Author: Richard Cork

Publication: Financial Times

Press Date: September 10, 2012

Visitors to a strange building in north-west London are taken on an extraordinary journey in this Artangel-sponsored multimedia show.

Escaping from London’s traffic-torn Kilburn High Road, where police and ambulance sirens assail my ears, I walk down Cambridge Avenue towards one of the strangest buildings in the city. Although constructed as a chapel during the 1860s, this uncompromising edifice now provides a home for the Willesden & St Marylebone Sea Cadets. But everyone in the neighbourhood calls it The Tin Tabernacle, and I can understand why. The whole building has been smothered in grimy sheets of corrugated iron, so that it looks like the battered survivor of a war zone. But the Sea Cadets’ rousing motto is emblazoned on the front door: “Ready Aye Ready.” Announcing a gung-ho determination to sail off anywhere, it prepares me for the extraordinary journey on which visitors to The Tin Tabernacle can now embark.

Lindsay Seers was commissioned to produce Nowhere Less Now by Artangel, an organisation that encourages artists to present their most ambitious and unlikely projects in surprising locations, and she has transformed the interior of The Tin Tabernacle into an upside-down ship. After entering the space and taking my seat on some hard wooden stairs, I am greeted by the remains of a Bofors anti-aircraft gun rearing beside me. Putting on a headset, I realise that two enormous circular screens – one concave, the other convex – dominate my vision. The lights go down, and Seers proceeds to unleash a multimedia tour de force that uses sound, video, photography, performance and animation.

A voice confesses: “I always felt like I was looking for something.” Someone else asserts that “The sea has a memory,” and that “The dead live with us.” The starting point for Seers’ epic expedition seems to have been her discovery that she was born precisely 100 years after the birth of her great-great uncle George Edwards. But nothing is at all straightforward in this perpetually mystifying installation. She shows a photograph of Edwards taken on board a ship while he was serving with the British merchant navy in Zanzibar. He tried to liberate slaves, and ended up drowning. Some of the sailors in subsequent images are black, and Seers ensures that they play significant roles in the photographic material, together with animated figures on the move in a fast-changing African society.

She cannot, however, be pinned down to a single set of concerns. In one close-up shot, Edwards gazes towards the future with two different coloured eyes. Perhaps the two screens Seers uses in this mesmeric show reflect her belief that Edwards’ unusual ocular condition has something to do with an unborn twin. His eyes were probably the starting point for many of the abstract images now appearing on the screens. Yet these forms are also redolent of planets suspended in the cosmos, and Seers plays with ideas of a world darting restlessly between past, present and future.

At one crucial point she decides to visit Zanzibar and find out more. Archives preserved there yield further photographs of the context that Edwards inhabited, and Seers shares them with us. Even so, Nowhere Less Now lives up to its confusing, disconsolate title. The more she unearths, the less she comprehends. Travelling in Edwards’ wake between the islands off Africa’s east coast, Seers becomes obsessed by “the sense of a stranger always within”. On one of two islands called The Twins, she discovers his inscription in an ancient baobab tree, accompanied by the names of two vessels in the British fleet: Dragon and Kingfisher. An ominous voice on the headset announces: “I have to make a sacrifice near the sacred pools.” Perhaps Seers arrived at this decision after learning that the islands in this archipelago were believed to be the centre of witchcraft in East Africa. At any rate, a figure dressed as Edwards’ wife Georgina appears, with a whitened face and darkened eyes, attired in a black and gold costume. She breaks the head of a cockerel and then severs it to draw out the blood.

By this time, reality and fantasy have become as hard to separate as past and future. Sitting inside the upturned ship in Kilburn, I listen to the sound of distant and intimate voices while staring at the magical yet tantalising images appearing and vanishing on the two screens. The vessel constructed here in The Tin Tabernacle grows more and more like a ghost ship. A voice murmurs: “It’s like the end of the world.” And soon afterwards, both screens become empty at last. Now they are dark, and quiet descends before the lights are switched back on. Re-merging from the chapel, I realise that Seers has dramatised her multi-layered journey to haunt her audience like a macabre, unforgettable dream.