Tag Archives: visual dramaturgy

On the dyingness of things (reviewed: MIAF 2010: Stifters Dinge; David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera; Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, in a Year)

Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario Del Curto.




David Chesworth’s Richter/Meinhof-Opera was a highly anticipated take on the Red Army Faction’s Ulrike Meinhof. Announced as a 45-minute, pocket performance artwork (opera it wasn’t), it was an even shorter, quieter beast than expected. Tackling a potentially inexhaustible subject with an absolute minimalism of input and effect, it treads that usual fine line between the open-ended and the non-committal. It barely skims the complex story of Meinhof, respected journalist who joined a terrorist organisation, and whose simultaneous canonisation as left-wing martyr and demonization as Communist murderer still divides Germany. The only trace of the other members of the RAF is a record player, playing an Eric Clapton track, exactly as it did when Baader committed suicide in his prison cell. This is a rare instance in which the music goes beyond atmospheric soundscape; the other is a string duet, which mellifluously contrasts with the rest of the work, enhancing its thinness somehow. A few of Meinhof’s best-known quotations are projected onto ACCA’s shard-like walls, while centre-stage stands Gerhard Richter (Hugo Race), who famously painted RAF members’ death portraits in 1988, and was accused of mythologising terrorism.

The intended core of this work is the enormous disjuncture between direct action, advocated by Meinhof (often paraphrasing Brecht), and the indirectness and detachment of representational art, which often gives life to such ideas. The inability of our own cynical, ideologically unconvinced contemporary era to present the full spectrum of Meinhof’s time is another big theme. However, to say that Richter/Meinhof-Opera ‘explores’ them would be to give it excessive credit. Between Richter’s moody, detached canvases, the monochrome photos of the stylish Faction (which overwhelmingly comprised young women) and the occasional discursive duet (the libretto is a slim pastiche of quotations), the myth of RAF is presented as a matter of aestheticising or not; and the issue of direct action as a matter of professional ethics (to identify or not with one’s subject matter). Cold War politics lie forgotten, and ideas are not so much revealed as hinted at.

Even Richter, whose engagement with RAF is the focal interest of the opera, remains shorthand for the generic Artist. Evading all the big questions on this big topic, Richter/Meinhof-Opera feels and looks as if in development, like a sketch for a bigger work.

stifters dinge

Those who work with things (sculptors, architects, furniture makers) are often perplexed by the readiness with which more idealist disciplines (theatre, poetry) turn this material into signs and ideas. The result is frequently naive mystification, or embellishing fetishism: we have all seen signed urinals, soup cans, as well as their less rounded children—from derelict buildings employed as metaphors to artsy tapestries. What makes Heiner Goebbels’ Stifters Dinge so remarkable is that it does none of this, and has its audience enraptured. Its form is sui generis: a peopleless performance, or perhaps just a giant moving contraption. And yet, its workings are magical, for idealists and materialists alike.

The dramaturgy of Stifters Dinge is all in a sequence of apparently unrelated mechanical events: light changes, mechanical actions, sound clips and video projections. These are organised around a host of motifs: principally, the writings of Adalbert Stifter, a 19th century Austrian novelist whose prose is notoriously thickly furnished, upholstered, landscaped. (Literary lore has it that modernisation was already making advances into the order of things, and that 19th century naturalism was a kind of urgent stock taking.) Other motifs are the Renaissance dicovery of geometric perspective (chiefly Paolo Uccello’s paintings), utilitarian traditional music (Greek, Papuan, Colombian), voice recordings of Malcolm X. With technical perfection, the sequence of mechanical events coalesces into a world, all whilst remaining first and foremost mobile matter, without metaphors or superimposed meaning. The work builds into a deeply satisfying and meaningful totality by making us aware precisely of the bottomless materiality of its devices. When dry ice bubbles up in the three shallow water pools, seeing the trick does not stop the entire audience from holding their breath in awe. Stifters Dinge purges the stage of illusion and interpretation, but the ‘things’ that remain are neither threatening nor banal. Rather, they assume almost sacral fullness.

