Moping Owl: Playtime

Hope springs eternal, so the poet sings, or dum spiro spero, as that wise and prudent old bird, King Charles I, would put it, and he should know. But then again, true as truth may be, I have to say there are times, and these not the least of them, when it would seem to have shrunk to the merest trickle. Perhaps by the time you read this I may well have been proved mistaken – and oh how I do hope so – but please don’t go round to the bookie’s just yet, no matter how short the odds.

But at least Spring has sprung, just about, and the tendre croppes popped up here and there, and the yonge sonne come out now and again: just the time of year indeed, as that other old bird once sang, whan longen folk to goon doon to the pub again for a swift half or two, and then perhaps to take in a gallery and catch up on a bit of Art at last – get one’s eye in again, as it were.

And so, bifel it in that season on a day, it was in rather that hopeful frame of mind that I reached for the wagger pagger bagger (middle-English for waste-paper basket since you ask) to see what of interest might quite by chance have found its way there. For, if they’ve done little else throughout our national sequestration, our major cultural institutions have kept us more than well enough supplied with information, both on what they’re not doing and we’re not seeing. The aforesaid wpb is indeed a most useful item: no home should be without one.

But, oh, dear:  information is all very well, and has it place, but interest doesn’t necessarily dance attendance upon it, and I’m not sure I need have bothered. If what I found is true measure of what’s in store for us, I think I’ll stay put at the Goose & Dairymaid. For in the event, far from encouragement, several melancholy figures rose instead to flit through the pervading gloom, to remind me as they passed of what our cultural commissars and apparatchiks have now brought us to, and what we have lost – the ghosts as it were of Art Past, Present and To Come.

So what is it they mourn, these sad revenants? Can one be the Ghost of Skill and Craft, now sacrificed on the altar of Technology, the curatorial obsession with which has been long apparent but now grievously aggravated by the exigencies, excuses and opportunities afforded by the late confinement? And is another perhaps that of Particularity and Excellence, now abandoned in light of those fashionable imperatives, Diversity and Social Engineering, with their no less obsessive preoccupation with purity of thought and moral posturing? Gosh, here too come the shades of Judgement and Discrimination, forsaken in the name of Equivalence and Fairness; and that, too, of Scholarship, elbowed out long since by the fell demons of Accessibility, Relevance and Re-Interpretation. And saddest perhaps of all, at last come hand in hand those ghostly figures long forgotten, the Old Curator, the Artist and the Ordinary Visitor, each steeped in love for what Art actually is and whose only wish is to respond to it through their own eyes and minds.

If all that might sound a bit harsh, well, as I hinted at earlier, I’m not in the best of moods. But where to begin? Well, as good a place as any is the National Gallery, that temple to the rare and beautiful which, in all these respects, indeed often all at once, seems to have been especially busy.

I’m sure we can all agree both that the small study exhibitions of recent years, devoted often to a single painting, have been good things, and that that masterpiece of the Northern Renaissance, Jan Gossaert’s Adoration of the Kings of about 1510, one of the glories of the collection, is an entirely worthy subject for such treatment. Straight-forward scholarly presentation, however, would seem no longer to be enough.

More than an exhibition, Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, is an “immersive experience where (if experience has a local habitation – answer on one side of the paper only) visitors could (though perhaps for not much longer) journey through an interactive high-resolution image of a picture with sound, poetry and light in socially-distanced pods.” It sounds just the sort of thing that would have given those shepherds abiding in the fields all those years ago quite a turn, pretty well socially-distanced as they were anyway, I suppose, and no pod in sight. But fear not, for the good tidings I bring you are that the Director Gabriel, or one of his Seraphs perhaps, has had the whole thing re-imagined not just online but in a ‘mobile edition’.

So don’t say you haven’t been warned. “Six poems in the voice of King Balthasar, a character (and how we love ‘a character’) in the Adoration will interpret six scenes from the painting while, wonderful to behold, interactive sound brings them to life… Users will journey through the scenes, starting with the broken pavement and ending with the celestial angels, using touch to zoom (no, it’s not that funny) into visual details they may have missed… They can also share their favourite details on Instagram (behave yourselves)… Data analysis will be used to help understand more about how visitors interact with paintings on their phones” I’m not often lost for words, as you know, but I shall struggle on.

“The fair Miss Emma McFairyland, Innovation Programme Lead, whatever that is, says: ‘Our aim … is to create enjoyable, meaningful experiences which engage new and diverse audiences with the collection in different ways’:” and you can’t say fairer than that and I’m sure they will. “The mobile experience brings together sound, images, poetry and interaction, doubtless boggling both mind and knees, to explore (of course) the themes of rupture, transformation and renewal through (and here things get a bit metaphysical) the perspective of King Balthasar (and here you might reasonably raise an eyebrow, or even two), a witness to Christ’s birth.” But we pass on.

Collaborators in this worthy enterprise “include Nick Ryan and Theresa Lola, former Young People’s Laureate, who wrote and voiced, if that’s the word we’re searching for, the poems. Ryan is globally renowned (of course he is) for creating experiences that push the boundaries (and here we get metaphysical again) of listening besides engaging new audiences with audio.” So there. “Technical analysis has revealed the skill which the artist put into the picture.” Where would we be without technical analysis? “There is a considerable amount of underdrawing and Gossaert has made a great many changes at all stages.” Well, fancy that. Who would have thought it. Such skill. Well I never.

I think it’s time to follow the wise example of King Balthasar and his Chums and depart into our own country another way.