"The room is quite dark. I hope nothing terrible happens." Nicholas Penny, director of the National Gallery, is haphazardly astute. Stepping tentatively into the black, it is not health and safety to which one must attend, but the unfettered violence of the Renaissance master, Titian. Splayed across canvas, a mutilated corpse is torn limb from limb, folds of flesh are swathed in clawed fabric, eyes lock with a fated force.
In an ambitious 'multi-arts' project, orchestrated by the National Gallery as part of the Cultural Olympiad's 2012 Festival, three contemporary artists, seven choreographers, three composers, a librettist and fourteen poets, along with the dancers of the Royal Ballet, respond to a series of three paintings by Titian. The responsive work of the artists Conrad Shawcross, Chris Ofili and Mark Wallinger, is here displayed in the dark lower vaults of the National Gallery, alongside Titian's own painterly reworkings of the Roman poet Ovid's Metamorphoses, installed beside the artists' set designs and costumes for the new composition pieces and choreography concurrently taking place in three performances at the Royal Opera House.
Brought together for the first time since the eighteenth century, and as the result of a costly £95 million furore surrounding their acquisition, the three paintings Diana and Callisto, (1556-9), Diana and Actaeon (1556-9) and The Death of Actaeon (1559-75) are here intended to form the central chamber – the meaty matter – from which all other rooms, and the contemporary responses, emanate. Deeply affecting, the series depicts grisly scenes taken from the Metamorphoses, in which the hunter Actaeon disturbs the bathing Goddess Diana and her attendent nymphs, and, as victim of her terrible vengeance, is transformed into a stag and torn to pieces by the jaws of his own hounds.
And yet, as the paintings frame the gaping doorways through which Conrad Shawcross’s large kinetic installation flinches and swoops, Chris Ofili's vaulted carnivalesque canvases expose their genitalia, and small lightboxes of the Royal Opera House's set designs glint in the darkness, the paintings somewhat recede in their relevance. Instead of forming the centrepiece of the exhibition, they border on becoming mere contextual fodder, introductory nodes from which, by implication, far more complex interdisciplinary dealings with voyeurism, abstraction and the horror and delight of desire may be enacted. With all this winking, blinking activity, made all the more (albeit profitably) distracting by the looped screened film of the ballet choreographers at work, and the side-room cinematic screening of the invited poets reading their responses, there is little space for the paintings themselves to be appreciated. Although, for a project with so bland an aim as to "demonstrate how masterpieces by Titian continue to inspire living artists today," the work produced is itself wonderfully mercurial – impressive in scope, concept, and colour.
And it is Mark Wallinger's 'peep-show' piece, Diana (2012) that will no doubt become the talking-point of the exhibition, already widely discussed as the first performance piece of its kind to take place within the hushed halls of the National. The room is dark. A black box in the centre, a room within a room, looms out of the black. Tracing the way around the walls, a shuttered window becomes apparent, through which the body of a naked woman may be spied through a small crack in the frosted glass. Soaping herself in the shower, draped over a wicker chair, peering in the mirror, this is a live woman, caught in a live daily ritual. Wallinger's volunteer Dianas, all actually named Diana, were found through friends and a twitter plea.
While witty, concise and coy, and while Wallinger's may be the cleverest play on the Diana and Actaeon myth - forcing the gallery-goer into the position of culpability - Ofili's paintings are the more beguiling. Pieces such as Ovid-Stag and Ovid-Bather are baccanalian in their lurid sexuality; rough, Titian-like brushstrokes betray a heady poetic fervour as Diana is entwined in the bulging purple thighs of the stag, and a kaleidoscopic burst of water cascades down an arched nymphic body.
Shawcross's more abstract take on Diana is an elegant counterpoint to all this play and parry. In a calculated 'mechanical system,' his robotic installation piece Trophy has independently carved the hardened shape of a stag's antlers. Its task now complete, an inquisitive light poised at the end of the robot's pointer gloatingly continues to trace the form, animalistic in its cruel dips and glides, creating shapes and shadows of its antler trophy on the wall.
Intriguing here, one can only begin to conceive of the spectacle this will form in Shawcross’s set design for one of the three dance pieces, in which he has replicated the mechanical Diana beast to dance with the troupe at a monstrous seven-metre height. Although their costume design leaves much to be desired in its static treatment of the fluid body, it is in the room exhibiting models of each artists' set designs that the visual scale of this collaboration truly takes shape. Perhaps it will only be on stage that the full force of Titian’s terrible power may be felt.