Review: Blake-inspired LiveFriday at the Ashmolean

It’s cold, it’s wet and I feel overdressed. Huddled masses look to the entrance with wavering optimism. Ah, the weekly pilgrimage to Wahoo, you say. No. I’m at the Ashmolean’s ‘Live Friday’ inspired by Blake’s ‘The Marriage of Heaven and Hell’. Why? Well, firstly the good times really do roll and, secondly, everybody will genuinely want to come back for more.

The Wahoo comparison does bear out. Like Wahoo, the dimly-lit rooms of the Ashmolean are brimming with curious eyes. They amass in rings, their gazes transfixed on the centre. However, unlike Wahoo, the reason isn’t booze, insecurity, or boredom. The museum has arranged a series of creative activities which participants crowd around to have a go: everything from mirror writing to secret confessions. My Blake-inspired pencil drawing at one workshop certainly brought back memories of childhood as potently as Wahoo’s end-of-the-night nostalgia tracks.

It is undeniably magical to explore the walkways and staircases of the Ashmolean at night. It’s a museum particularly suited to such wanderings. The layout of the galleries feels almost purposefully designed for you to get lost in. So when you stumble into one of the many events scattered around, it becomes all the more intriguing.

This does mean, however, that by the end I feel slightly disorientated, like the haziness of waking up from a dream. It’s a feeling which works perfectly for the curators, who make constant reference to ideas of illusion and reality in the exhibit. In the baroque gallery, you play a game called ‘Fake or Blake’, where quotes from Madonna and Blake and Bob Dylan are interspersed with Blake’s poetry. To our shame, as a crowd we could hardly tell the difference. Another gallery is dedicated to optical illusions and magic, the next to shadow puppetry.

It is a testament to the organisers that the event does not feel like a gimmick; it’s not a scene from Ben Stiller’s dying career. Rather, a genuine atmosphere is created by a multitude of small and well thought out touches which compliment the William Blake: Apprentice & Master exhibition. When you see a demonic figure gazing at you from a glass walkway above, fantasy and reality start to come surprisingly close.

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Even the permanent collection is given a new intrigue by the sense of occasion. Quite what sort of occasion it is is still not clear to me. Half art workshop, half party, half theatre, half demented fantasy, it is perhaps best summed up by the huge crowd which lines the central stairs at the end and breaks out into a booming rendition of ‘Jerusalem’. I’ll take that over ‘Call Me Maybe’.