In the Middle of the Night in a Dark House Somewhere in the World
with Responding Artist Ashley Hay
IMAGINE YOU LIVE in a wooden house in a warm town by a wandering river. A row of trees grows along its fenceline – grevilleas, mellaleucas and two tall lilli-pillies.
The lilli-pillies are directly outside your bedroom window and do a good job obscuring the bedroom window of the house next door as well. They're so thick that you never catch even the most accidental glimpse of life over the fence; the trees provide a means of polite aversion. In fact, after five or six years, these trees have grown taller than the roof of either house: their deep green shimmers against the depth of the blue sky.
You look at them and from time to time you wonder if something should be done about them. If they’re shedding stuff into the neighbours’ gutters. If a storm might fell them, drop them on your own house, or the house next door. But when spring comes, these two trees burst into a bright and fuzzy blossom. They’re a pale, lemony-cream, exactly the kind of colour you’d like to eat. Like lemon meringue or a glorious custard – and you know that you’ll leave them alone to grow, uninterrupted.
One late spring day, walking towards the canopy of their leaves, you hear a strange noise. A soft hum, at first, and then you feel the zzz-ing frazzle of its edge. You stop beneath the high, tall reach of blossoms and leaves and branches and you look up. The trees are encircled by dozens and dozens of bees, hovering and darting. Drinking in the nectar from the richness of these blooms. Brushing up the pollen from their anthers. This hum; this buzz. This essential, vivacious sound. For a moment, you’re frozen by the threat of so much stinging.
But then you stop. You listen. You hear the thickness of this music; you try to pick its pitch. Apparently bees' hums change according to how stressed they are. Apparently their natural pitch is G.
The bees stay for several days, coming and going, collecting the nectar, the pollen, that they will take back to their hive and pass between them – bee mouth to bee mouth – until it dries down enough to become honey. That’s what honey is, nectar that’s been passed, mouth to mouth, by bees. Bee kisses. It takes 300 bees three weeks to collect the 450 grams of sweetness in your jar.
So, taste that sweetness. It’s a laboured, precious thing.
In other forests, other countries, the relatives of these lilli-pillies grow: they’re clove trees. Same genus; different species; similar smooth, green, shiny leaves. Clove trees used to symbolize love and protection. Clove trees used to be planted to mark births, and each clove is a dried, unopened flower, preserved for later flavour, later use.
Make yourself some clove tea with honey and lemon. Gaze up at the warming, warm blue sky. It looks as if the sky’s blue is bursting up and out from your trees and what’s left of their flowers.
And maybe, in a kind of way, it is.
For here’s the thing. Some species’ flowers lure bees with a blue halo we can’t see – flowers like hibiscuses, tulips, daisies, sundrops or evening stars. Their petals are lined with a particular combination of ridges arranged at just the right angle to produce a deep ultraviolet-blue glow. This corona; it’s something that bees love. Given a choice, they’ll visit these nimbused flowers almost exclusively.
These haloes can be measured with machines called goniometers: the levels of their brilliance caught and combed. There’s something like poetry in the promise of being able to observe what drives attraction so clearly; to understand what draws a creature in.
If bees can use this radiance, imagine if we could use it too – if people, craving, desirous, could emit some sort of glow. Would people’s colours match, or would they give away imbalance? If A, say, yearns for B, but B, instead, wants C, or D – or only B themselves? How would each see the other’s colours, and how would other people see their shine?
A young man – let's call him Johan – pursues a woman – Marianne – because he thinks she’s sexy when she’s angry. She sees him, though, as some quiet, safe refuge. These two desires might cast two different haloes: an angry shade against a gentler one.
One red, maybe. The other softer: blue.
They marry six months later – by then they’re "very much in love" – the bride and groom standing together. Imagine the unseen brightness of their two colours, the blue and the red, set one beside the other like separate shards of stained glass. There’s the chance of overlap, the deep, rich purple where they cross. But these colours also change slightly simply by sitting side by side, just as red flowers planted next to blue ones can make the reds look more like orange and the blues look more like green.It’s interesting how our perceptions work.
How fine it would be if we could carry carefully calibrated goniometers through the world to measure other auras of attraction: the strong ones and the weak ones and the ones that cannot blend. We could scan buses-full, trains-full, whole theatres – cities – full of people.
At one point Marianne says: “sometimes it’s better not to see things too clearly.”And Johan, later: “we can’t always share everything.”
ON APRIL 20, 1535, a series of arcs, haloes and other bright spots appeared over Stockholm between seven and nine in the morning. A painting of this shows a sky enriched by a pigment of azurite, embellished by these curves and shapes of gold.
Imagine you'd been waiting for a message, for some instruction or some sign of what to do. You’d see that brightness in the sky and think it spoke to your dilemma. Yes or no. Here or there. Him or her or someone else.
So many decisions might have been made on that day, justified by this radiant sight.
Imagine you wanted other ways to quantify your colours, to evaluate a range of different blues. You could measure them with spectrophotometers. You could match them against a chart of standardized printing shades: maybe process cyan; or PMS 2748; or Pantone Reflex blue. You could compare them to the colours of the paintings that you love or the clothing that you wear; to certain shades of ocean or of sky.
