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Review: Intimacies, after Vallotton

Clementine Scott reviews Paper Moon's innovative audio-visual exhibition.

In 1890s Paris, Swiss-French artist Félix Vallotton’s striking, monochrome woodcut series known as Intimités captured all the illicit affairs and longing glances of his aristocratic belle époque subjects. Put simply, his work explored the ways in which they related to one another, and the nature of intimacy itself. Ever ambitious in its approach to what art and theatre can be, Oxford production company Paper Moon aims with its new exhibition Intimacies, after Vallotton not only to apply Vallotton’s vision to a contemporary Black British setting, but also to combine innovatively Paul Majek’s Vallotton-inspired artworks with a series of piercing duologues by student playwright Sam Spencer.

Spencer’s writing, which one can listen to at the Old Fire Station exhibition either by scanning QR codes or with a traditional audioguide, is remarkable in its ability to cut to the heart of what makes the relationship between two people unique, without ever being unsubtle or overly literal. Against the backdrop of Majek’s enigmatic blue-toned figures, Spencer, with the help of a multi-roling, all-Black voice cast playing a broad spectrum of characters, reveals tantalising glimpses of these figures’ lives. Among them, a woman and her girlfriend both give individual testimonies of a relationship on the brink; in the light of cultural and career tensions, two nannies discuss bemusedly their wealthy charges; a pair of exes veer towards closure. 

Both the audio and visual aspects of the exhibition are rich with ambiguity. Spencer’s use of subtle verbal cues and meaningful pauses, combined with the disembodied effect of an audio recording, sometimes conceal from the listener quite what’s going on until halfway through. Similarly, Majek’s paintings, made up of rapid streaks of paint upon a rough wooden canvas such that the figure appears ‘barely there’ and can sometimes only be seen from certain angles, have a similarly fragmentary effect. 

The viewer thus feels like an observer and an intruder, invited into personal, private interactions which we don’t fully grasp. These interactions strike a tough balance, feeling simultaneously so specific to an individual that an outside observer cannot understand them in their full context, yet so universal in their view of human relationships that one is left with further questions rather than shame at the intrusion. The connections between the art and the writing are also pleasingly non-literal — rather than simply depicting whoever happens to be speaking in the audio, Majek seems with his ghost-like figures to be creating certain archetypes, a visual aid to the observations Spencer makes about the human condition.

Situated in the grey area between the theatre, the radio, and the art gallery, Intimacies is inherently interactive, and creates a (fittingly) intimate connection between art and viewer, as one can choose which work they listen to, which artwork they observe, and where in the gallery they stand. There is no set order in which the viewer must listen to the duologues as they move around the gallery; this has the effect of a tapestry being gradually revealed, as one hears Spencer returning to imagery familiar from an earlier piece, and wonders if the duologues are at all connected (is the couple on the brink of divorce in one piece the same couple experiencing the first signs of tension in another?). In some ways, however, this effect is undermined if one listens on the audioguide rather than on a smartphone, since this will in fact play the duologues in a set order, making them feel more ‘fixed’ and less ambiguous in their relationship to one another.

Intimacies raises more questions than it answers: about the ways in which we communicate, about how an outside observer can understand them, how theatre and visual art can enhance one another, and how a work can be rooted in historical inspirations like Vallotton while also building upon them. The show demonstrates great promise in Majek and Spencer, and also is a welcome sign of innovative, unconventional approaches to theatre being taken by student companies like Paper Moon.

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