John Cage’s Musicircus

by the English National Opera at the London Coliseum

3rd March 2012

When invited to an event that even the person inviting me doesn’t know what to expect what am I to do other than check my calendar and say ‘sure’. John Cage is not an artist I was familiar with and the event was something that I was unlikely to have discovered myself.

The ‘Happening’, as the program describes it, was a temporal, spacial and sensory collage. In short a collection of art, musical and visual performances. The event was spread across most of the building with about a douzen rooms and corridors filled with installations, musicians and performers. We wandered moving from complete bewilderment to a sense of comprehension picking up on threads and ideas as we went.

The performances ranged from choral and classical music through to abstract and surreal visual performances. There were orators reading various works, mime and other visual artists. There were props and pieces of art ranging from simple pictures to a monkey suspended from the ceiling.

The themes of mushrooms, time and chance were throughout. Each person’s experiences would differ as the performances were chosen at random (typically by dice) and as some of the performers moved about.

I was glad to have been invited and it was an impactful event. I may investigate Cage further. However, is what makes good art what makes a good experience? My interpretation of the work falls into the same category as mine of Andy Warhol; I like the ideas presented, but I am unsure of the art itself.

I would recommend the work to people who like their preconceptions and senses challenged, but personally I would have preferred a more interactive environment. You always felt like an observer. A couple of the artists involved the audience, but even this felt as if it was being done to you. Although chance was a large part of the concept I wonder if the event could have been improved with some form of narrative; something that increases its complexity when discussed with other attendees.

Perhaps the linear route we had to travel had something to do with it. You couldn’t really explore. Given the theme of chance, this was a major limitation. I do not know whether this was intended or due to the venue. An open plan exhibition centre with freer movement would have changed the nature of the interactions.

Regardless of niggles over the implementation I was glad to have gone. It was an interesting event and the concept will stick with me. How can the success of this show be measured other than to say that I definitely came of in a different state of mind than when I went in.

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