A night in darkness by the Chester Beatty Library

Seirce Mhac Conghail explores the livestream tour of the historical Chester Beatty library, observing a display of the theme of darkness

As a gorgeous cultural treasure trove, the Chester Beatty Library presents its first virtual event, Night at the Museum, for Culture Night 2020. The tour consists of three videos introduced by the museum’s curators; Dr Mary Redfern, Dr Jill Unkel, and Dr Moya Carey. The tour is based around the concept of nighttime, as the three greatly disparate works are linked through their positioning in the dark. The exhibition is perhaps inspired by the enveloping feeling of despondency at this time of year, as cultural institutions are forced yet again to close their doors, some for good. Night at the Museum conveys this sense of dread in a circuitous way, taking the abstract and applying it to vastly different visual interpretations by contrasting artists over the years. 

The first segment of the tour is Fireworks over Ryōgoku Bridge, with Dr Mary Redfern. This interpretation visits the idea of darkness in a celebratory way, unveiling a beautiful wood print of a summer gathering for a luminous fireworks show. The scene depicts a warm night where masses of people have assembled to socialise and enjoy a spectacle. It is cruelly ironic that life six months ago seems culturally closer to a wood print of ancient Tokyo than to our lives now. Dr Redfern nevertheless introduces the piece delicately and with an appropriate level of romance. It conveys the night as a time of splendour and revelry, drawing out the excitement brought about by nightlife, whether the light is emitting from a screen, or from the sky in an explosion of fireworks. 

The middle segment, with Dr Jill Unkel, focuses on the works of Fransisco Goya that were previously unpublished in his lifetime due to censorship by the Spanish crown. The guide takes us through a series of Goya’s drawings which while striking, are ambiguous in tone. They are in turn horrifying, beautiful, and wildly imaginative, yet overall quite unsettling to the viewer. Goya’s work here expresses the dissatisfaction he felt during his life at the authoritarian landscape of Spain, and is a searing depiction of his political anger. The frenetic energy of the images could pertain to both a kind of grotesque political caricature, or be interpreted as having much more of an interiority, expressing the artists emotions alone. The night is at its most nightmarish, most terrifying, in this section of the tour, bringing the viewer from the bright, communal lights of a firework display into the most perturbing realms of the imagination.

The third and final video released as part of this tour is a trilingual reading of an ancient poem, first written by Saadi Shirazi in Persian in 1252. The poem is read first in English, then in Irish, then its original Persian. An old manuscript of the Golistan, provides visual accompaniment to the reading, where the dusk setting of the poem is illustrated ornately in reds and golds. It is settling to the ear to be provided with a mellifluous end to the miniature tour, as the aural element enriches the sensory experience of the viewer. There is a gentleness to the treatment of this poem, and its translation into both Irish and English augments the timeless feeling of the night in this exhibition, as a poem penned on the first eve of Spring, holds an eternal feeling of hope and wonder. Ultimately it is the most tender piece, and ends the tour on a soft, dreamy note. 

The three videos in this tour are presented in a highly accessible way on the Chester Beatty website, available free of charge and with a duration of no more than five minutes each. It was an astute move by the curators to present this virtual tour in short, bite-sized pieces, which made them instantly consumable and palatable. There have been a plethora of online events and festivals scrambling to keep up with the shifting restrictions in this pandemic era, and while so much of it has been trial and error, it seems the Chester Beatty chose its content intelligently. Lengthy, often poor-quality live streams have proved a burden on any modern attention span, and simply attempting to replicate in-person events online can draw attention to unfavorable disparities between the virtual and the real. This tour suits the format it is delivered in, and offers a quirky, intriguing illustration of the theme of darkness. It resonates with the viewer without being too graphic or gratuitous, and while there could certainly be more lustre incorporated into the visuals of the three videos, their simplicity allows the works to be depicted in an esculent and enjoyable manner.