Tell and Show
Performing words as artistic strategy: Keren Cytter, Magdalena von Rudy, Ana Torfs, Victor Alimpiev, Ulla von Brandenburg

published in (H)Art #62, February 2010, online:

In the past years, theatricality in visual artworks has been one of the hotter topics of the exhibition making business. Artists such as Ulla von Brandenburg, Keren Cytter, Victor Alimpiev, Ana Torfs or Magdalena Rudy– to name just a few – work decidedly with performative and theatrical strategies and use them in their time-based works, that is video, performances, lectures or audio plays. And very often it is the spoken word which makes the center of the respective piece.

Situated as they are between disciplinary boundaries, texts in the visual arts tend to be treated en passant. Indeed, it is rare for the methods of literary criticism at our disposal to be applied to the analysis of linguistic elements in visual artworks – in comparison with images, texts are apt to be treated as marginal. Yet a conscious and advanced approach to language is characteristic of current theatrical time-based visual art such that a script, for the most part composed especially for the piece in question, often foms the point of departure for the creative process.

Keren Cytter

One might think of the disturbing video works by artist Keren Cytter (born 1977 in Tel Aviv, lives and works in Berlin) who was nominated for last year’s Preis der Nationalgalerie für junge Kunst and whose works have been shown in many European exhibitions in the last years, e.g. in “Talking Pictures” (K21, Düsseldorf 2007) or “World as a stage” (Tate Modern, London 2008) or currently in “The Malady of Writing. A project on text and speculative imagination” (MACBA, Barcelona). The artist writes the texts for her videos, plays, novel, short stories and feature films herself and engages friends and actors to perform the texts under her direction. For example Cytter’s 9-minutes video piece “o.T.” which was shown on the Venice Biennial 2009 in Daniel Birnbaum’s Arsenale exhibition featured several characters of various age in a theater backstage setting who talk to each other (in German with English subtitles) in a rather emotionless manner. What they say is seemingly taken out of context but still disturbingly aggressive and meaningful enough to evoke the feel of a classical drama among members of a family.

Drama, as classical narratology would have it, is a non-narrative genre since the story is not
actually told by a narrator but rather shown by actors. Narratology differentiates and denotes the possibilities of distancing in literature as reporting narrative or scenographic reprresentation, both of which have been around since Plato. In narrative theory as practised in the anglophone world, the pair of terms simple narration and scenic presentation finds frequent use, as does the opposition of telling and showing. Irrespective of the terminology, however, all of the terms name differing degrees of indirectness.

Magdalena von Rudy

For contemporary artists, one appeal of the theatrical approach lies in its potential to narrate a story in images. The connection between the two can also be rendered in narratological terms: the autonomous direct speech of characters which is constitutive for the theatre and appplied not only by Keren Cytter, but also by many other contemporary artists. Among them Magdalena von Rudy (born 1973 in Racibórz, Poland, lives and works in Wuppertal, Germany) is one of the particularly interesting. In her video “Persona Syndrom” (2005), which won the renowned German Marler Video-Kunst-Preis in 2006, von Rudy plays a complex and ambiguous game with direct speech on the one hand and role-playing on the other: Two women watch Ingmar Bergman’s film “Persona” (1966). The film is shown in the Swedish original version and being translated simultaneously by one of the women. Formally very reduced – the image is mostly a close-up on the faces of the two women – the video focuses on the facial expression of the speaking woman and on the text which is a mixture between a fixed script and spontaneously spoken word, describing an erotic scene. The tension between the sexual nature of what the woman says and the clinical atmosphere of the setting makes the whole scene captivatingly oscillating between the cool and the steamy.

Ana Torfs

The diversity of possibilities available for incorporating direct speech into a staged happening ranges from modes of spontaneous expression in monologue or interview form to the delivery of an especially scripted text, whether it be a monologue, a dialogue or even a voice off-screen, to the restaging of a historical dramatic text as an audio play with slide projection. An example for the latter is Belgian artist Ana Torfs (born 1963 in Mortsel, lives and works in Brussels). The artist’s approach to image and word is unique and haunting: in her black and white slide installations the spoken is detached from its speaker and transferred into the space. “The Intruder” (2004), based on Maurice Maeterlinck’s play “L’Intruse” (1890), adheres to the principal demand of Aristotelian drama: the unity of place, time and action. The artist commissioned a new translation of the play into English, adapted it and changed the setting to a modern villa. The play, performed by professional actors, is shown in black and white slides, projected on a black wall. From offstage, speakers accompany the slide pictures with sterotypical intonation. This emphatically anti-naturalistic delivery of text places emphasis on the stylization of the piece and leaves the viewer fascinated and bewildered at the same time. The newest example for this intriguing strategy is Ana Torf’s work “Displacement” (2009), the outcome of a production-in-residence in Gotland in the Baltic Sea, which refers to Roberto Rossellini’s film ‘Journey to Italy’ (1954). This piece will be, among others, presented in her first comprehensive museum survey “Album/Tracks A” at K21 Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, from 27 February until 18 July.

