Parlour Symbolique

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The audience had now settled, lining up against the wall and up the stairwell, in time for the first performance. The front door opened, sending in a short stream of wintry air from outside. A tall figure in black crossed the threshold in to the hallway. He paced slowly towards the audience, feeling his way along the wall as he edged towards the stairs. His mouth was covered by an extra slip of black cloth, while his feet were completely bare; a shade of reddish pink that comes from being dragged through the cold. The slow, heavy steps along the floor, like the last of some long journey, were as though this figure had finally emerged from the darkness, having walked centuries at the same impossible pace.
After a few minutes he had not yet reached the stairwell. Some of the audience were now beginning to fidget, crossing and uncrossing their arms, and coughing self-consciously. The atmosphere was laced with equal measures of agitation and amusement, as the audience found their patience slowly tested. A few decided to move on and explore the house, but the majority held on. Something in those slow, measured paces held their attention, as though he were some silent, unreliable guide for the rest of the evening.

On the wall above the first set of stairs, a film was being projected above the heads of the audience. It showed what appeared to be a sponge-like material floating in a shallow pool of liquid. A pair of thin red sticks pressed into the object, dragging it along the surface. The lighting consisted of vivid and sickly tones; pinks, yellows and greens, all mixing sharply against a strange dark background. The shape of the object had an unsettling resemblance to the human brain- a resemblance that brought on a mild mental nausea and irritation within the skull. It was a mind in a state of sickness, drifting aimlessly in the presence of a dark unknown-soaking in a cocktail of abrasive chemicals, absorbing and releasing the surrounding toxins.

The man from outside continued his ascent up the first flight of stairs. On the landing just above him, a young woman stood by a small table, surrounded by a mantle of lamplight which marked out her enclave by the window. Her head was hanging slightly, allowing her long black hair to fall around her face. On the table there was an arrangement of gold bowls and vases; each one filled with oil. In the centre was a gold board which she was scratching violently with her nails, like an animal digging into dry earth. Occasionally she would pause to inspect it, holding it so close that her face would be pressed right up to the board. She placed it back down and dipped the ends of her fingers into the oil and began scratching once again. As she stripped away more of the gold plating, it revealed a reflective surface beneath. She dipped her fingers in again, and was now scratching at her hands; the oil and gold building up on her fingers, creating smears across the board, while her hair hung in matted knots like garden vines. Despite the semi-deranged method and the build-up of gold dust and grease, a mirror was emerging clearly from it all, even if the reflection was not so easily seen.

Above, on the next landing, a man in a suit sat down by the bannister with a case in front of him. Wearing a pair of surgical gloves, he carefully removed sheets of tissue paper from the case. He had been attaching the paper to his head with tape, and by this point an impressive white mane was forming around his head, obscuring parts of his face. People stood around him, quietly observing as he reached for more paper; his hand gestures measured and precise like a concert pianist.

Between the two landings, the man from the hall was completing his ascent; guiding an invisible party around the house. The audience moved freely between the performances, taking in the experience of both space and artist; the performances becoming living museum pieces; embodiments of what the house symbolised, bringing the walls and furniture and floorboards to life.

In the first of the upstairs rooms, people had gathered around two windows, looking out on to the garden and the night surrounding it. Something had caught their attention beyond the window. They were staring through the glass like children at a reptile house, waiting for the creature to make itself seen. A face appeared, veiled in torn black threads, then retreated back behind the windows' divide. A grotesque, bearded visage, tormenting the audience with mischievous glee, before playfully hiding back in the shadows. There was something of the clown in the moonlight about him. The occasional glimpses revealed something more unsettling than just a back and forth with the audience. Something in the way he pushed his hands against his face, weeping in mock tears; barely holding the mask together. You could see the mechanics of the veil; the clips crawling up and latching on to the hair line. A creature from the id, banished from the civilized sphere and left out in the cold.

Back in the hall, the man with gloves continued to pile paper around his head. The mass had grown formidably, his head having tripled in size. Holding it together with packing tape, he labelled himself: FRAGILE.
In the next room, with small circular mirrors at her feet, a woman rested on a chair- her body languorous, but her feet firmly pressed to the ground in enormous black heels. She wore a mask made of broken mirrors, reconstituted like a mosaic. After a few moments of gazing at her, she became almost inhuman, an uncanny frame surrounding the distorted reflection of the viewer. On looking away from her, then turning back, her mask would shift to a blank white face. The performance offered a contrived and cosmetic picture of the psyche, compared to the more primitive and vulnerable depictions seen so far. A false representation of humanity, distorting the image of the self and offering no clear reflection; a reminder of the tricks the mind can play with regard to its own identity. On the other side of the room, a mirror hung from the front of an open door, reflecting a darkened hallway. In the reflection was another masked woman- her hair black and matted, creeping in and out of sight. As the audience approached her, she disappeared back in to the hall. Looking back, the girl in the chair was again wearing the glass face, staring back with dark, hollowed eyes.
Away from the warren of dark rooms, and ghoulish creatures hiding in shadows, there was another room, this one more generous and bright. A cabinet the width of the wall, held a collection of small statues, all of them depicting Eros. A train of long blonde hair ran across the floor to the other side of the room. A woman dressed as Freud was sitting in the far corner, complete with joke shop beard and glasses. She held in her arms a life-sized doll, featureless with its hands and feet conjoined; cradled like an infant. The woman rolled her eyes toward the ceiling as if waiting for her child to fall asleep, a recording of Freud playing quietly in the background like an off-key lullaby. Some audience members moved around the room observing the pieces, quietly acknowledging the strange presence sitting in the corner. The recording scratched and warped as it played, then falling back into the strange, unearthly murmur. The care and unsettling tenderness, with which she held the doll, was in sharp contrast with the patriarchal, rational image of the doctor, highlighting the coldness of the voice in the recording. The father of the 'talking cure' continued to cradle the doll, its mouth and eyes still closed, as the people came and left.
Things upstairs were winding down. On the ground floor, in the doctor’s office, there was one last performance still going on. A grown man, hunched like a scolded child - silent with his back to the audience, sat perched on a high stool. He remained at all times silent and still, like he had been ordered to do so as punishment. Shy and retreating, he closed his eyes, forcing them shut, as though blocking himself off from the rest of the room. On his back, white feathers formed wings which grew out of his black dinner jacket. A glass dome had been fitted narrowly around his head, leaving only a small amount of space between the glass and his skin. The man was detached from the other performances. He seemed to be hiding, likely from the other figures in the house; the things they represented of the human psyche, the grappling in the darkness for some kind of ascension into the light; hindered by the instincts of fearful creatures, too far removed from their natural environment, yet far from the heights of which they dream. He hides from the greater chaos of the universe. He covers his head in glass, so that the universe is both physically contained within his own perception and but also shut away. His wings hang impotently from his back. He is trapped in a universe he cannot scale or measure, left only with the shadowy recesses of his mind.


First Published by Parlour Collective, March 2015