Punchdrunk: Tunnel 228

Artvehicle 42/Review

8th May 2009 — 23rd May 2009

See www.tunnel-228.com

Last week I spent an afternoon wearing a black winter coat and a black balaclava. I had a radio in one pocket (the earpiece hooked to my ear) and a torch tucked the other.  I kept my hands firmly in my pockets as well.  I would have looked pretty odd on the street; I fitted right in where I was… guarding the art works in the latest Punchdrunk production.  

Punchdrunk are best known for their ground breaking immersive theatre, including 'The Masque of the Red Death', which took over the Battersea Arts Centre for several months.  This production is a combination of art and theatre and was housed in tunnels beneath Waterloo station. It is a collaboration with the Old Vic and is called Tunnel 228. 

I've seen their previous works and offered to help steward this installation out of curiosity – hence the balaclava and other equipment.  It's a completely different experience seeing behind the scenes and spending more time amongst the installations.  I've been a steward before and know that it's not the most exciting of roles but the best part is watching visitors' interactions.  Tunnel 228 is brilliant for this - although it's uncomfortable, wearing a balaclava frees you from making eye contact, smiling or being polite…

Tickets were available for a couple of days before the show launched but despite being kept top secret are now all gone.  The website they were available on, www.tunnel-228.com was also an art work in itself - designed to deceive potential visitors into thinking Tunnel 228 were a train cleaning company.

The exhibition/experience is an eclectic mix of art works – from bodies, tiny models, feather sculptures to human guinea pigs.  I spent time making sure no one was smashed by barrels that swing pendulously as part of the Rube Goldberg styled machine.   I was by the exit, myself watched over by a monkey, an upside down worker planting a garden and a drowned body held up by brightly coloured balloons in the pond.  And next to The Killing Machine – which I imagine is how many people would describe their reluctant visits to their dentist. 

Apart from this there's miniature bingo halls, mysterious swirling vortexes of water and smoke, melting cutlery, bulging feather sculptures, and a magical paper forest. 

The tunnels are cold, dank and dark.  The art inhabiting them brings them to life but not very reassuringly.  The atmosphere is decidedly creepy and I worried a couple of times about being forgotten about.  

Having exhibitions in strange places is nothing new but this installation is refreshing because of its mysterious nature.  There are no labels or spotlights and you aren't encouraged to walk clockwise or listen to the audio guide.  Tunnel 228 succeeds in making viewing art exciting, unpredictable and a little nerve wracking.   Go see it if you can!

Samantha Bond