If art is a lie then outdoor art at night is a mirage. An attempt to create a magical experience in which the punter can suspend disbelief and ignore the car park lights, generators, security guards in high vis vests, red and white plastic tape, and queues of other bloody people.
Unfortunately due to the above, Peace Camp, a UK-wide art collaboration between director Deborah Warner and actress Fiona Shaw, was never going to be quite as magical and ethereal as the publicity shots suggested.
That’s not to say the London 2012 Festival event is not worth the trip. We start at the Lions Gate at Downhill, striding over the cliff-tops at dusk, past the ruins of Downhill Castle, a schizoid sky, so common in these parts, with clear streaks and dark cloud formations. On the road several miles away we had already seen the warm glow of light in Mussenden Temple, experiencing a vicarious thrill that this is how the iconic landmark might have appeared to people hundreds of years ago.
Enter the temple and the attention is quickly drawn, not by the orange tent erected in the middle of the room, which mimicks the brick dome above, but by the huge window straight ahead, looking out over a sheer drop and acres of Atlantic ocean.
Drinking in that view, as the light quietly fades, is an atmospheric, affecting experience. The eccentric Frederick Augustus Hervey, Bishop of Derry and Earl of Bristol, who commissioned the temple, knew this instinctively, having an inscription from Lucretius carved on the building: ‘Tis pleasant, safely to behold from shore/ The rolling ship, and hear the tempest roar.’
The orange backlighting gives a hint of what it might have been like, with a roaring fire and book from the extensive library that once lined the walls on one's knees, to look out on the same vista. The murmur of recorded love poetry from the tent behind and ambient music is nice enough, but the art installation is very much secondary to the drama of the temple itself.
Outside we spend a moment peering down on the beach far below. A strip of maybe a hundred orange and white tents, mini temples, kraken eggs, glow lambently as darkness falls. Silhouettes of people are momentarily projected on the tents, shadow puppets meandering up and down the beach. A lowering sky and whispering sea provide the backdrop. It is a spell-binding, dreamy sight.
The Earl Bishop was a compulsive art buyer, furnishing Downhill with a priceless collection that included Rubens, Caravaggio, Titian, Rembrandt, and many more… Would he have appreciated Peace Camp? I wonder and conclude that as an experimenter with dramatic land and sea scapes himself, most definitely.
Then we drive down to the site itself and begin… to queue. Access to the beach is via a wooden bridge. Not a particularly rickety or dangerous bridge, but the twin angry gods of Health & Safety have decreed that only five people can proceed along it at any one time. This means that you have to queue to get into and out of the installation. The normally placid Northern Irish public seem rather less willing to embrace queuing protocol under cover of darkness…
Up close the orange tents and soft sand under foot make me think of other worlds, a Martian colony perhaps, or, again, that something strange and wonderful is about to hatch. I have a pyromaniacal urge to set a tent on fire, reminded of stories from festivals of revellers setting their two-man ablaze rather than packing it up at the end of the weekend.
The soundscape of love poems recorded by Shaw, like in the temple, drifts in and out of focus. You have to stand close to a tent and listen hard to make out the words. A little frustrating, and this on a relatively windless evening. The sea has its usual irresistible pull, encompassing, as Shaw recently described ‘our death, our life, our unconscious’.
And that’s pretty much it. As a fun and interesting experience, Peace Camp works superbly. As a reminder that it’s worthwhile venturing into these spaces at night, to escape our insulated TV-filled boxes once in a while and sniff the sea air, it is absolutely relevant. As serious art, however, I’m not convinced.
The concept is muddied. It’s not clear what Peace Camp means, what it’s really about. Nor was I inspired to think too deeply to find out. Sticking love poetry in the tents feels a bit lazy, a sop to the national celebration aspect of the Cultural Olympiad, rather than doing something original and truly meaningful.
With a commendable 300-odd people through the exhibit in the first hour, the site is large enough to find time and space for yourself whatever the numbers. But perhaps going for a quieter slot, later in the night, with time to sit and watch the sunrise and listen to the poetry, would encourage more reflection.
Don’t miss the mirage though if you can possibly help it. Set in such spectacular locations Peace Camp was never going to fail – quite rightly, it's already one of the arts events of the year.
Peace Camp runs from dusk to dawn on July 19-22. Book your place at http://peacecamp2012uk.eventbrite.com/.