Spectacular is the mot du jour. I write this as the annual Vivid festival kicks off in Sydney. Buildings in the centre of town are lit up in all manner of wondrous ways. Every evening, the façades of Customs House and the Museum of Contemporary Art shimmer and explode with colour and stories; the sails of the Opera House are extravagantly ‘metamathemagical’, whatever that means; there’s even a light market. Oh, what a sight, what a circus! It’s not all about the lights, of course (at least that’s what the organisers say) – there are concerts, too, and talks and ‘ideas’. But the thousands who pour into the city every evening are really only after one thing: spectacle. They want to be astonished.
It’s the same the world over. Did you see the huge moon that was suspended in the ruined nave of Tintern Abbey recently? Or the spectacular displays now showing at the Venice Biennale, or those on display at Sydney’s own Biennale earlier this year? Architecture isn’t exempt, of course. Have you seen the new Musée de la Romanité in Nimes? Plonked next to the ancient Roman amphitheatre it’s a shimmering spectacle of slinky wrappedness, an envelope of sequins. We still gawp at the Shard in London or the tallest of the tall, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, in the same way that once we gawped at the Great Pyramid or the colonnaded square before St Peter’s in Rome. We crave the spectacular.
Scale is always spectacular. We seek it in the natural landscape, walking among towering mountains or through groves of giant redwoods, or gazing over vast panoramas. Even the flatness of Australia’s outback is spectacular, the immense sky even moreso at night when the Milky Way stretches from horizon to horizon. Such natural spectacles make us feel small and put us in our place, and that’s what we like. Gosh, there’s more to life than just me, goes our thinking, and that makes us confront the existential conundrum of the purpose of life (even nature is all about us). We visit places that astonish us with the capability of our species, from the mind-blowing scale of Angkor Wat to the empty hugeness of Tiananmen Square in Beijing. How incredible that we have created these things, and we pat ourselves on the back for being part of such human ingenuity.
Hitler knew the value of the spectacular when he rallied at Nuremberg, or at least his architect Albert Speer and his cinematographer Leni Riefenstahl did. Wagner understood it, too, with the scale of his operas and the might of his music. And New Yorkers understood it when they built ever higher, displaying the wonder of the capitalist dream to the world.
Where spectacle fails, I think, is when it lacks content. I wonder if some spectacles are empty-calories. Does a moon hanging in Tintern Abbey really tell me anything new, that I might not get from gazing at the moon itself? At Sydney’s Biennale this year I found myself soon drifting away from the huge art installations and gazing instead at the old industrial buildings in which they were housed, sensing their history, the lovely patina of age.
Since the Pompidou opened we’ve begun to expect our museums and art galleries to almost outdo the treasures they contain. The Guggenheim in Bilbao upped the ante and rejuvenated a whole city just by virtue of its shape. Now every new museum wants to do the same. I can’t remember a single thing I saw in Suzhou’s museum except for I M Pei’s building itself (which I liked a lot).
I remember years ago sitting in the Haymarket watching ‘The Phantom of the Opera’. I thought it was pretty awful (I’m not a Lloyd Webber snob – I loved ‘Evita’), and couldn’t stop thinking how amazing it would be if the same budget was spent on something good. As the chandelier crashed down at the end of the first half and everyone gasped, I wished I was as easily pleased. It would have been different if I had been totally captivated by the music or the story. At an outdoor performance of one of York’s Mystery Plays I was so immersed in the story that when it began to rain I thought it was a marvellous stage-effect. Spectacle is about balance, of course. Spectacle needs content or it loses any impact after the first glance. And I keep wondering if many of the spectacular buildings we have today, their swirling shapes crafted by computer, lack content. Look at me, they cry, and we do for a moment. Until another crops up that is more spectacular.
I will probably take in the Vivid festival and I’ll ooh and aah with everyone else as I walk through tunnels of coloured light and watch the ever-changing spectacle splashed across a building’s façade. But then I’ll doubtless go home and forget all about it, just as I would after a night at the circus.
What’s the most spectacular thing you’ve ever seen?