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Wedding state-of-the-art VR technology with a deep appreciation for the systems and networks of the natural world, with particular focus on the plant kingdom, this immersive experience from Marshmellow Laser Feast plunges the spectator straight into the neural pathways of a forest scene, thrillingly casting off corporeal form. Outfitted in the somewhat cumbersome accoutrements of the technical gear (headset, rucksack, wristbands, heart monitor!), every breath now expelled in a visible wash of blue microbes, fellow viewers reduced to vascular silhouettes that float around you, a majestic Sequoia tree (considered to be the greatest organism in existence) anchors the central area of attention.

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Throughout the 20-minute programme, you are encouraged (quite past the spectacle) to contemplate the human interaction with and connection to the essentially invisible but vital universe of nature, our dependence upon its magnificent processes and our often malignantly careless stewardship of its delicacy. Lifted out of our separate consciousness, now a buoyant gust of disembodied spirit, we inhabit a space where we are able to witness the abstract whirl and course of carbon dioxide and oxygen and feel as one with the respiration of the earth.

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With imperceptible ease, the viewer rises along the tree, past its crown, until the final moments pass as a pleasant hallucination of nakedly biological pulsations-you emerge from the session with a happy awareness of having been broken down into your basic chemical components. At £20 a session, though, it is quite a dear education.  We Live in an Ocean of Air continues at the Saatchi Gallery through 20 January 

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Very sweet (and very slight), this one-man piece concerns teenage Liam’s attempt to win back the favour of his fellow outcast Caz after he spectacularly fails her by pulling out of a synchronised swimming performance at the last moment, thereby forfeiting their opportunity to participate in a school wide competition Caz is hoping to win (Liam, paralysed with fear, has neglected to reveal to Caz his complete lack of swimming skills).

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The play is arranged as Liam’s appearance at an assembly, the production’s stage manager serving double duty as a school administrator to whom Liam directs lighting and sound cues. Armed with an acoustic guitar, Liam narrates (and sings in a series of awkward, gently aching confessionals) the tale of his and Caz’s relationship, their kinship and mutual support against an otherwise hostile, ostracising world. Lest the audience’s attention begin to wander as Liam’s monologue unfurls, the character often engages directly with the crowd, canvassing our participation (at various stages handing out water guns, beach balls, bells and, in the climactic number, bunting-and enjoining the crowd into a singalong).

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An early request to have the audience don ponchos (which were handed out as you entered the theatre) so as to embody the pool water that inspires so much apprehension doesn’t quite have significant enough payoff in the moment. Much of the enjoyment and captivation of this hour-long show depends upon the sole performer, and Andrew Finnigan brings loads of geeky, earnest charm to the role, a tender yearning (every quiver of doubt and elation is felt), suggesting a slow build towards self-discovery and confidence. There is a love interest throughout (fellow schoolmate Josh), initially admired from afar, then brought into close alignment after coming to Liam’s aid, embroiling the two in an ambiguous relationship tinged with hope.

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Originally an entry at the Edinburgh Fringe (the work of Tom Wells and Matthew Robbins), this is content to be a modest trifle, never edging into darker territory or complication, optimistic that its characters will find their way out of tricky adolescence to healthy senses of self. Drip closed on 22 December

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Like her fellow contemporary video/film artists Ryan Trecartin and Ericka Beckman (both of whom have also exhibited at Zabludowicz), Maclean harnesses the aesthetics of online culture and reality television to investigate and deconstruct thorny present-day issues, the visual palette awash in gaudy, highly saturated colours, the material pushed into the realm of camp. The use of artifice is boldly engaged, a gesture that is ultimately both beneficial and detrimental to the effectiveness of the material-the performances aspire to baroque pantomime. The outrageousness may leaven the seriousness (making it more palatable to digest), but the shrill sentiment can grate over the course of each piece’s running time. In Spite Your Face, Maclean’s “Disney-on-crack” 2017 production, the fable of Pinocchio is darkly fed through the twisted portal of a post-truth, post-civilised universe in which corruption and lie-telling have become sanctified states, a lost world where the gasping grab for wealth and adoration are the only holy pilgrimage. The main character’s proboscis, that most vital of Pinocchio’s appendages, is the phallic locus of anxiety, power and violence. As the brand face for the new perfume of Untruth, he is surrounded by a grotesque menagerie of callous male monstrosities, lascivious in their corporate machinations and manipulations. The screen is set in portrait format, a response to the dimensions of the work’s original environment (the deconsecrated Chiesa Di Santa Caterina in Venice, where Maclean represented Scotland at the Biennale in 2017), which compatibly fits within this venue’s main hall (a former Methodist Chapel). In a continuous 37-minute loop, the characters exist perpetually in a cycle of florid ambition, deception and vice, fixed in patterns of lewd behaviour and rigid fate. Make Me Up is a viciously cheeky satire of authoritarian patriarchy and its comeuppance, in which a bevy of doll-like women lorded over by a controlling male figure who speaks in the stentorian tones of Kenneth Clarke (with actual dialogue from the 1969 tv series Civilisation, which effortlessly,eerily synchronises with the themes being explored, without any alterations) are tasked with a series of increasingly humiliating, degrading acts dictated by a sexist, narrow-minded mentality. Newly annointed dollies Siri and Alexa (!) lead a steady revolt against the constraints and smug manoeuvres of the male impresario (seeking the “glitch”which will release them) until a sudden tempest of self-awareness infects the group, a torrent of found audio recordings of a chorus of female celebrities and political leaders and academics recounting their theories of feminist agency placed in the characters’ mouths, a lipsynch fantasia.The women crescendo to a final group dance, no longer under the influence of a repressive male force, concluding with an exciting blast of aggro electro beats and assertive, independent movement. The film’s message is a bit dampened by the 45-minute length; it could have possibly had a greater resonance at half its running time. Most powerful is Maclean’s first VR piece, I’m Terribly Sorry, that most reserved of British phrases, a six-minute immersion in a woozy acid-jazz British landscape of undulating Big Ben teapots and keychains, red buses and solar-powered figurines of the Queen. Each participant is asked to take pictures of various mobile phone-faced characters (stand-ins for privileged urban dwellers) who approach you in the street, soliciting for funds, their explanations convoluted and subtly, menacingly demanding.

