Friday, the prémiere for Hans’ new piece, Celestial Commute in the church of Les Brigittines in Brussels. The lighting of Giacomo Gorini, impossible for me to capture on camera. Anyway, some pictures:
This is a very tardy review of the one show I did see in Vienna at ImPulsTanz. I’d planned to see two others, but the first coincided with getting from airport to apartment, and the second, following a bike-sprint from Arsenal to Schauspielhaus, suffered the fate of late arrival. That latter was Jérôme Bel’s Jérôme Bel, a performance I’ve only seen parts of on video, which nonetheless had a significant influence on my work.
Lucky third then. Hans, of course I could not miss seeing a Hans show, and double lucky only a roll down the hill from Arsenal to Kasino. Outside I find Ivo, who was looking very healthy and relaxed, having moved to the hills outside Sophia; inside, behind the desk were Hans and Giacomo, and on stage Anuschka and Jake. Present only aurally: James Brown (no, not that one/yes, that one). Inside was late, as Dasniya and Florian shuttled themselves post-workshop (I was the early ticket collector), so my seat was exactly in the middle of the back row, where I got to stretch out above all the others squashed in.
The Lee Ellroy Show, then. Hans had been in Los Angeles with Anuschka and discovered that terrifying writer: James Ellroy. My discovery of Ellroy was as a student in Melbourne. A flatmate had a thing for crime fiction and introduced Ellroy to me, starting with the L.A. Quartet, moving chronologically backwards to L.A. Noir, and proceeding forwards again via American Tabloid. On a plane from China to somewhere (or the other way, not that it’s important), I picked up The Cold Six Thousand. I never read his autobiographical My Dark Places then or subsequently; his fiction was disturbing enough without venturing into that. In Melbourne also, I had a chance to meet him when he was doing a reading around the time of the L.A. Confidential film. My flatmate came back with autographed books; I was far too intimidated of him, or his persona as objectified in the inside-cover portraits, him leaning on a wooden chair with seated Pit Bull.
I haven’t read him for years now, but I do have a distinct memory of the emotional and psychological trajectory that occurs like a leitmotif, one where the pressure and stress on the protagonist (usually in first-person) rearranges itself, as if looking into a scene reflected in mirrors which suddenly shift and displace the viewer’s sense of self and certainty, It’s like vertigo, or waking from a nightmare, where it’s only after, once one has surfaced that the inchoate horror of the preceding pages reveals itself. These waves and drownings would repeat through each novel until the protagonist would put enough of the pieces together to drag himself clear, though not without damage.
I mention all of this because Ellroy seems largely unknown, at least amongst the audience of The Lee Ellroy Show; I mention it also to describe the feeling of watching the performance, and how it illustrated that very particular horror which is an Ellroy novel.
So, first: lights! There are few lighting designers as talented as Giacomo Gorini. I can think of only a couple—Henk Danner for Emio Greco, and some of Frankfurt Ballett—that are comparable, and I would watch a show for his lighting alone. He not only designs, but gets up the ladder, hangs the lamps, operates the show (with beer and cigarettes), which says plenty about his personal artistry and just how uncommon a designer he is. Second: sound, the very-much alive James Brown’s fitted like a film-score with the lights and Dirk De Hooghe’s plastic-walled box set. Third: Anuschka and Jake. Anuschka wearing a dress! I’ve never seen her wearing a dress in six years!
It starts as a long, uncomfortable anti-climax: Jake as Ellroy at a book-reading, or perhaps Jake as a Ellroy’s character in 1950s’ Las Vegas; Anuschka either way as the compère. Canned laughter repeats and cuts abruptly. Ellroy as a boy, or again a character—who is always a stand-in for Ellroy—rides in circles around the transparent walls on an old bike. The walls hang and shine like curtains in an abattoir. Each moment of Jake as Ellroy as the protagonist as authorial stand-in is in tension with Anuschka as Ellroy’s mother, murder victim herself, murder victim in the book—either already or imminently—lover or potential lover, not quite betrayer, always there as a mute signifier and witness to herself, never entirely trusted or forgiven.
