Standing amid Gabriel Lester's lyrical exhibition 'A Beautiful Gamble', my intuition ambushed me; Ludwig van Beethoven's Symphony No. 6 in F Major, op. 68 (Pastoral), sprang to mind, as did Marcel Duchamp's Etant donnés: 1. la chute d'eau / 2. le gaz d'éclairage (Given: 1. The Waterfall 2. The Illuminating Gas, 1946-66), where the representation of the natural world induces a feeling of a world that is irretrievably abstract.
The Dutch artist's plan for his exhibition is simplicity itself: he hung original 18th- and 19th-century theatrical backdrops of landscapes from productions staged at Stockholm's three major houses - the Stiftelsen Drottningholms Teatermuseum, the Kungliga Operan and the Stockholms Stadsteater - from floor to ceiling. The lighting of the gallery was low, which maintained a mood of mystery. The monumental backdrops overlapped one another. Point of view zoomed in and out, as if looking through one end of a small telescope and then the other. A narrow, vertical image of white birch trees glistening in the spring sun interrupts a deep and wide countryside vista, complete with lake, Bavarian castle and vast, billowing clouds. Melodramatic is too understated a word here; it was hard to make any sense of the realism because, however faithful the colossal collage of landscape scenery appeared, it did anything but give a literal representation of the world.
Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony was the composer's answer to the popular style of so-called tone painting or the overt musical representation of the natural world. Joseph Haydn's successful The Seasons (1799-1801), where birds chirp, the wind blusters, brooks babble, clouds swirl and dogs give chase, was derided by Beethoven as mere imitation, along with the pastoral sinfonias of Bach and Handel, and Vivaldi's The Four Seasons (1725). 'All tone painting', Beethoven wrote sardonically, 'loses its quality if it's pushed too far.' As if to absolve himself, he went on to say that his Pastoral was 'more feeling than tone painting'. And it is in this sense that Lester's exhibition finds its own achievement: as a form of 'experience design' he evokes an abstract feeling - not an abstract style - well outside the simple imitation for which the backdrops were originally intended.
In Beethoven's lifetime landscape painting was never more than a stage for human drama, and Lester has played artfully on the long-established academic hierarchy of subjects in the visual arts, where it was assumed that landscape painting could never aspire to be a vehicle for the highest ideals of art. It was not until 1817 that the French Academy allowed historical landscapes to become a category in the competition for the Prix de Rome. Even then, the landscape was assigned a bit part, as the backdrop for uplifting historical events. The style and technique of the scenery in Lester's exhibition are hardly virtuoso, which helps them consistently to acquiesce in what goes on in front of them. And so, surrounded by Lester's assembled backdrops, which function more like tapestries in situ, it is his audience that provides the action, though it is a drama without narrative, consequence or conclusion - in other words, it is abstract. On the opening of his exhibition one could stand back to watch the social play of artworld denizens, wine glasses in hand, as if the curtain had risen on Richard Strauss' opera inside an opera Ariadne auf Naxos (1916). Lester provides a kind of perverse Harlequinade entertainment, with his audience cast as themselves.
Beethoven's conclusion that his Pastoral created more feeling than description serves well as an opening response to Etant donnés. Duchamp's final work is an orchestration of multi-faceted metaphors in the service of the mystery of idiosyncratic play - more feeling than description. But taken piece by piece, away from ambiguous juxtaposition, they could not be more familiar; the human figure, a gas lamp, a set of doors and, of course, the landscape. In 'A Beautiful Gamble' Lester adopts a related strategy of creating a 'dreamscape'. Nothing more than scenic backdrops and the people who look at them, his landscapes and his audience naturally defy imitation; at face value, how could they do otherwise? But by conscripting the audience to give meaning to his exhibition precisely as they try to find it for themselves - an exhibition within an exhibition - Lester provides the voyeur's perch.
First published in Issue 82