at Chisenhale Gallery and Pilar Corrias. Its minimal staging featured three reed organs in triangular formation, adjacent to a table fitted with anglepoise lamps, a video camera and a collection of playing card size colour swatches in around thirty shades. Over the course of its hour duration a soundtrack of semi-improvised drone music was interpreted for the audience by synaesthesist Claude-Samuel Lévine, who choreographed a moving image that passed through various linear formations. Occasionally the glare from the lamplight merged with certain compositional elements, to infer works by reputed synaesthesists such as Paul Klee or Wassily Kandinsky. Yet the work’s formal simplicity distanced it from the more reactionary modernist embellishments that these abstract painters might imply.

As a solo artist, Von Brandenburg is best known for her deconstruction of theatre, reducing narrative stage sets to chorographical minimalism, as in her 2007 work ‘Singplay’ performed at Tate Modern (for which Laurent Montaron also wrote the music). Von Brandenburg refers to this work as a tableau vivant, French for living picture. It unpacks the theatrical relationship between song and gesture, in a way that might be said to precede the disconnect between visual and sonic elements in ‘Parfums Pourpres du Soleil des Pôles’.


Live event at the South London Gallery

However the correlation between sound and image in this performance was never totally apparent. At times the synaesthesist’s colour palette appeared to have its own independent vigour, responding to something beyond the sonic stimulus. While some audience members were frustrated by this disjuncture, I found it fascinating and was happy to passively observe the process, be it synaesthetic or otherwise. After all, the real beauty in ‘Parfums Pourpres du Soleil des Pôles,’ was not in its diagrammatic depiction of neurological functioning, but its reminder to us of the deep impossibility of replicating subjective human experience. If you want to understand synaesthesia, you might follow Oliver Sacks advise and get hypnotised. If you want to understand the unending complexity of retelling human sensuality, follow my advice and try to see this work.

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