This is Belgian dance, so they do in fact dance. I’ve seen many brilliant dancers in Han’s works: Ivan Fatjo in We Was Them, Lars August Jørgensen in Messiah Run, and of course Anuschka in everything. Jake and Anuschka together is dance that makes me smile and say, “fuck, yes!” There is dance where the movement, its quality, the bodies doing it are not so far from mundane, most of the audience themselves could, with some preparation, perform no better nor worse. This is not that. This is transcendence of corporeality that comes from dance having so thoroughly infiltrated the person that they are irrevocably changed. It is virtuosity. They collide, fling together, apart, flailing, wrapping themselves around each other, falling and collapsing, now delicate, now explosive, terrifying, there is an inevitability here, as if we can almost see into the future, and when we arrive and look back it seems there was no other possibility. This is choreography.
Hans’ works are cinematographic and have become more so since working with James and Giacomo, who have strong filmic influences in structuring light and sound across scenes and the entire work. I saw the Staatsballett Berlin performing Onegin recently: both works have progression and development over time of a narrative drawn from a novel, and both use choreography and dance to do this. This may seem a superficial comparison, but it does represent the history of dance and its continual involvement in narrative storytelling (as different from “a bunch of things happen on stage and we the audience get to create our own story”, or straightforward conceptual dance). Hans is one of the very few choreographers I’ve seen who manages convincing narrative performance, in no small part by the highly talented people he works with.
On that, a couple of criticisms: I was speaking with someone after—a well-known Berlin performer whose work I also like—who hated it, who thought it was old and tired and unoriginal ’90s Belgian dance of which the world has seen enough. It made me question my own perception, not the least if somehow in the last few years I’ve become old, my critical faculty is only good for ballet, and this new generation understands the world in a way I can never. By comparison, I see the current autobiographical trend in dance as a very late arrival at the Tracey Emin party, absent critical self-reflection. I did agree with him in part on the process towards nakedness, which is a habit of european dance generally. Even flipping this, so the ending was the clothed resolution of a prior nakedness would lend a different reading.
Writing this, I was thinking of British playwright Howard Barker’s Death, the One and the Art of Theatre:
A theatre which honours its audience will demand of its writers that they write in hazard of their consciences, for writers are paid to think dangerously, they are explorers of the imagination, the audience expects it of them. If they think safely, what is the virtue of them? Do you want to pay £10 to be told what you knew already? That is theft. Do you want to agree all the time? That is flattery, and the audience is always flattered, which is why it has become so sleek.
An honoured audience will quarrel with what it has seen, it will go home in a state of anger, not because it disapproves, but because it has been taken where it is reluctant to go. Thus morality is created in art, by exposure to pain and illegitimate thought.
It’s not simple as that, particularly with the last 15-ish years where racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia are given free rein under the aegis of ‘freedom of speech’, ‘post-blah’, ‘irony’ and with simultaneous resistance of groups targeted by bigotry to (the idea of) “exposure to pain and illegitimate thought” being presented a priori as neutral or unproblematic. Much as I no longer read William T. Vollman, Neal Stephenson, the classics from Hemmingway to Miller to the canon of Anglo and American literature, I haven’t read Ellroy for years: I’m looking for some other perspective, perhaps something of a Deleuzian Minority reading (and self-as-audience) project. I do however find in this quote something of what draws me to Hans’ work, as audience, as performer, as friend. I also think Hans is one of the rare people who manages to be choreographer, director, artist simultaneously. It occurs to me now that he is close to Falk Richter in this, though personally I think Hans is a vastly superior, thoughtful, more considered, and interesting artist.
The coffee is made thus: In a small bowl two teaspoons or so of sugar for every cup is added. Once the coffee begins to run out of the espresso machine, the first trickle is poured onto the sugar. This is beaten with a spoon until taking on a pale brown colour, emulsifying. Into each small cup, two viscous spoonfuls of this amalgam, and then the coffee on top, stirring until a crema floats on its surface.
This is the coffee of Giacomo, who has been in Brussels the last week and an half while Gala finishes some weeks of rehearsals in a single performance at Ivo’s Volksroom, along with Anuschka von Oppen, who was showing Nearby Buffalo in Brussels after a short season in Berlin.
Gala and Giacomo haven’t been sleeping so much the last week; long nights working on the set, lighting, rehearsing, rewiring, trying ideas and pre-show amendments (a whole scene vanishes, and the sound from a previous one also). Coffee is in abundance, as is beer and cigarettes. A calmness across the days also.
I found myself in the place I am happiest: a theatre, making performance. I do mundane things such as taping things, hanging things, adjusting things. This is not a review, though perhaps can be taken as one.
