Sometimes the best way to get to your destination is by standing still
[Images courtesy of TheWoodBeneath]
The Wood Beneath The World
The Crypt @ Leeds Town Hall
Once upon a time, a group of unsuspecting Leeds folk descended into the crypt underneath Leeds Town Hall. There, beneath the wood, between the trees, lies a world left undiscovered. Intrigue and mystery creep out from behind trunks and branches. Half-forgotten memories hide down twisting, disorientating corridors.
And there’s enough theatrical smoke to make your eyes water.
Intrigued? You should be.
Because just round the corner from the comparable madness of the German Christmas market on Millennium Square, something beautiful is happening.
‘Installation…on an epic and impressive scale. But it is also performance. And poetry. Oh, and music. Lighting. Exploration. Treasure hunt…’
The Wood Beneath the World is the latest project from self-professed ‘connoisseurs of make-believe’ Lord Whitney. Billed as a ‘large-scale installation’, you would be forgiven for thinking that this latest project is nothing more than an art exhibition – albeit in a gloomier venue than most. In reality though, ‘installation’ doesn’t come close to describing this hour-long experience.
In fact, a day on from my journey under the city and I’m still struggling to categorise it. Installation it certainly is, and on an epic and impressive scale. But it is also performance. And poetry. Oh, and music. Lighting. Exploration. Treasure hunt. At once interactive and performative, The Wood Beneath the World invites the audience (is that what we were?) to take part but impartially observe; to seek out facts but question what we see; to allow ourselves to be guided but embrace the unknown.
If you’re feeling a little confused, you’re not the only one.
Shrouded in mystery though it is (even the website is suitably cryptic), part of the beauty of this project is the intrigue surrounding it. Upon entering, we are asked to turn all phones off (if only every event encouraged this). Groups are timed so that they do not coincide with each other at the beginning or end of the performances, which run hourly throughout the evening. The mystery only intensifies during the experience: at one point, two members of our group are taken away, only to return again minutes later. Nothing else is said about it. Where did they go? No, really: where did they go? This is only one of many unanswered questions that arise during the evening. Perhaps in a different setting it would have been something that I thought to ask about at the end; here, it just didn’t seem out of place. It was all part of the story – even if that story was somewhat oblique at times.
Ultimately, it’s storytelling, myth and legend that are really at the heart of The Wood Beneath the World. The legend of Will o’ the Wisp features heavily (a hint: check out the nametags of the performers) and the wood is designed to evoke images of labyrinths – which, we are told, have long been considered ‘spiritual guides to help you find your way’. Although parts of the evening are guided, a large part of it relies upon the audience’s inherent desire to explore, to make connections, to ‘decide what’s relevant and what’s not’. With the amount of detail that has been put into this project, it’s quite likely that there are areas of this subterranean woodland that will remain undiscovered by some; consequently, each person’s experience is more or less unique, with very few concrete answers provided. Whilst one member of our group said that she was ‘frustrated’ with this lack of closure, it is this ambiguity, this unnerving sense of the unknown, which I found so intriguing about this project.
During the course of the evening, I pick up a scrap of paper hidden in a tree: ‘We shall not cease from exploration’, it reads. Perhaps this project is designed to do nothing more than encourage us to explore; to embrace the mystery and take a step outside reality for one magical hour. A haven away from the madness of Black Friday (which was arguably more unsettling than an evening spent in a crypt) and the bustling streets above, here is a space in which you can lose yourself without fear of actually getting lost.
‘Intrigued? You should be.’
Is The Wood Beneath the World a modern parable designed to make us think about the paths that we choose? Perhaps it’s a reminder to respect the power of nature? Or maybe – just maybe – it’s nothing more than a magical evening of pre-Christmas entertainment.
For me, it doesn’t really matter. Good art only has to pose questions; it’s up to us to try and find the answers, to ‘not cease from exploration’.
Whether or not this is your cup of tea, one thing is certain: it’s hard to come away from the experience feeling nothing. Much as in the legend of Will o’ the Wisp, there is something enticing about this project. Just don’t follow the light away from the path…
A final warning of a more festive nature: buy your drinks from the bar after the performance. An error in drink-buying etiquette meant that we were stopped from taking our (rather potent) mulled wine into the venue. Which is probably for the best, all things considered.
Running until January 2015 – book your place!
For more about Lord Whitney and other projects visit lordwhitney.co.uk