carnival of mysteries

Carnival of Mysteries, conversely, is an image of a carnival world. It has it all: tents, noise, nudity, candy floss, its own (inflated) currency and many short acts of varying skill and engagement. It is as entertaining and uneven as any carnival. It is also no more dramaturgically cohesive, nor exploratory: neither does it try to bring a superior level of artistry to the content, nor interrogate the form (in the vein of One-on-One Festival; RT99, p10). With many times more mini-shows than can be experienced in the allotted two hours, it is a somewhat frenzied experience, lacking the relaxed atmosphere of a fair. But the intensity does not translate into superb artistry, at least not in the fraction of the shows I witnessed. Should we be deconstructing it critically, suspending critical judgement, or witnessing it referentially? If Carnival is the answer, what is the artistic question? Is it a lowbrow event for a highbrow audience, with highbrow performers? Is it a replacement for Spiegeltent, which used to be the place at MIAF for circus, burlesque and other kinds of friendly lowbrow? A ‘carnival but of another kind,’ it is both too close, and once removed.

tomorrow, in a year

Tomorrow, In A Year, Hotel Pro Forma. Photo: Claudi Thyrrestrup.

Hotel Pro Forma’s Tomorrow, In a Year, an ‘electro opera’ about the life and work of Charles Darwin, was the most controversial show of this year’s MIAF (its response coming close to the outrage caused by Liza Lim’s The Navigator in 2008; opera is clearly fraught cultural ground in Melbourne). It is a conceptual work, with no plot to retell. It explores the thematic links between four moments in Darwin’s life—including the death of his daughter (potentially linked to his marriage to a first cousin)—and the implications of his theory . The endless mutability of the natural world, whose laws form us despite our pretended detachment, and whose laws we can never break, is the terrible heart of this work. It opens with potentially bewildering, undifferentiated stage sludge, an image of the original primordial soup of life; it ends as accelerating hydroponic chaos, or perhaps complex order?

The stage imagery is poor: only two planes of horizontal movement, no interaction between the performers, green laser beams and much dry ice. Using botanical drawings and video footage of water, Hiroaki Umeda’s algae-like choreography and the occasional verse about geological time and entombed carcasses, it explores a complete intangible: the fact that the material world is bigger than a human being, that we do not become through it, but are crushed by it.

But unlike Chesworth’s non-committal opera, it is fully exploratory. A note of the Romantic sublime runs through the work, unnoticed by those who bemoan its coldness. It unearths a potential Western counterpoint to the Japanese concept of ‘mono no aware’: the awareness of the dyingness of things, of the essential inability of matter to last. Just as cherry blossoms are less pretty than tragically transient, so is Tomorrow, In a Year not so much beautiful to watch as it is a despairing attempt to grasp cosmic complexity.

In the absence of meaningful stage action, enjoyment of this opera is strongly predicated on appreciating the music, by the Swedish electronic duo The Knife, which forms its narrative, emotional and intellectual core. It is a complex composition of natural and electronic noises, bel canto, house beats, borrowings from Purcell, early polyphony. And yet this collage of pop and found remains staunchly anti-metaphorical, a postmodernist pile of stuff asking to be understood literally: when Kristina Wahlin sings that “epochs collected here,” she is relating a geological fact, not a poetic truth.

While the work has been hailed as showing the future of the operatic form, it seems to succeed largely in musical terms. Visually, it attempts an abstract variation on a nature documentary, with results too reminiscent of late 1990s raves to be genuinely eligible for the label ‘innovation.’ Knowing that cyborgs, virtual reality and Dolly the Sheep were all the rage circa 1998 provides some dramaturgical solace, but does not compensate for Tomorrow, In A Year falling short of its promise.