Throughout is a stillness, waiting attentiveness. For a dancer who has found home in companies where movement is the heart, she makes nothing that could be said to be dancing. Perhaps the floor on which she rehearsed is responsible, but equally, there is no inconsistency between one being a dancer who dances and the same one making performance far removed from this. At the end (less than thirty minutes), had she continued the room would have gone with her.
Rope bondage and suspension. Gala hangs sideways from her waist and abdomen. Giacomo dresses her in a sheet of emergency orange latex. She is in a box inside a room, walls of opaque or transparent plastic, floor reflective Aluminium. Lights stutter and tremble.
Giacomo illuminates the performance with perhaps twelve or so sources, some recognisable as theatre lights, others fluorescent tubes, others common household lamps. At times, a fan pushes the plastic sheeting, undulating and filling the space with sound.
She is naked until the end. This also is a change; before she was naked the whole way through. In the end she is talking, in jeans and a t-shirt. A story, autobiography? A poem. She is swimming, no water, no, definitely water, water goes in, goes out, polluting a little. In ten years, twenty years, only a photograph left. I am paraphrasing here.
Earlier, she is running. On the spot. Endlessly. Throwing dirt or dust or ashes, which haze in the aura of light. Giacomo … his lighting is as music, classical music perhaps. Deeply artistic and romantic, and also precisely technical. Without being obvious, it fills the room, gives not simply form and colour, but emotion, movement, sense, time. He says we should come to the Gorini home, to eat rabbit and drink coffee.
I spend Friday with them watching this, light and performance, trying to find some settings on my camera that will not balk at the conditions. Low light is one concern, and ultimately the difficulty I can’t surmount. The plastic sheeting between Gala and I, the other; the camera resolutely focussing on any light reflecting off the sheet, making her even more unfocussed.
This morning, more coffee. Then a failed trip to the markets for crëpes, arriving too late. Anyway, it was beautiful, poignant. Some photos.
Someone was telling me 佛山 Foshan, the Fo meant fire, like in Cantonese, but duh! it actually means Buddha. Anyway, Foshan is where Ms Pixeldirt Justine has been holed up making art on and off for about as long as I’ve been in China. It’s also where Osram China have their factory to make lights, and show off various sorts of illumination with matching colour temperature cards in the lumens equivalent of soft porn.
So we got a bus out there, which went way far in one direction, past the Osram factory, turned at a hairpin under the freeway, went, way far back, turned into town, went down the road for a while, did a u-turn, back up, turned and then we were there. I guess that’s the direct route, and I enjoyed the tour of Foshan too. we got little visitor stickers and went into the afore-mentioned boudoir of lux … mmm … LED sheets … before the head of the China operation gave us a short talk on Osram and Siemans in the middle kingdom. Along with brochures filled with spec sheets for 240000lm lamps. And stuff about art. Which is what we were here for but I was thinking JD would be in a sugar-coma from all this.
And it got even better. We got a tour of the plant.
Making florescent strip-lights and other fun stuff, from glass tubes to light-sabres. I’m a bit of a slut for automated production lines, and this was just like watching a steam-punk Alpha Blue, lots of gas burners, dully glowing thickly molten glass, pin-prick white bursts of arc welding, and all manner of lamps flickering on and off, wrapped in a moist heat funk of industry and southern china spring.
Not that I’m a connoisseur of overseas factories in China, though through my daily RSS mainlining, there’s a couple of CSR sites that get jacked up, and really Osram looked pretty nice. Clean, safe (ear plugs ja!), the staff were young and looked happy… despite the high-speed monotony of making fiddly parts over and over that would send me completely deranged in half a day, it just looked like a manufacturing site in any other country I’ve been.
But we were here for Art (though the thought of regular employment and my own bed got me quite distracted). In particular, Siemens Arts Programme that has been going on all over China, and in Foshan it was COSplayer of the year,曹斐 Cao Fei with What Are You Doing Here?. My photos pretty much suck, though Emile video-king got it all, and it’s funny that the last show I saw in which the exhibition was better than the advertising was her 角色 COSplayers in Hong Kong. This project is in collaboration with the employees at Osram, the same ones who are making your lights right now, who spent five months in their spare time making installations, learning to sing and dance, and while maybe they’re not going to go off to the 广州美术学院 Guangzhou Academy of fine Arts where the bus left from, they are an unequivocal display of the innate creativity in people that usually gets stamped out by age 10.
