Vertigo by Kélina Gotman appeared in the original production programme for Under Glass in 2009.

It’s hard to explain why Under Glass feels so quiet, meditative, rich, textured, and keen. It would be easy to point a finger at science and say: you pin us down, study us like caged animals, deconstruct and test, but we’re human. In a zoo, we see animals in cages. In a lab, animal parts in jars. In the streets, humans at their windows, a five-second snapshot as a woman and dog cross the street. It is the detached but empathetic watching and wondering, the marvelling at the forms and fragments of these lives that this piece offers.

Watching it is uncanny. Our minds wander into thinking about tenderness, love, sharing spaces. Like a poem, these gestures are kernels of other truths, gesture towards unfathomable things (giving, loss, death, intimacy), but they never say, they don’t declaim, they suggest, they shroud.

These little pieces of life in jars like poems; we watch them not so much coldly under a glaring light (which can be loving, we feel that here), but as wondrous things. These human specimens, doing their working, dancing, sleeping, reconfigured so that what we are looking at are just simply lives.

It’s the ‘simply’ that is tricky: not a judgement, not analysis, but observation, hardly unconcerned, yet hardly invested. Instead we look softly, the lights are warm, the bodies are large and small, virtuosic, anxious, and impatient. They’re not individual, they’re not psychologies, they’re snippets of bare life.

We watch, without judging. Is it this light, the dusk, the twilight, which softens? Shifts the gaze, makes us squint, wonder, turn our heads this way and that, to gain a new perspective, a new slant, a new angle, a texture, a quality of life? Is it the slowness of movement, which makes these figures seem at once less and more human; pedestrian, and suspended in time? Reminding us of another sort of tempo?

I came out enchanted. To evoke the mystery of bare life in a jar, compelling us to watch unjudging… recasts a long century and a half of collecting and labelling, testing and scoring, measuring and fixing, displays, models, and still lives, in a sidelong glance, offering a parallax view.

It suggests: bodies are textures and tones, and tempi. We regain an infantile and a wise perspective, that says: is it this that you are now, in this moment, fleeting and evanescent. It may be observed, and yet it’s yours, it can’t be explained away; it can’t be empathised with, felt, and cared for.

This ‘caring’ is also tricky. What is the ethics of care? The Hippocratic oath? The humanist injunction? Perhaps seeing the beauty in all this.

The glass here is a structure, a gym and a playground at once. It’s clear: we create and need these structures, to feel ourselves whole, to push against, in this world of infinite ‘freedoms’. What is also clear: these are not prisons, this is not constraint. These frames offer resistance to the infinite boundlessness of this life, better for us to marvel at how free we actually are, as if under an open sky, with no ceiling, no limit, no frame. You need to see the glass to see it.

It’s the vertigo of the naked sky and textures of the naked skin that ‘glass’ of Under Glass offers. Taking us outward and inwards at once, pushing at an invisible boundary. Freeing us from a discerning glare, a judging glance, a diagnosis, a label, a fate. Perhaps gesturing towards a new humanism.

Kélina Gotman is a writer and Lecturer in Theatre and Performance Studies at Kings College London.


Photo credit: Manuel Vason