Similar to the way we read texts – and in contrast to the way we experience a play performed live on stage – as viewers of theatrical or narrative videos and films, we do something apparently paradoxical by registering the events portrayed as being open and present and yet simultaneously as complete and past. Events appear to be past insofar as they are perceived from the very beginning to constitute a completed whole, a chronological form in which the beginning already refers to the end in respect of meaning. The reader perceives events to be present and open insofar as he or she regards characters as being figures caught up in the events of the narrated world and understands their perspective as agents. Even though the events must necessarily belong to the past by the very fact of their being captured on a supporting medium such as film, the viewing process nevertheless incorporates the very same events into the viewer's present. Video and film share this property with the medium of photography, though the former have the advantage of time, of temporality, on their side. It is a property that serves to distinguish them from the classical theatre performance whose presentness is constitutive. And it is precisely this particularity of the medium of video/film that renders the foray into the realms of theatre and narrative so extraordinarily fruitful for the visual arts.

Victor Alimpiev

It is not only narrativity and theatricality which regained importance in the visual arts in the past years – young artists rediscover the art of performance in general, that is also dancing resp. choreographed motion and singing. This interest sometimes leads to captivatingly peculiar results, also in regards to the use of language. One excample is Victor Alimpiev (born 1973 in Moscow, lives and works there) who in his work frequently reflects elements of other artistic disciplines, such as theatre, dance and painting. His two-channel video installation “Wie heißt dieser Platz?” (What is the name of this place?, 2006) is the first of his works to use text, and moreover text written by the artist himself. Positioned in a group of fifteen people one of the performers engage the audience in a dialogue. Yet the nature of her presentation resembles less a speech than a kind of spoken song. Here Alimpiev aligns himself with the avantgardist form of the sprechgesang after Arnold Schönberg’s”Pierrot Lunaire” (1912). The group is encircled by cameras: gestures are isolated in close-up shots in much the same way that sentences and words in the peculiar rendering of text are singled out. Through exaggerating and isolating words and gestures, Alimpiev empties them of their function as expressions of emotion. They become “pathos formulae” in the Warburgian sense, culturally inflected and encoded stagings of affects and passions. Und thus a dramaturgically extreme play emerges just through the renunciation of dramatic narrative.

Ulla von Brandenburg

Alimpiev shares his interest in adapting poses and gestures of theatrical conventions of presentation and thus examining the relationship of appearance and reality in an abstract manner with Ulla von Brandenburg (born 1974 in Karlsruhe, Germany, lives and works in Paris) – doubtless currently one of the hottest tips among theatrically working visual artists. Most of her work centers on the exploration of theater as a construct, and the relation between audience and actors, subject and object, reality and illusion. Von Brandenburg’s 16mm-film installation “Singspiel” (2009), which the viewer had to enter through a winding passage made of curtains, was definitely one of the most exciting new works in Birnbaum’s Arsenale parcours in Venice 2009 – atmospherically charged, disquietingly unfamiliar and highly compelling at the same time. The artists achieves this effect by using space, material, the moved image, staging and language in an impressively precise, yet free artistic way. Filmed in a single shot at Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye (1928-31), close to Paris, “Singspiel” is centered around a group of ten people, professional actors, who appear to be a family. Their actions – a woman tries to open a door, a man carries a box into a room, a boy lies in bed – remain unclear. At some point they all gather around a table, at another they participate in a play in the garden, both as actors and performers. As acoustic layer over the mysterious actions one hears a female, in fact the artist’s, voice singing (in German without subtitles) to which the actors mime. Like the images the text of the song is not easily to decode; it deploys its effect primarily through its poetic and hermetic beauty. Long after leaving the installation the beguiling refrain stays with the visitor: „Gestern war nicht morgen / Und heute ist nicht hier / Ich will’s nicht gewesen sein / Niemand hat gefragt.“ – “Yesterday was not tomorrow / And today is not here / I don’t want to be it / Nobody asked.“

Barbara J. Scheuermann