Tom Sutcliffe: Space, the final frontier for what to say about art when we are lost for words

A critical view

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The Independent Culture

"I'd suggest you walk around and explore the space," said the usher at the door to dreamthinkspeak's excellent remix of Hamlet at the Brighton Festival.

I like to think of myself as an obedient audience member, but when I actually got into the space it looked as if exploration was going to be a pretty brusque affair. The Rest Is Silence (above) is staged inside a giant shed on an industrial estate in Shoreham, a building that has been refitted so that the audience move into a darkened area surrounded on all sides by black walls and mirror glass. There's a screen set into the ceiling above you and that's pretty much it. No seats, no crannies, no corridors. Once in the exploration took about five seconds and would have resulted in a very simple map: essentially, just a big square with a door at one corner.

I take it that well-meaning ticket-tearer didn't really think exploration would be rewarded, as it might in a more complicated location. He just wanted us to feel free to walk about once things started, since The Rest Is Silence plays out in vitrines at all four points of the compass, and it's occasionally handy to be able to press your nose to the glass. But he instinctively reached for a phrase – "the space" – that conferred a solemn aspect on what we were being invited to do. If you want to walk round a room you can do it at Ikea. But to "explore the space", you have to be in a place consecrated to artistic appreciation. I take it that it owes some of its potency in this context to Peter Brook's famous book about theatre, The Empty Space, with its implication that drama is always a kind of magic, charging vacancy with meaning.

But I was probably sensitized to the phrase because I'd just encountered it in another context entirely, while walking round House 2012's exhibition of work by the artist David Batchelor. This is being shown in a Regency town house in Brunswick Square, halfway through the process of being renovated – and it's worth going to see, for the work itself and its architectural setting, which is about as far from the neutral white gallery cube as you could imagine. Here the talk was less about us "exploring" the space but more about how the work "responded" to it or affected it. In the basement kitchen, a fascinating room with a lantern ceiling, a group of smaller sculptures and maquettes fight a slightly unequal battle with the original features. It was a bit of a clutter, to be honest, but the word "space" somehow rescued this arrangement from the merely accidental or contingent. This wasn't just a room with some art in it, because there wasn't enough room in the other room. It was its own gesamtkunstwerk.

The fact that "the space" is invisible and intangible is quite helpful here. It ensures that you can say things about it without any fear of contradiction. How exactly would you gainsay a remark such as, "I think this piece does something very interesting to the space", for example? You could say, "No it doesn't", but what would you point to to prove your case? The fact that it's "the space" doing the responding and being modified helpfully displaces all the action from the only true location of such changes, which is your own perception, while simultaneously leaving the impression that that perception is unusually refined. After all, it's not just objects that you're sensitive to but the very gaps between them.

I would commend the phrase, anyway, as an extremely handy standby should you ever find yourself at a loss for words in a gallery or a theatre. Because "exploring" space, or simply showing yourself sensitive to the intangible vibrations it gives off when an artwork is placed within it, is an excellent shortcut to the aesthetic.

Reading the detectives, closely

I've suggested before that the use of subtitles is one reason why Danish drama has proved so seductive to British television audiences. Because you can't look away at your smartphone or iPad without losing track, the drama has an opportunity to pull you in in a way that is harder for English-language programmes to match. You think it's riveting because of the quality, but it's as much because unriveted viewing isn't an option. Watching The Bridge (no distractions), I realised this advantage could be shared by the home team. It was the cars marked "Polis" that did it. What someone should do, I think, is a Glasgow thriller with accents so authentically dense that subtitles are essential. Series of 10, Summer 2013: get on it, please.

Comeback call for the curtain

The basic journalistic rule of thumb for a zeitgeist shift is three cases and a generalisation. I'm one example short for my contention that the swagged red curtain is making a theatrical comeback but something's up. At The Sunshine Boys, just opened at the Savoy Theatre, I think the curtain is broadly guileless. Neil Simon's play about two vaudevillians was first staged in 1972 and is conventional in style. It would have had a curtain then, so it gets one now. But the ostentatiously old-fashioned curtain that rises at the start of Mike Bartlett's Love, Love, Love at the Royal Court clearly has designs on us. It declares "here's a play", rather archly – particularly since that theatre is associated with the theatrical revolution that did away with draped velvet. If curtains could wink, that one would. All I need now is one more example, perhaps two for safety, and I can announce a full-blown retro trend.