April 2008, TANZTAGE Berlin
All art is at once surface and symbol. Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril. Those who read the symbol do so at their peril. It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors. –Oscar Wilde in preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray
The struggle between interpretation and memory becomes clear when discussing performance art, which is also known as temporal art, durational art, or a happening. Performance art deals with multiple elements but in particular time, space, the performer, and the relationship between the performer and the spectators. Recently, performance art has seen a resurgence in today’s fast-paced-technologically-dependent world, as people long for a more sensory experience. I found my experience at Tanztage Berlin to bring complications of contemporary art to the forefront: how can one reach an audience and make a unique statement without being overly political, theatrical, boring, or clichéd?
Founded in 1996 by Barbra Friedrich and Benjamin Schlälike, Tanztage gives young people the chance to perform on stage. Thus creating a platform for budding artists in the Berlin performance art world, a field known to have shortages of funding, management, and press coverage, which make it extremely difficult to breakthrough. This year, Tanztage introduced Peter Pleyer as its new artistic director. He has lived in Berlin for seven years, and (as a performer) is also familiar with the Berlin art scene.
During the first performance, Rosi tanzt Rosi and Susanne Martin, who mainly work with contemporary, improvisational dance and theatre, appear on an unadorned stage. Martin's agile body is clothed in a simple black dress that starkly contrasts with the gray wig and mask she wears to disguise her face as an old lady. Her costume garners a few laughs from the audience. Martin begins to dance beautifully in fluid and youthful movements to a short classical piece. After the ten minutes are over I find myself feeling slightly unsatisfied- I want to know the face behind the mask. However, once I read her artist statement I feel more of an understanding about her piece. Martin discusses the issues of post-modernity in creating (or destroying) boundaries.
Post-modernity claims that there is no reality, and as performance is even further removed from reality, it seems fitting (and perhaps more difficult) to create commentary on our society’s language and constructed reality, which is particularly dualistic (for example, black and white, male and female, gay and straight). Limiting oneself to a few answers is limiting one’s perception of the world while inventing partial answers creates fetishism; I feel that Martin demonstrates this by never removing her mask while appearing half youthful and half elderly. Still, the problem is presented in performance art: temporality. During the short performance, I am only able to establish the surface and it did nothing for me emotionally, I feel more strongly about the piece after I have seen it and have had time to reflect. Ultimately, I feel Martin’s piece may be dealing too much with the concept, rather than her actual performance. This is particularly obvious when she seems to use post-modernity as her shield, stating, understand it or not “ it’s hybrid, postmodern.”
The second performance is Thomas und Claire: nach Tristan und Isolde, choreographed by Anna Melnikova, who has studied dance in Russia, Germany, and England. Two men and a woman perform in unassuming street attire for a half an hour using a piano as a prop, as I try not to fall asleep. One man stands aimlessly on the stage as the other two form a pair and perform various modernist dance moves. I come to attention every now and then when the pair has screaming fits as if undergoing some sort of exorcism. In the end, the piece leaves me frustrated yet unaffected. The audience even gives out two resounding “BOOs” (which are not part of the performance). Initially I doubted my readings, thinking to myself that my opinion may not be as valid as a connoisseur of performance art. I wonder if I am not getting something, as there must be a reason Pleyer chose to put this as one of the opening pieces. Still, I find myself questioning the thin line between what is art and what are overly pretentious elements thrown together under the name of “art.” Melnikova’s piece is over-theatrical and cliché in a way that creates no meaning for me. In her artist statement she claims to be exploring the idea that “The logic of opera is not that of life." The reality of opera is not that of its audience.” So the reality is that of the performers, the audience’s reality does not exist for the performers, and the performance does not reflect life. If I don’t understand it then I guess that is my loss. Luckily perceptions are endless, as the piece may have done something to move the director who chose to include it. However, it does nothing for me as a reader, and I think that the boo-ers agree.
An intermission follows Tristan und Isolde and the crowd gathers outside discussing the performances over glühwein and beer (smoking is newly verboten). Signs warn of Häst Duo’s performance: “BEWARE: LOUD MUSIC AND STOBESCOPIC LIGHTING.” Upon re-entering the performance space, I notice a huge projection screen in the background with a distorted image of a snow-covered forest. A click of the mouse (a minor technical faux pas) starts In the Silence of Fruits. A voice begins over the sound of wind and eventually Häst Duo wriggle in on their stomachs (in what looks like a painful use of the body for movement) from opposite sides of the stage, both dressed in all-white tracksuits. Throughout the piece, which lasts about a half an hour, two voices recite a figurative story of craving and desire in relation to fruits and enjoying other’s misery. When the voices pause my focus either switches to the video, the performers, or sometimes both. The video and one of the voices lead to the climax as a girl falls on her bicycle; immediately after, extremely loud techno music, strobe lighting, and a contemporary dance routine by the Duo begin. At this point some of the older members of the audience get up to leave, unable to handle the loud club feeling--this is the only point of the night where people get up to leave during the performance.
Sara Mathiasson and Sofia Restorp, who form Häst Duo, are both twenty-one and studied dance and fine art, respectively. Although age is simply a number, I find it of great interest when observing their piece for a couple reasons, one reason being that I am closest in age with them compared to the other performers, and the other being that all the people that leave during the piece (always when Häst Duo begin dancing to loud music and strobe lighting) are all older, some look even two generations older. As I watch their use of all different medias (that keep me at full attention the whole time) makes me come to realize what it means when people describe my generation as one that is need of instant gratification and runs on a fuel of desires that must constantly be fulfilled, but can ultimately be meaningless. After the climax, their video makes mundane acts, such as making a sandwich, cutting hair, or slicing a cucumber, appear colorful and intriguing, while they create a dialogue, which I want to join, especially when the music and lights come on. Initially I have a problem with the loud music: is it taking away from the overall performance, as I find I focus more on the music versus the performers? For spectators, like me, who can loose interest quickly (also known as attention deficit disorder), anything that is able to evoke emotion works. In the Silence of Fruits, is the only piece to utilize the whole space while using multi-media techniques; paradoxically this almost makes it simpler to understand than the other two performances. It is also the only performance in which the artist statement and the actual performance clearly state the plot. I find this interesting because performance art tends to stray away from obvious and go toward the subjective. Yet I am part of a generation that wants answers immediately, and Häst Duo’s performance was able to do this in a way that created a social commentary that I can relate to, but obviously not everyone can.
So, how can one reach an audience and make a unique statement without being overly political, theatrical, boring, or cliché? The best I can do is say how things appear to me, but then am I using the name of post-modernity as protection against those who may not agree or understand me? Maybe so. I also think Oscar Wilde was more than correct when he said interpret at your own risk. This year Tanztage Berlin had an interesting opening line-up and it definitely made me want to see more performance pieces in the future. After all is said and done, I’ll just keep thinking in my reality and everyone will just keep believing in their terms. I think Wilde was aware of this too when he declared “All art is quite useless.” But it doesn’t mean that it isn’t fun to escape to.
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Adriana Richardson completed Mass Media and Propaganda studies at New York University. Currently, she lives in Berlin, where she works as a freelance writer.