Caroline Broadhead, Nic Sandiland and Angela Woodhouse, Close Distance, Wollaton Hall, Nottingham, March 11
The first impression as you enter Wollaton Hall’s Prospect Room from the narrow stone staircase is one of emerging into light and space. The first owner of this grand Elizabethan pile, Sir Francis Willoughby, had the room designed as a palatial lookout over the sylvan prospect all around, a place of privilege from which he could proudly survey and show off his walled domain. Six floors below, in the rock foundations on which Wollaton Hall stands, lived the household servants with little or no prospect at all. The architecture of Wollaton is thus an existing material imprint of a social hierarchy that no longer exists.
Close Distance, a subtle and imaginative installation by artist Caroline Broadhead, filmmaker and designer Nic Sandiland, and choreographer Angela Woodhouse, uses the present physical imprint to shed light on aspects of domestic life that can no longer be seen, and by setting the installation in the Prospect Room its creators neatly invert history by allowing servants to be re-imagined in this locus of privilege to which they would never have had access. Giving them the key to the Prospect Room was none other than Nottingham City Museums and Galleries, which now runs Wollaton Hall as a historic house and natural history museum, and which commissioned Close Distance as part of Dance4’s Nottdance Festival. This is creative commissioning at its best.
Broadhead, Sandiland and Woodhouse have added the touch of a smile to their reflections on life below stairs at Wollaton through a series of elaborate artistic conceits. The servants are represented by four dancers (Martina Conti, Kristian Tirsgaard, Vanio Papadelli, and Alice Labant) whose movement phrases, choreographed by Woodhouse, nuance the lives of the servants through silent gesture, sometimes inhabiting their despair and sometimes their hopes and aspirations. These choreographic episodes have been captured on film by Sandiland and looped on to small tablet screens embedded into items of furniture sourced by Broadhead. You may need to lift the lid of the sewing box or open the drawer of the escritoire to see the screen, but open or closed the films are running all the time — like the servants, who had to sleep on their feet. To this already complex layering of artifacts Broadhead has added samples of locally sourced material from the Middleton embroidery collection — a piece of lace or a square of luxurious carpet — that frame each screen. A gentle musical continuum of Handel concerti is pierced only by the persistent sound of the servants’ bell.
The focus of the Prospect Room is outwards, not inwards, and its only furnishing was possibly a telescope or a pair of binoculars similar to that in the installation; it was never intended for furniture so the four period items Broadhead has placed there along with the utilitarian wooden stepladder serve to reference other rooms in the house. Once arrived in the room, the privileged spectator wanders freely in this airy space from one artifact to the next in no particular order, building a sensory impression of what life might have been like below them. What Nottingham City Museums and Galleries has commissioned, in effect, is a playfully subversive display of social history at Wollaton Hall that paints the household in a way the taxidermy downstairs in the Natural History Museum can never achieve for its collection of wildlife.
One of the beauties of this kind of installation is that its very subtlety forces you to think, to contemplate and ask questions; it is an imaginative archaeology of past sensations that requires further study and exploration. In avoiding an approach to history that profiles the dates and achievements of the wealthy and powerful, Broadhead, Sandiland and Woodhouse have not only recalled an underprivileged past but have recalibrated it: it is the servants who, after all these years of confinement, have finally emerged into the light and space.
Close Distance is open at Wollaton Hall until May 1, 2017.