But you can't know how someone who is not you sees those colours. You can’t know if they perceive them as you do. For all the charts and codes and callibrations, you can’t know what their blues look like to them.
The same with love; the same with hate – and the complicated fact of both at once.
"You know, there’s nothing so strange about wanting to and not wanting to," Johan will say to Marianne. “Ambivalence is perfectly normal.”
Could you measure that with some other machine?
The 19th century saw the invention of tools that altered what we could see of time and space. These were called “philosophical instruments” – things like kaleidoscopes and thaumatropes; stereoscopes and strobes. Kaleidoscopes used tiny mirrors and shards of coloured glass to create always-changing arrangements of patterns. Thaumatropes used discs with different pictures on each side, set to spin so fast the two pictures combined.
Imagine Marianne on one side of a disc and Johan on the other. Or love on one side, hate on the reverse. The constant flick between them makes it hard to catch your breath. And how much could you describe of what you’re seeing – could you pinpoint what you’re seeing now?
It’s easier to talk about other things, like bees and their trees, or the beautiful brightness of colours.
In the mid-1800s, some scholars noticed something strange about the way classical Greek texts such as Homer's "Odyssey" spoke about colours. Black or white were designated as we would ascribe them today. The black bulls of Neptune; a heart black with rage. A flower white as milk. White sails; white lightning.
But other colours were cast in less familiar ways. Red was rarely mentioned, and wine was often “black”. Sheep – or their wool – turned up as “violet”, and green and yellow were scarce. There was no mention of blue at all: the ocean was a “wine-dark sea”. It turns out that words for colours come into languages at different times. First black and white, then red, and later, other hues.
How do we see a thing we do not have a name for? The Himba, in Africa, have more words for green than English can conceive of, but make no distinction between green and blue.
One researcher suspects that without a word for a particular colour, without a way of identifying it as distinct, it’s hard for humans to see that it’s unique. If blue wasn’t a word inside our language, we would still see it – the colour of the sky, or of the sea; the secret colour sent out by a flower – although we might not know what we were seeing.
Now, suppose we didn’t have a word for love.
At one point, Marianne calls for more kindness. “We need to be kinder to each other,” she says.
She replies: “people like us.”
Here, right now, Marianne and Johan will drill into your life, a concertinaed decade of their time pumped into a sliver of yours.
They're magical creatures, conjured by effort and imagination. They’ll blossom for you; and they’ll flourish. They’ll explode.
IMAGINE YOU'RE WATCHING someone on a tightrope. You have to trust that they can balance, have to trust that they won’t fall. While your heart climbs ever up into your mouth.
You hold your breath inside; you watch a little longer, trusting as much in the power of your own gaze to keep them safely up there as in the power of a harness or a net. As long as I am watching; nothing bad will happen here.
Marianne and Johan make their way on different tightropes, their arms stretched out for balance. One is sure-footed at first; the other is more certain later on. One speaks a line of truth; the other parries. There’s honesty, brutality and humour. You laugh; you flinch; you hold your breath. You wait. Some moments you simply witness – unfamiliar. Others might speak to you loudly as your own, like arguments you don’t have with each other, or arguments you do have with yourself.
The knife edge of it. The ferocious dance of risk between these people. Slowly anything else that you might glance at – anything that might distract you – melts into the concentration of your gaze. There is only this spectacle, spotlit, before you, its shape tightened and strengthened by both danger and rehearsal. These two people – Johan; Marianne – in their particular combinations. Balanced; moving; suspended; caught. They evolve. They revolve. They perform. They’re doing this – they’re being this – for you.
Don’t look away: put some more sweetness in your mouth. Bunker down.
Here, right now, Marianne and Johan will drill into your life, a concertinaed decade of their time pumped into a sliver of yours. They’re magical creatures, conjured by effort and imagination. They’ll blossom for you; and they’ll flourish. They’ll explode.
Strobes – those other philosophical instruments – look like they freeze points of motion so they appear immobile. They can make sequences appear to run reversed. Forwards-moving stories heading backwards, while backwards steps – withdrawals – look like they take great leaps forward.
A different sort of optical illusion.
At one point, Johan asks: "Do things fall apart because we choose them to or because we're just not vigilant?"
And Marianne, much later: “If we could meet each other for the first time. Now. As the people we should have been all along.”
“Life is not a series of gig-lamps,” as Virginia Woolf once wrote, but rather a “luminous halo” that envelops you. With Marianne and Johan, you only get the gig-lamps, and they run at them as if they mean to smash through all their brilliance. They lob hard, fast sentences between each other, their ramifications expanding and expanding until they finally explode. This is an exercise in complication and entanglement: two people teetering on brink after brink, setting a course, going on. Coming apart.
Have their red/blue haloes faded down to pallid grey – or do they still emit a trace of how they shone?
SWEDEN HAS ITS OWN DISTINCTIVE STYLE: the gentle moderation of the idea of lagom; cloudberries; soothingly clean and spare interiors; a bright decade of certain pop songs.
