Simon Collings: Commedia

My original impulse was the making of the installation. I had an outline for each of the three rooms: the tiered auditorium and the garbage bags you encounter first, the black tiled floor of the second room with the single white tile lit from above, the old rose fragrance, and the orrery in the third. As I worked on the project I began adding more detail. The frosted glass floor where you exit the auditorium, and the contorted bodies visible beneath, came of course from the poem. The flies and the rats in the first room arrived of their own accord.

I documented the process in a series of photographs, which is my normal practice. But I felt the pictures lacked a sense of movement. This is very important in the different sections of the work, and of course the soundscape was also missing. I’ve admired Fatima’s work for many years, and decided to approach her about collaborating on a film. We talked initially about a documentary, but ended up with essentially a film poem. Footage of the installation is intercut with some of my still photographs, and other material, to create the montage.

In the first room of the installation for example you are surrounded by a cacophony of noise, fragments from war films, news broadcasts about corruption, murder stories, sound tracks from erotic videos, and so on. In the film we included some of this material as visual content, sequences where the images cut rapidly and chaotically one into another.

With the second room, the cinematography allowed me to introduce details in the film which would be lost in the installation, such as the way the text on the shredded strips of paper on the floor becomes increasingly faded the closer we move to the lit white square. It was Fatima’s idea to film this section in black and white. The alabaster vases of pale roses in the four corners of the room, each on its ebony jardinière, are very strong here, while her footage of roses from my garden injects playful moments of colour. I used Nielsen’s Commotio for organ for the installation, and we use it again in the film. In my twenties I suffered from depression and this piece, written when the composer’s health was failing, always seemed to lift me.

The third room presented me with the largest challenge. How does one respond to work which inhabits such a radically different conceptual universe? The Paradiso is the most abstract section of the poem. I wanted my piece to be in dialogue with the text, but not a direct commentary on it. The slowly gyrating orrery seemed a natural element. I have loved these devices ever since I first saw one as a child.

The idea of the three screens also occurred to me early. As in the poem, the number three is an important structuring device in my piece. There are nine tiers of seating in room one, each tier with 30 seats. The floor in room two is a square, each side having 33 tiles. The three screens in the final room show three-minute takes of shadows playing on a white wall, of deep space, of plant cells, animal tissue, fungal hyphae and mathematical equations chalked on a board. The phasing is staggered so that one of these images changes roughly every minute. The sequencing of the different elements is random so that in theory it is possible to have the same material displaying on all three screens, though this rarely happens. Everything is unhurried here, and there are no words. The sound you hear is of deep space.

We’ve exhibited the installation in LA, Zurich, Berlin, Florence, and Tokyo, and visitors can of course spend as long as they wish in each section, though they can’t go back once they move to another room. Most people, I have to say, don’t spend long in the first room because of the din and the awful smell. The sacks at the top contain plastic and paper so it’s not too bad when you first enter, but the split bags of food waste on the lower seating are pretty unpleasant, and of course it’s also cold down there.


Simon Collings lives in Oxford, UK. His poetry, short fiction, translations, reviews and essays have appeared in a wide range of magazines including StrideFortnightly Review, Café Irreal, Litter, International Times, The Long Poem MagazineInk, Sweat & Tears, PN Review and Journal of Poetics Research. A collection of his prose poems and very short fiction, Why are you here?, was published by The Fortnightly Review in November 2020. His third chapbook, Sanchez Ventura, was published by Leafe Press in spring 2021. He is a contributing editor at The Fortnightly Review.


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