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After becoming suddenly implicated in a shocking incident, a phalanx of shadowy figures descend upon you, looming over your perspective, vulnerably crowding you in, to visit threat upon you. The comfort of distance has been wholly erased, the viewer plummeting straight into the heart of violent action and victim hood.

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Whereas the two films slightly overstay their welcome, leeching power in the process, this short, sharp meditation upon Brexit-era U.K. is haunted by cultural tensions, migrant crises, an elevation of apprehension and mistrust, inescapably engulfing and entangling the viewer.

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The museum’s rooms are dressed with vulgar plush carpets, lurid satin curtains, and beribboned pink-cushioned chairs, reflections of the wanton narratives spilling out onscreen. No doubt there is an abundance of slick energy and striking extravagance in these works, but exhaustion and impatience wore me out long before the  films’conclusions, both only fitfully engaging.  This exhibition closed on 16 December




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In regards to this annual mega-show of visual art (mostly video and film), I will always be searching after that first great toke-The Infinite Mix was a sublime assemblage of music and image, each component a perfect individual segment of a greater whole, not a bum note in evidence, leading to an overwhelming narcotic experience that made a viewer feel transformed upon exit. I remember feeling altered, physically and emotionally wrung through, stumbling out the door into the glare of sun, desperately (but pleasantly) trying to assimilate to reality.

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This third year programme from sponsors Vinyl Factory and Store X (in collaboration with New York’s New Museum) doesn’t even come close, with most entries bloated in length and overly conceptual to such a degree I’m not certain an audience’s presence is even considered (certain pieces would be best left as graduate degree dissertations). The show is almost wholly redeemed with the inclusion of Pipilotti Rist’s 4th Floor to Mildness, composed of two protozoic-shaped screens which hang from the ceiling, under which a series of beds and cushions invite spectators to rest and immerse themselves in scenes of nature and water (and the occasional floating body part), a rapturous dive into the spiritual and the meditative. She cannily uses the cold surface of the computer screen to create a warm collective experience-it’s the closest sensation to virtual reality I’ve ever had without having to wear a head device, and the only piece here to register with any sort of emotional resonance. Ed Atkins’s Happy Burthday, with its deeply creepy (and ineffably thrilling) monochromatic digital animation, characters anxiously inhabiting both the material and the intangible simultaneously, concerns time’s incursions upon the body, the dialogue a spill of abstract mathematics, metaphoric gestures of dates: birth and death, anniversaries, epochal historic events, all temporal claims of the corporeal-beautifully realised, but its abstraction is alienating; Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue takes the viewer on an increasingly manic journey of archival attempts to organise and conceptualise a comprehensive definition of the universe, the possibilities expanded exponentially by the virtual-as ecstatically florid eschatological musings mount on the soundtrack, browser windows overlap with image searches and Wiki pages, the internet a whole new cosmos and catalogue of information, the enormity of attempting to harness the chaos and disorder of history brought sharply into focus;

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Ragnar Kjartansson’s A Lot of Sorrow is an excerpt from the conceptually challenging durational project in which he asked the indie rock band the National to perform their song “Sorrow” over the course of six hours (as he helpfully served the members water, beer and food to keep their strength), the song morphing across time and repititive performance, taking on a sonic equivalent to the titular emotion, a feeling so deep in the bones that it slows the blood to a dirge, stuck within a mournful loop-the band broke on the 95th iteration but successfully delivered a transcendent experience;

