JOYCE MCMILLAN on STATION STORIES at Queen Street Station, Glasgow, for The Scotsman 29.11.14.
4 stars ****
IF YOU GO DOWN to the station today – to Glasgow Queen Street right now, or Aberdeen next week, or Edinburgh Waverley the week after – you might experience an odd sense of slipping out of time, as you hurry across the concourse. Everything is normal, of course – the coffee stalls, the ticket barriers, the trains; except that there, somewhere in the middle, is a little island of strangeness, like a Victorian railway waiting-room peopled by characters in tweeds and whiskers, who invite you to step in – for no charge – and join them on a journey. There are old leather benches to sit on while you wait, and what look like two ancient cameras on tripods, with black cloths to cover your head as you peer into them; and then you’re off, on four tiny journeys – two in each camera – that transport you to a different world, past, future or imaginary, in which journeys are still the subjects of strange, winding travellers’ tales, and the tracks stretching off into the distance might lead to the ends of the earth.
This is Station Stories, produced by Scotland’s international music and theatre company Cryptic as one of the final events in this year’s Homecoming Festival; and it’s created by the Belgian-born, Glasgow-based artist Sven Werner, whose work explores the idea of magic realism, and uses tiny, meticulously-constructed worlds, combined with narrative and music, to unleash the imagination. For some months, Werner has been travelling Scotland collecting tales of journeys, and constructing the two tiny installations – an old railway carriage, an old trackside cottage – that form the centrepieces of the visual experience. And then, lovingly set up on old wind-up gramophone machinery, there are the moving images that flicker past the train windows, the drifting snow across the tracks, the rich transatlantic voice of the nameless narrator, and magnificent, atmospheric music, all exquisitely co-ordinated by Werner.
The result is a tiny experience – just two images, and four stories lasting only three or four minutes each. Yet the stories themselves are so surreal and melancholy, so completely out of time, that they immediately reach into a deep place in the imagination, beautiful, unsettling, hard to forget. There’s the yarn about the man travelling with his old, dying dog, the one about the stormy journey to a wedding on Eigg in dinner jacket and red cocktail dress, the one about the trawler; there’s a touch of Jack London, a touch of Sherlock Holmes, even a hint of Alasdair Gray.
And when I had heard my last tale, and emerged from under the black cloth, I found that a strange thing had happened to my perspective on the world; as if the voice of the Queen Street announcer listing the stations to Aberdeen had somehow become thrilling, mysterious, charged with meaning. Which, I suppose, is exactly how Sven Werner wants to change our relationship with the apparently banal world around us; in a miniature show that may not be labelled as part of the Christmas season, but that shares the same sense of romance and transforming magic, lying just beneath the surface of our ordinary lives.