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Taking A Trip: Beyond the Road at the Saatchi Gallery (Review)

Screenshot 2019-09-11 at 7.54.50 AM

UNKLE and Punchdrunk unite to create an explosive, immersive exploration of belief, life and death.

LONDON – A Punchdrunk experience, loosely described, feels something like a trippy fever dream, bringing audience members into a sprawling, labyrinthine world that toes the line between imagination and reality. Darkly imaginative, intricately detailed and with a flair for the theatricality at every turn, suffice to say, it’s an experience that demands to be felt.

In much the same vein, listening to British triphop/electronica outfit UNKLE feels almost parallel to the Punchdrunk experience, in sonic form. Rousing tracks, ranging from the quiet to the orchestral, of whispered voices and spoken word, or big, hymnal sounds, a track from UNKLE would not be out of place in a Punchdrunk production at all. So with the Saatchi Gallery’s recently concluded exhibition Beyond the Road, it’s no surprise that creators and curators Colin Nightingale and Stephen Dobbie of Punchdrunk have perhaps found the perfect subject to collaborate with in James Lavelle of UNKLE.

With Beyond the Road, Nightingale, Dobbie and Lavelle have collaborated to transform UNKLE albums The Road: Part I and The Road: Part II / Lost Highway into a multi-room, multi-sensory immersive experience, weaving together the tracks with works of visuals artists who’ve previously collaborated with Lavelle on soundtracks, music videos and album artwork. The result is something of a religious experience, as if one was going on a half-inebriated journey through a club, a church, and back out again.

When one steps into the exhibition, we are greeted only by a simple sign informing us that ‘There Will Be No Miracles’ in an otherwise dark room. Step through the door on our left, and we enter the exhibition itself, promising an ethereal, surreal journey into the psyche of UNKLE and Punchdrunk.

Throughout Beyond the Road, we encounter room after room of art that often defy explanation – there is a tiny tree suspended in mid-air bathed in light, a graffiti-ed telephone booth with the faint scent of cigarette smoke hanging off the receiver, room after coloured room filled with paraphernalia from an old TV screening a black and white film, to a triangular cabinet of medication, illuminated by the rather despondent words ‘when you talk about love you make me feel invisible’.

UNKLE’s albums, scoring the entire exhibition, are played loud, almost tangibly felt in our very bones. Lyrically, the albums are epic in scope, speaking of journeys, of searches, of existentialism and insurmountable odds. Many of them are anthemic, hymnal almost; pick up the phone and listen, and you’ll hear the speech isolated from the backing track, almost as if it’s being sung directly to us.

What one makes of this exhibition then is drawn from the visceral and emotional responses we have to it. And for us, we saw it almost as a spiritual journey, reflecting on life, death and everything in between as we consider the long and winding journey we each take. There are few moments of true respite as we wander the corridors and find ourselves in each room – they’re each spaces of reflection, of communion as we listen to the word of UNKLE while losing ourselves in Punchdrunk’s set-up.

Unlike works such as Sleep No More, Beyond the Road is less about self-guided discovery, and feels intended more as a piece that immerses one completely in a world that is here to relieve and shed light on our own fears and worries.

A room containing a table completed cocooned in wax, frozen in mid-melt, reminds us of our mortality, while a two channel video of two men locked in eternal combat as they wander a hospital suggests the endless struggle and conflict in life. Through the visceral and often abstract imagery we see, we react and understand why we feel a certain way. These works are a medium in which to access our own psyche as we confront the big questions of life itself, and what we’ve made of it thus far.

By the time we reach the end of the exhibition, we come face to face with a series of literal chapels, containing works that reference death, mortality and impermanence. It seems we’ve reached the end of the road, but like its title suggests, there is more that lies beyond it.

Entering the final chapel, we are faced with a shimmering projection before us, like a new god taking the form of liquid gold. A shallow pool of water lies in front of it, and a cushion on which to kneel, complete with prayer book. In that moment we feel a sense of comfort, that regardless of what we believe in, there is still more to life than hurtling towards the end.

A thoroughly powerful exhibition, Beyond the Road exercises the evocative music and visuals of UNKLE and Punchdrunk to create an aesthetic that moves and shakes visitors’ very spirit, simultaneously invoking both fear and hope in a trippy, undeniably artistic reflection on belief and life itself.

Beyond the Road ran till 8th September 2019 at the Saatchi Gallery London. For more information on upcoming exhibitions, visit their website here

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