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Khahil Joseph’s Fly Paper seems to inhabit several temporalities at once in its study of Harlem and its denizens, exploring both the personal and the historical, suggesting the area itself as a repository of all the stories and experiences of those who have ever lived within it, informing and elaborating upon one another, a continual back and forth dance-the soundtrack establishes itself as a major player, occasionally roaring out of the speakers so forcefully and purposefully, enveloping the audience in a sonic shroud, that I felt my shirtsleeves blowing, sculpting deep vibrations in the pit of my stomach; in Daria Martin’s Soft Materials, two supple humans interact intimately with wires and robotic limbs, bemused, slightly fearful, a desire to merge just forming;

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Anri Sala’s Three Minutes is a trippy, possibly epilepsy-inducing abstraction of a cymbal, a play of annihilating light onto which it is nearly impossible to fix definition; Wu Tsang’s The Look reveals a (momentarily distracting) campy sci-fi universe overseen by digital avatars that control the population through a series of social media platforms, in which the brand-created pop performer Bils, gorgeously drenched in glitter and instructed in choreographed dance moves, occasionally breaks through to a non-mandated euphoric moment of genuine liberation.

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Most of the rest of the pieces persist long after anything of value is communicated, leading me to ungenerously contemplate the idea of caps imposed on the length of a work in such comprehensive shows (lest  a viewer has the day to spend with the exhibition). The subject of time, a preoccupation with the concept, is the overriding theme of this show, emphasising especially the impact of new technologies on the study of history, and its interactions with the present and future, creating an environment where all exist at once, giving rise to a “nostalgic futurism”, as the programme notes state. I only wish more of it were haunting-very few of the works were barely able to extend a legacy much past the exit. Strange Days closed on 9 December

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True West @ Vaudeville Theatre 

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Even the star wattage of Game of Thrones’s Kit Harrington and rising star Johnny Flynn (so ferociously and charismatically feral in this year’s film Beast) can’t enliven this revival of Sam Shepard’s acknowledged modern classic, which I confess to have always found too schematic to ever be truly singular in any sense. The main characters primarily function as archetypes and symbols-there’s a fussy artiness in their behavioural and emotional design that misses any genuine flesh and bone.

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In the central warring relationship between brothers, Shepard strains to study cultural and masculine myth, the conflict between the civilised and the untamed, the primal pull of violence and lawlessness that pulses underneath a patina of domesticity. Harrington’s Austin is a screenwriter struggling to conceive his latest work who has agreed to house-sit for his mother, off to Alaska on holiday; Flynn is his shadowy, criminally oriented brother, slowly eroding Austin’s privileged sense of self and purpose. He mightily undermines his brother’s equilibrium by pitching to Austin’s producer an idea of a western story that is the stuff of the most facile, hoariest folkloric cliches, to which the producer reacts positively.

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This sets the stage for a battle royale akin to Cain and Abel-the wild prairie increasingly encroaches upon the homefront, the brothers engage in heightening noisy squabbles that approach fratricide, room furnishings and objects gather into great disarray. But the threatened menace never really materialises-in this production, the black comedy of the situation is insistently foregrounded instead. Neither Austin nor Lee emerge individual enough for the conflict to deepen into something truly unnerving or uncomfortable-they persist at a stubbornly conceptual level. True West is on through 23 February 

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time @ Piccadilly Theatre 

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It’s taken me quite a bit of time to catch up with this acclaimed National Theatre production (which has had, quite impressively, 7 Oliviers and 5 Tony Awards bestowed upon it), based upon Mark Haddon’s equally acclaimed novel about a young autistic boy’s journey to solve the murder of his neighbour’s dog, a perilous investigation which takes him far from his known, safe parameters.

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The creators have found a brilliant design corollary to the book’s textual revelation of Christopher’s chaotic mind: essentially a gray box with illuminated cubes, onto which graphs and diagrams and light projections are cast in accordance with the immediate stimuli of each situation in which Christopher finds himself. The visual and aural overload brings the audience into intimate communication with Christopher’s overwhelming response to information, a continual barrage of bombastic shards of noise and threatening interaction.

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It’s a wonder that in the midst of this nearly non-stop aggression, director Marianne Elliott is able to limn sequences of authentic tenderness and sympathy in the few moments when things settle-it would be easy to lose sense of the gentle and modest in the sustained roar (it takes a certain grace and foresight to achieve). A tendency (in the second half, especially) to produce broad, crowd-pleasing moments is perhaps a gesture to leaven the more difficult, sombre aspects of the material (truly atrocious parenting choices, adultery, personal harm and jeopardy, abuse)-one must keep in mind this is a work intended for the masses.

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Joshua Jenkins as Christopher works hard, a dervish of constant motion, unleashing verbal torrents of dialogue, perpetually on edge of mania-it must be physically gruelling for the performer, a feat of concentration and focus. Despite every well-considered and finely wrought facet, I still long to see a stripped-down version of this show, just the actors against a void of black, with merely their expression to tell the tale. This is certainly skilful and slick, richly embellished and showy-but also a bit clinical. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time continues through 23 February 

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