40 Stories

We introduce you to a collection of weekly stories, reflecting on our history as we celebrate our 40th anniversary.

Week 12 | Brian Catling, Insect, 1989

Brian Catling is one of the UK's greatest performance artists, a poet and novelist (his novel Vorrh caused film maker and ex Monty Python animator Terry Gilliam to question whether he had any imagination of his own). Many of Catling's performances interrogate our senses, particularly the sense of sight. But for the unique performance he created for Aspex at my request, he chose to concentrate on hearing. Sounds: insects whirring and chirping, human exhalations, the insistent beeping of alarm clocks, all spookily reverberative in the beautiful gallery space of the Aspex Gallery at Brougham Road. As the artist describes it: 'The grey hall has deep resounding acoustics. Spoken words are dismantled after they reach the ear, but other sounds are amplified and distorted into significance.'*


Could we buy some alarm clocks, especially voice activated ones? No, but much to our surprise 40 clocks arrived only days after I had requested Braun to sponsor the event. The lighting grid 18 feet above the gallery was made from L-shaped bar and was perfect for placing and hiding the alarm clocks. In almost total darkness, the performance was due to start at 7.15 and the clocks were all set to start as simultaneously as possible at 7.45. Their usual process is to start with a low set of beeps, stop beeping then start again louder and so on. 


The clocks duly began their symphony, slightly out of sync, their beeps overlapping and then reverberating round the forty foot cube of echoey space. Brian walked to one corner of the gallery and shouted up at the clocks, 'Stop!'. About ten clocks stopped and after a minute, started again. Now we have two musical keys against forty sets of beeps, until Brian repeats the action in another corner. More keys, more individual notes, all rising and falling in beautiful cacophony. A few more shouts, more repetitions and reverberations for half an hour or so. Brian turns to leave, gets to the door, turns and shouts much louder than before. STOP! All the beeping stops. Brian turns to leave through the door. One clock responds: beep, beep, beep!

A film on the life and work of Brian Catling will be shown on BBC Arena in the next few months.

Les Buckingham, Director (1984-1999)

*From Insect, Aspex Gallery, Portsmouth, in Soundings, A Tractate of Absence, Matt's Gallery, 1991. The performance created for Aspex Gallery was performed at The Museum of Living Art, Reykjavik and the Belluard Festival, Switzerland.

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The Vulcan Building
Gunwharf Quays


United Kingdom

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