Alan Turing's Nightmare Room re-imagined

Thursday 20 December 2012, 15:47

Polly March Polly March

You may recall the stunning Blinc digital arts festival back in October, which saw the medieval walls and ramparts of Conwy Castle turned into a giant cinema.

Various artists collaborated to project a range of huge digital images onto the castle, with the night-time centrepiece paying tribute to the man dubbed the father of modern computing, Alan Turing, to mark the centenary of his birth.

Turing was regarded as one of the most influential mathematicians of the 20th century and is best known for his work cracking the Germans' secret codes during World War Two.

Now the artist behind that eye-catching tribute is to develop his moving image work into a project to be shown at The Mission Gallery in Swansea next year.

Sean Vicary, who is based in Cardigan, is fascinated by Turing's lesser-known work in the field of morphogenesis, a type of research which focuses on "the development of shape and form in living things".

Turing's interest in mathematical biology and pattern formation is part of the inspiration behind The Nightmare Room, the three channel triptych shown at Conwy and created by Sean and Steve Knight, which has acted as a springboard for Sean's newest work.

Detail from Sean Vicary's The Nightmare Room Detail from Sean Vicary's The Nightmare Room

It takes its title from the name Turing gave to a room in his house where he carried out chemical experiments with cyanide.

Through his work Sean explores a strange interconnection between Turing’s life and that of the writer Alan Garner. The pair met through jogging and discovered they had both been traumatised by a scene in Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Those of you who have seen it may have found the scene where the Wicked Queen metamorphosises into the witch equally harrowing, but for both men the image of the multi-coloured poisoned apple, with one half giving life and one half giving death, stayed with them into adulthood.

Some conspiracy theorists suggest Turing carried this abiding image to his death as his housekeeper famously found the 41-year-old mathematician dead from cyanide poisoning in his bed, with a half-eaten apple on his bedside table.

For Sean the links between these men don't end there. His exploration of Garner's Owl Service, a modern updating of the Blodeuwedd myth from the Mabinogion which sees three teenagers trapped in a house in a remote Welsh valley and discovering a mysterious dinner service in the loft, echoes Turing's obsession with the apple.

Detail from Sean Vicary's The Nightmare Room Detail from Sean Vicary's The Nightmare Room

He told me: "Central to the plot is a dinner service on which the intricate floral pattern can be seen as either owls or flowers, depending on your viewpoint, the chosen perspective determining destruction or salvation.

"This duality echoes Turing's musing on the apple - one half giving life and the other death.

"As a child I found the TV adaptation of The Owl Service equally haunting and it has stayed with me to this day.

"It was a very strange adaptation shot on location in north Wales and Garner himself had a breakdown during the filming.

"It struck me how reoccurring themes of pattern and transformation seem to wind through the narrative arc of Turing and Garner's life and work."

Thus the motifs of owls, flowers and apples recur throughout The Nightmare Room.

And while visitors to the Blinc Festival were also able to access another layer to the images, particularly the striking ones of apples in various stages of decay, through the use of augmented reality on their phones, this is not something that will be explored at the piece being devised for the Mission.

Detail from Sean Vicary's The Nightmare Room Detail from Sean Vicary's The Nightmare Room. Images courtesy of the artist

Sean says: "When we were creating the piece for Blinc it was site specific for the huge space and I had to leave some ideas aside so I am exploring those for this new piece and it will be quite a different experience.

"It will be played on a loop in the gallery so there are some aspects people may only pick up on at a third or fourth viewing.

"I want to explore those mystical environmental factors raised through The Owl Service, which I have only touched on so far.

"When I was researching the piece I visited the place where it was set in Llanymawddwy and gathered lots of material that I used in the studio, meadowsweet from the banks of the river as well as photos and video.

"Inspired by Turing's work, I used a mixture of stop motion and digital animation to breathe life into my found objects.

"I'm fascinated by the equations he used in his theories on natural pattern formation and how the genius of it couldn't be proved until we had computer technology much later on."

The Nightmare Room is showing at the Mission Gallery in their dedicated moving image area from Tuesday 28 May to Sunday 30 June 2013.

Amanda Roderick, the gallery director said: "I have personally been aware of Sean Vicary's work for some time, enjoying its cinematic qualities.

"It was after presenting Lament at Oriel Davies that Mission Gallery began to follow with interest the progress of The Nightmare Room and look forward to Sean’s profile at Mission Gallery."

For more information about Sean Vicary and Lament visit seanvicary.com. Watch a video of Sean speaking about The Nightmare Room on arts website The Space.

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