2010 Melbourne International Arts Festival: Richter/Meinhof-Opera, direction, music, sound design David Chesworth, text David Chesworth (after Tony MacGregor), performers Kate Kendall, Hugo Race, lighting Travis Hodgson; ACCA, Oct 14-16; Stifters Dinge, concept, music, direction Heiner Goebbels; Malthouse, Oct 8-11; Carnival of Mysteries, creators, directors Moira Finucane, Jackie Smith, production design The Sisters Hayes; fortyfivedownstairs, Oct 6-30; Hotel Pro Forma, Tomorrow, In A Day, directors Kirsten Dehlholm, Ralf Richardt Strobech, music The Knife; Arts Centre, Melbourne, Oct 20-23

First published in RealTime, issue #100, Dec-Jan 2010, pg. 10.

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Bookmark: Marianne Van Kerkhoven

The image of the Berlin Wall comes from Dream of Harlequin, where is appears uncredited.

If we define idealism as “acting on the basis of an unshakeable belief
in the possibility of a better life”, then we were the bearers of a
fervent idealism and great optimism. In its philosophical meaning,
idealism is a theory that holds first of all that reality is a product of
one’s consciousness, the ideas one has in one’s mind. But that was
not the theoretical foundation on which the movement of ’68 rested.
We drew support from the materialist philosophy of Marxism which
holds that the social being, the materiality of existence, in the final
analysis shapes man’s thoughts, emotions, mental processes. We
knew that people living in huts would inevitably think differently,
and see society differently, than people living in palaces. We were
aware that there were classes in society who had different needs and
concerns, and that this would inevitably lead to the emergence of
social struggles.

The achievements of the Enlightenment were not yet being questioned
at that time.We believed in the power of reason, in the power
of the word. We also believed in the power of progress, in hope, in
the possibility of improving the world. We were convinced that the
true nature of life in society was being hidden from view by an
ideological veil.We wanted to do what we could to remove that veil
from in front of others and ourselves, so that another perception of
the world could clear the way for another activity.


And yet, despite our efforts and enthusiasm, the great revolution
did not occur; the world seemed amore difficult place to change than
we had anticipated. Our perception of the world started to sway, or
was it the world itself which was swaying?

In “Between Two Colmars”, an essay from his volume About Looking,
John Berger, the English author and art critic who resides in France,
describes two successive visits he made to the small French town of
Colmar (in Alsace) to see Grünewald’s famous Isenheim altarpiece:
first, in 1963, and then again ten years later, in 1973. In the space of
those ten years, the lives of many thousands of people would be
radically altered. In his essay, written in 1973, Berger observes that
for him, too, the years before 1968 were “a time of expectant hopes”
and that “hope” was “a marvellous focusing lens”. He attempts to
compare with great precision the impressions Grünewald’s altarpiecemade
on him at those two different moments. “I do not want to
suggest that I saw more in 1973 than in 1963,” he writes. “I saw
differently. That is all. The ten years do not necessarily mark a
progress; in many ways they represent defeat.” The difference in his
consecutive observations lies in the difference in his frame of mind
at the time of observing: hopeful in 1963, doubtful in 1973. “Hope”,
he wrote, ”attracts, radiates as a point, towhich one wants to be near,
from which one wants to measure. Doubt has no centre and is
ubiquitous.” I quote further: “It is a commonplace that the significance
of a work of art changes as it survives. Usually however, this
knowledge is used to distinguish between ‘them’ (in the past) and
‘us’ (now). There is a tendency to picture them and their reactions
to art as being embedded in history, and at the same time to credit
ourselves with an over-view, looking across from what we treat as
the summit of history. The surviving work of art then seems to confirm
our superior position. The aim of its survival was us. This is
illusion. There is no exemption from history. The first time I saw
Grünewald I was anxious to place it historically. In terms of
medieval religion, the plague,medicine, the Lazar house.Now I have
been forced to place myself historically. In the period of revolutionary
expectation, I saw a work of art which had survived as
evidence of the past’s despair; in a period which has to be endured,
I see the same work miraculously offering a narrow pass across

