Space exploitation

Staging an exhibition in an unorthodox space can offer more creative freedom to designers than a permanent venue, but it is rarely a simple undertaking. Fiona Sibley looks at two events that seek to make the most of their locations

For exhibition designers, one of the ways to an audience’s heart is through the impact and drama created using space. Then occasionally, works of such a rare, unusual quality come along that they demand particular treatments in their own right, and curators begin to look beyond standard gallery spaces for some added wow factor.

This is the case with two new exhibitions due to open in unusual locations next month. The first is the eagerly anticipated loan of Terracotta Army warriors from Xi’an, China, to London’s British Museum. These were excavated last century from the burial of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, and will form the showpiece of an exhibition about Shihuangdi’s reign, The First Emperor.

A team including design group Metaphor and architect Purcell Miller Tritton was tasked with creating an exceptional dramatic fanfare for the warriors, within the old British Library Reading Room, which stands in the centre of the Norman Foster-designed Great Court. ‘It’s an extraordinary space that ups the ante, and offers much more than a black box exhibition space,’ says Metaphor creative director Stephen Greenberg. ‘Our job was to work out how to build up to the drama.’

The circular, domed building, once frequented by literary greats, has been transformed over five months – no easy task as the Grade I-listed structure contains fixed desks, designed by original architect Sydney Smirke, peripheral bookshelves and integrated heating and ventilation. This all had to be carefully protected and encased behind a temporary platform and a fabric screen around the circumference, with equipment brought in to moderate humidity and temperature.

For Metaphor, much planning went into ‘working out how people get in, how they queue and how to get them accustomed to the very low light levels’, says Greenberg. Visitors reach the platform by a staircase and then, once inside, ‘the screen around the edge acts as a cyclorama, like a Chinese scroll, upon which projections will tell the narrative of the emperor’s two lives, one earthly, one spiritual’, he adds.

After perambulating the drum-shaped room, adorned with graphics by design group Lucy or Robert and films by Newangle, visitors will come to the warriors in the centre. ‘On site in China, visitors view the warriors from a distance, but here they will be able to walk among them,’ says Greenberg.

It’s a twin coup for the museum – testing a new use for the Reading Room following the relocation of the British Library to new premises, and harnessing its architecture to amplify this display. Metaphor worked hard to achieve the right balance between the exhibits and the Reading Room’s spectacular domed roof. ‘The most effective exhibitions are those that combine sound, architecture, film and graphics,’ Greenberg believes.

This maxim should also apply across town in London’s Trafalgar Square, when a show by the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Beck’s appears in a specially commissioned ‘pod’. This purpose-built touring space will host Beck’s Fusions, a show of newly commissioned work by ten multimedia artists, which will travel to Dublin, Manchester and Glasgow during September.

The pod will be a free-standing circular structure, made using two 18m ‘orbit’ stages joined together to create a dome. Visitors will arrive in the centre of the space via a tunnel, and find themselves surrounded by a panoramic display of projected, immersive video artworks, playing out on 16 screens.

Ten artists, including Erik van Lieshout, Graham Dolphin and Clare Langhan, have produced new works featuring their responses to songs. ‘In this multimedia age we’re starting to see artists experimenting with other genres. We’re celebrating this by bringing together big names from both the art and music worlds, in a series of pioneering events,’ says Nicola Gates, Beck’s senior brand manager.

Jane and Louise Wilson filmed empty landscapes in an old shipyard in Tyneside and a desert in Khazakstan, to accompany a Cat Power version of a song by Fairport Convention. ‘The idea is that the songs provide a way in by being familiar, but they are all reworkings so they will be slightly unfamiliar versions. The visuals add another layer,’ says curator David Metcalfe at Forma.

The decision to locate this experience in a one-off structure enables Beck’s to bring about a fusion between genres.

On 9 September, the pod will be transformed into an open-air stage, for musicians The Chemical Brothers to play a live set accompanied by lasers and visuals by a line-up of multimedia artists. The pod will then revert to the immersive gallery for its tour of the country.

Exciting stuff, but staging an exhibition in an unorthodox space is rarely a simple undertaking. In the case of The First Emperor, ‘The most radical thing was actually deciding to do the project,’ says Michael Morrison of Purcell Miller Tritton. Acquiring listed-building consent was just one of a string of tasks needed to bring the project to fruition.

It may be a major undertaking, but the British Museum will get two exhibitions out of it/ The First Emperor, followed by an exhibition about the Roman emperor Hadrian in 2008, while it builds a new 1200m2 exhibition space.

Similarly, the Beck’s Fusions pod may be an outwardly simple build, but according to Beck’s production manager Paul Stanway, the project has involved complex integration of work by experts in a range of technical fields, including music, projection and video screens.

The advantage is added impact and visibility. ‘For the general public, who won’t necessarily be familiar with this sort of work, we hope they’ll be curious about this pod that has just landed in Trafalgar Square, and have a look,’ says Metcalfe.

If both pull it off, it will be a reminder that adventurous programming yields valuable rewards, both by swelling visitor figures and charting new territory.

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