A ladder hangs from the gallery ceiling amid a collection of props draped on slender sticks … a stage without actors. Corin Sworn’s ‘Silent Sticks’ (2015) at Whitechapel Gallery leads the visitor on a ghost tour of 16th century Italian theatre.
Corin Sworn is the recipient of the Max Mara Art Prize for women, a biannual award designed to promote emerging women artists in the UK. Sworn, based in Scotland, proposed to complete a research residency and artwork inspired by the tradition of Commedia dell’arte. Commedia dell’arte, a style of improvisational theatre that originated in 16th century Italy, was known for acting troupes that traveled throughout the Mediterranean performing in varied settings from the street to royal courts. Sworn’s ‘Silent Sticks’ takes inspiration from the nomadic nature of these troupes, specifically their dependence on props, minimal set design, recognisable narrative tropes and the theme of mistaken identity.
The result of Sworn’s research is a mélange of objects, film and audio that give clues to the theatrical tradition they describe but in their very construction reveal illusions of the past and present. A wardrobe complete with hangers and costumes break up a sea of instruments, crowns, tables and street signs that are strategically placed and draped on sticks across the set. The objects are organised on two sides of the room accompanied by a video screen on each side. The screens depict female acrobats. The acrobats bend and twist, sometimes with each other, with rope or in solo movements. While the videos play, a male voice narrates.
But as one listens, the narrative begins to break down revealing a lack of clarity, delusion and even trickery. Upon closer inspection, props are not always what they seem, a horn is made out of felt and a crown made out of twigs. Further while the film and audio successfully work to re-insert the body and gender into an otherwise faceless collection, they are continually interrupted by text that appears on the video screens. Words flash before the viewer as Sworn reminds us of the perils of language, disrupting and chaining the body to class, material goods and societal structure.
The theatrical strategy of objects and costumes to convey a narrative, theme or deceive the audience is used to the extreme by Sworn. However, the choice of display, props and costumes on sticks, underlines that the objects are the ‘stars’ of the transient space. For the title, ‘Silent Sticks’, is reminiscent of another Italian avant-garde movement, Arte Povera. Mario Merz used the same phrase to describe the importance of materials and objects in relation to culture and nature.
Our eerie ghost tour of historical Italy is about more than fooling the audience or evoking the past. Our attention shifts from what is missing to what these objects come to stand for: namely a vehicle for the flow and flux of a migratory economy of exchange … the movement of bodies, spaces and things.