I recently went to the Tate Britain for the first time while some friends from the States were visiting. I enjoyed our walk around its placid galleries–a wonderful way to spend a cloudy afternoon. But I admit it wasn’t the most compelling collection of art I’ve ever seen, though there are a few standout pieces.
All the while we were meandering around the galleries there was a background sound, a thrumming, whooshing sound. “Is there a train nearby?” my friends asked.
“I think it’s a piece of art,” I said. And thus we discovered Simon Starling’s Phantom Ride, part film, part odd acoustic holding zone.
It took us a little while to realize that Starling’s film, installed in the Duveen Galleries, is also of the Duveen Galleries–an imagined, altered Duveen Galleries containing artworks that currently exist elsewhere, or that don’t exist at all. The vantage point of the camera moves with the rolling, raising, falling motion of a roller coaster, now by the floor, now up the wall, now in the corner by the ceiling, now swooping down. With each turn the gallery seems to change, though never while we are watching it, lending a sinister air as suddenly we notice all the doorways have been bricked up. In the distance through the industrial sounds we can hear the footsteps of someone running on the marble floor, growing nearer then fading.
Starling’s introduction to his piece says “The phantom ride was a genre of film popular in the very early days of cinema. A camera was fixed to a moving vehicle to simulate a journey for an immobile cinema audience. They sat pinned to their seats, white-knuckled for fear they might de-rail on the next precipitous bend.” What Phantom Ride reminded me of, though, is type of amusement park ride called a dark ride. You get in a little vehicle and it takes you around a track inside a building, with the emotional impact all caused by lighting, sound and theatrical special effects, unlike for example a big roller coaster where the thrill is all down to height, speed and steep angles.
The best dark ride ever was the now tragically retired Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World. It had everything: a drunk enraged toad, stylish 1930s cars, and little laughing demons. (You can see why Disney World decided that maybe they’d replace it with something a bit less…wild.) I loved it for its disorienting bizarreness, for its nod to things both familiar and strange, and for the hypnotic whirling motion of the cars. Phantom Ride had some of the same qualities. Of course it is far deeper and more poignant than my much-missed Mr. Toad, but I couldn’t help getting that same old feeling when I saw the beautiful and threatening bronze mouse with his machine gun as the film wended its way around the galleries.