What impact does it have on us if, as Peter Sloterdijk put it, we have
to come to terms with the most important mental shift in Western
civilisation in the twentieth century; namely, the shift from the
primacy of the past to the primacy of the future. We draw up little
lists of important things that we want to take with us from that past;
we discuss the canon, cultural heritage, repertories, the final attainment
levels; we elect the most important Belgian or Fleming etc.
of all time. But none of this yields a real solution to the issue of how
to deal with the past. If you were taught in the seventies about the
importance of historical conscience as the means par excellence
with which to read the contemporary world, this is a development
that is very difficult to grasp.

The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran defined utopia as
“the grotesque en rose”. “A monstrous fairyland” will replace the
image of the future, “a vision of irrevocable happiness, of a planned
paradise in which there is no room for chance and where the least
fancy comes across as heresy or provocation”. But Cioran added:
“You can repress everything in people except their need for an absolute”.
And he concluded: “No paradise is possible, except in the
innermost of our being and, as itwere, in the I of the I; and even then
it is necessary, in order to find it there, to have observed all paradises,
the bygone and the potential, to have hated or loved them with
the awkwardness of fanaticism, and then to have explored them and
rejected them with the skill of disappointment”.

The holistic vision of the world that, in the seventies already, we
nourished in theory, namely, the sense that everything was interconnected,
today seems to have become a reality. A single system
spans the entire world. Like time, space too seems to be compressed.
The internet, other real-time media, and tourism have made our
world smaller. We can, as it were, communicate with anyone around
the world as if they were our neighbours. The world is flowing into
our lives and our homes. When a tsunami hit a number of countries
around the Indian Ocean in late 2004 causing 300,000 victims, not
only was this event brought close to us through real-time footage,
but it also became clear how many Europeans spent their holidays
there, as if it were a destination in the south of France.


Today, communication seems to occur more often through images,
without having recourse to words. Language, that old and slow
symbolic medium, has seen its status affected in both social and
theatrical communication. William Forsythe has devoted a
performance to this topic, Heterotopia, in which language acquires
a spatial dimension. Language has become an image, a square
peopled with characters, a Tower of Babel that has been flattened,
made horizontal. And all these characters, including the audience,
are following the inscription (but simultaneously the injunction)
that Peter Handke wrote at the beginning of his wordless play Die
Stunde dawir nichts von einanderwußten
(The Hour We Knew Nothing
of Each Other
): “Do not betray what you have seen. Remain in
the picture.” All letters of the alphabet are literally on stage, but no
matter what the performers do, these letters refuse to form words, to
create meaning. And yet, there is a constant communication on the
stage: with bodies, actions, movements, sounds, images. In Romeo
Castellucci’s Purgatorio, “the reading of text” is turned into an
image; this also occurs in Hooman Sharifi’s God Exists, the Mother
Is Present, But They No Longer Care
, in which, during the representation,
time is set aside for the audience to read the projected text.
In Castellucci’s play, the projected text includes descriptions of actions
that will occur on stage, or not. He is playing with time,
keeping us alert. The projected words make us pay attention.
What, in fact, is the relation between words and images?


Every day in my work as a dramaturge, I observe how the naming of
things leads to a readjustment of the perception of those things, and
vice versa. In order to talk about new realities, a new vocabulary has
to be developed. To name, to try to describe reality seems to me to
be the first task that we have to take on in the face of the confusing
reality that surrounds us. In order to decipher the world, to be able
to narrate the world, we must indeed believe that it can be described.
Maybe that offers one possibility, an initial boost. In order to
understand something, we must be able to imagine it. For understanding
to be possible,word, image, thought and imagination must
come together.

-Marianne Van Kerkhoven, The Ongoing Moment. Reflections on image and society. Hosted on Sarma.be.

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