What I noticed in COSplayers was Cao Fei’s lack of irony in working with her collaborators, and a sensitivity that makes it very hard to look at the people involved in the work and the art they make in a disparaging way. This is so far from the lazy, incipiently hateful and un-committing dross I’ve seen in Australia and Europe, and splattered across the cultural landscape of western inner-city urban art. For me, this seriousness is what makes her work so strong, and why I keep coming back to it.
Practically, each group worked with her on an installation made from Osram products, and combined that with a performance in it, spread out across the basketball courts of the factory’s apartments, the performances cycling through as dusk fell across a clear, cloud-streaked sky. In reality describing it does nothing to explain the sheer weirdness and trippy psychedelia of it, like watching white-gloved security guards body-popping like Missy Elliot’s backing dancers under a sea of primary-hued light.
Cao Fei is off to the Sydney Biennale soon, and I was thinking about how this would tour. My first impression was that I’d love to see the employees in Sydney, then I started to see problems with that, how an audience such as in Australia, so attuned to seeing art-as-irony, would not get it, and how easily it would be for the performers to become circus monkeys. Also, the site-specific part of it, the “what are they (you) doing here?” is tricky to transfer, as it applies both ways, towards the workers from us in why they are there, what it is they do in their jobs, and from them to us as outsiders, why have you come, why are they looking at us? This reversibility of the spectacle, and its questioning lends a power to the art that removed from the Osram factory would be difficult to – at best – reproduce. To document it though, and present that along with the installations I think would be far more effective, to see the audience both us as outsiders and the Osram employees – foreign and Chinese – makes it complete.
I think the Siemans Arts Program is something really awesome, and that it’s happening in China even more so. Cao Fei, her work and I guess, her working methodology to me seemed a very appropriate choice as artist. Also the people involved who work in the Foshan factory should feel very proud of what they’ve done.
(After we went to Sleepywood for Long Island Ice Teas, and the photograph of the pitcher full of it is for someone who asked me to have one for them… yes, the Sleepywood drinks mock tall buildings with their puny size.)
Cao Fei’s “What are you doing here?”
Oct 2005 – Apr 2006
OSRAM China Lighting Ltd., Foshan, Guangdong Province
OSRAM China Lighting and Siemens Arts Program asked the artist Cao Fei to conceive an art project for the Foshan site.
For this purpose, she distributed questionnaires to the employees, inviting them to express their personal feelings, wishes, anxieties, career goals and expectations. Afterwards she worked intensively with 35 employees to translate these intangibles into artistic form. She divided the employees into five groups, each of which focused on one of the following themes: “Future”, “Dreams”, “Reality”, “Home City” and “Visions”. Expressed as drawings and sketches, their ideas will be initially incorporated into a lighting installation, which will be followed by a collaboratively conceived performance and a video.
Cao Fei‘s art repeatedly reflects on the social relationship between the individual and that individual’s professional surroundings. Against the background of globalization, she devotes particular attention to social changes occurring in the Pearl River Delta, which is also the location of the headquarters of OSRAM China Lighting Ltd.
“What are they doing here?” is a project series run by Siemens Arts Program.
I’m off to Hong Kong tomorrow to pick up Paul and Emile, and I’m not sure when I’m coming back, so maybe there will be nothing to keep you amused. But I’ll be going west on April 11th for Cao Fei‘s installation performance at Osram’s lighting factory. mmm lights …
The “What are they doing here?” series attempts to foster lively communication between Chinese artists and employees of Siemens AG subsidiaries. In these projects, employees are invited to perceive their work environment not only in terms of business, but also to experience its emotional, social and creative dimensions.
OSRAM China Lighting and Siemens Arts Program invited the artist Cao Fei to create an independent artwork in collaboration with the staff of OSRAM Foshan. She posed the question “What are you doing here?”and distributed questionnaires to staff in different positions in order to compile their hopes, dreams, anxieties and expectations. These feelings are visualized through light installations, a studio performance and a video.
In this work, Cao Fei focuses on the value and identity of the human being in a huge production system, and thereby shows how art can turn a production system that exists in the real world into “theater”. At the same time, the project tries to explain how increasing globalization is affecting the Pearl River Delta, as well as the whole of Chinese society. This is inextricably linked with the artist’s continuous observationof the relations between individual and social space and the urban space of the Pearl River Delta.