Winter Sparks – FACT Liverpool

Said to be exploring and blurring the line between art and science, Winter Sparks is the genuinely terrifying final show at FACT this year.  With its simple theme, limited number of artists and large space dedicated to few but enormous works, it acts as a polar opposite to many recent exhibitions in Liverpool that have crammed as much as they can into one space.

All of the work is referencing ideas displayed by pioneering inventor Nikola Tesla; a theme that is unambiguous and relatively straightforward.  This in itself is an interesting aspect of the show.  A theme that is obviously visible and enjoyable without having to ponder the works to excess to find a connection.  The works are also very interactive, allowing the viewer to become immersed in their crackling worlds of technology and electricity.

The first piece on show is one that is of two halves.  Peter Bosch & Simone Simons Wilberforces, is a creature like machine that hangs from the ceiling of the atrium.  Attached at the bottom off three springs are a camera and two speakers that spin and whirl of their own accord with horrific attainments to consciousness.  The speakers utter out high pitched dins and growls, invading the spaces of the cafe, no doubt baffling the casual coffee drinkers.  The piece’s full effect isn’t realised until entering the dark space at the back of the building where the live feed of the camera and sound is being played.  This opens up a voyeuristic effect, not just on the part of the viewer but also on the part of machine.  At the right time, the camera can zoom down on an unsuspecting passerby who will no doubt look straight up, as if unnerved by the machine being watched.  All the piece needs is a small red light on its camera to become a hyper active, antisocial version HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Gallery 2 houses Alexandre Burton’s Impacts; a collection of steam-punk equipment firing out electrical sparks and light to astonishing effect.  The Dickensian feeling of the “ghost in the machine” feel starts come to the fore here, those old folk stories of what electricity really was and what it could do, exaggerated to supernatural lengths.  Burton’s work plays on this and is at once beautiful and unnerving.  The Tesla coils are in themselves beautiful but create some amazing effects through their use as technology as well as their physicality.  They generate electrical sparks and shocks to a musical effect, creating rhythms and light that are scarily powerful and give the impression they could jump from the coils and kill at any moment.

The final piece in the show is Edwin van der Heide’s Evolving Spark.   Apart from having a brilliantly appropriate name, van der Heide’s work takes the huge space of Gallery 1 and makes it feel like walking into a generator.  The ceiling is covered with a grid of sparks that light up the dark room and sound off with loud fizzles and crackles to increasing and repetitive rhythms (partly interactive).  At first the sparks seem random (and are very loud, occasionally inducing a jump) but they start to reduce the viewer into a catatonic state as the rhythm of light and sound builds, even at times sounding like a militaristic march.  Some would say it has the feel of an indoor firework display but that simply doesn’t do it justice.  The obvious coos of a loud bang with colour are taken into a form that actually gives them a meaning and is the most immersive work that Liverpool has seen for years.

Winter Sparks makes the most of its ghost in the machine.  This spectre is beautiful, terrifying and entertaining but most of all, it takes the viewer out of the reality of the city and places them in a space that is almost fantastical in its execution.  If only more spaces would take the same risks.

Adam Scovell

Images from FACT by Brian Slater.

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