But that country also gave the world some of its most stable explosions: dynamite, gelignite, ballistite. A certain detonator; a certain blasting cap.
Sit inside the blasting range of this quiet theatre, its white room set against the audience's dark space. Another flash – you blink; another flash of strobe. The stakes in here feel very, very high.
Watch them. Lean into this performance, in awe of what this suite of actors does. In awe of all the power that they can detonate on-stage.
No maps. No nets. No tricks. No spotlights.
Marianne says: "sometimes I think all this talking doesn’t reflect our feelings, it camouflages them."
And Johan, later: “There’s nothing to be said.”
But now, come back to the quiet space before performance, beyond the bright edge of the spotlight, as one actor makes their way through every word their character says. They weigh each one, sitting with it, setting it against all their other lines with infinite care and deliberation. This idea, set against that phrase: don’t forget what was referred to over there. And what if emphasis is placed on this word here instead of here? It’s such a tender and intimate process: to eavesdrop on it feels as if you’ve pushed apart the thick leaves of two lilli-pillies and you’re staring in through the window next door.
It’s a protracted version of what we do in all our interactions with each other – listening to whatever is said, turning it over in our mind, weighing it against the things we know or think we know, and then deciding what we might say or do next. All that – except we do it in a heartbeat. And we do it scores and scores of times each day.
It’s how we are in the world, reading and recalibrating ourselves by what we see in others – the ways they reflect or refract who we are.
The novelist George Saunders describes making stories better with a series of minute calls and judgements, performed over and over again. “Like a cruise ship slowly turning, the story will start to alter course via … thousands of incremental adjustments. The artist in this model,” he says, “is like the optometrist, always asking: is it better like this? Or like this?”
The different ways we clarify perception.
Think of those optometrists and their rows of tiny lenses. Think of a cruise ship as it slowly tries to turn. Think of Marianne and Johan, each time they look towards each other. Sometimes they see with sharpened focus; sometimes they use a softer gaze. Sometimes they see the shadow of those old reds, those old blues. Each glance adds another layer to how they see each other. Sometimes that’s a calm thing, and sometimes it’s so hard and fast that there’s flash. A burst. A rupture.
Now imagine rows of people in their audience, each one with tiny flashes triggered as they're touched by these characters’ words. There’d be magic in that. Think of the dark patches of spectators where one line got no purchase against its sparks and glows – red here; blue there – for other people. I did that. I don’t do that. Or I really wish I’d said that! In French there is a phrase – l’esprit de l’escalier: the spirit of the staircase – for that perfectly clever retort that you think of too late. Our language has no phrase for this but its description, even though it’s such a human thing to do.
We sit in the dark, eavesdropping on this complex dissolution. But if we glance around then – there! – another flare.
Marianne says: "For every life chosen, hundreds are forsaken." That multiverse all those other selves.
Those instruments: the goniometer, spectrometer; the thaumatrope; the strobe. Perhaps in other worlds they’d measure different things. Perhaps they’d measure feelings, thoughts, reactions we don’t have words for here. Perhaps they’d map out different lives for all of us.
You cannot ever know what someone else is thinking. Sometimes you might not even know that of yourself. You mine the world for clues, for information. You try other people’s ideas on for size, watch the way they make decisions, treat each other, treat themselves. A range of different lenses for your vision: the daily empathy of life through other eyes.
This form of paying attention is one of the greatest privileges of sentience. This, and loving: being creatures with the capacity to love.
IMAGINE WAKING IN the darkness on the sharp edge of a dream. Quiet now: pause here for a moment, out of time. Enjoy the lull of not quite knowing what is real.
That you have sat and watched this story has helped it to become whole again: it's been defined and shaped by how you see it and who you are. And at the end of its performance there’ll be a moment of pure darkness, the equivalent of waking from that sleep. Then the curtains and the clapping and the houselights – breaths let out – will usher you back into your real world.
Perhaps someone will carry a large spray of flowers onto the stage – daisies; tulips; sundrops: brightness. Close your eyes and conjure up all of that bouquet’s rich blue haloes. Close your eyes and smell the sweetness of the honey it might yield. Close your eyes and hear the buzz of an audience stepping back into itself.
Just waking up.
There’s no assemblage of instruments to unpack who and how we love, and why. There’s no machine to help us calibrate or understand all that. The only instruments we have are all our stories, from the smallest moments to the grandest or most awful of feats, with all the said and unsaid things we tuck inside.
By the time summer comes to this part of the world, this version of Marianne and Johan and everyone they know will have vanished from this stage. Like this year’s bees; like this year’s blossoms: one short, sharp orbit that’s looped through its course. The bees, the blossoms will be back again for us same time next year, while Marianne and Johan will have some other time and space.
There’s a comfort in these cycles of return.
So crush a clove – for Marianne; for Johan, as you stand beneath your own bright and clear blue sky. Wish for them some love; protection; some next springtime. Take a scoop of honey’s sweetness for them too.
In Sweden in the spring of 1973 when Marianne and Johan’s story was first told, the streets were empty every evening it aired. The whole country, it was said, was indoors: turning on and tuning in.
Those people are still carrying that story, even now. As you do. And as – now – you always will.