Loud & Clear Thinking: on SUM SIVIT KURTS NOK RELATED INESZ ART and TRANSZENDENTALER KONSTRUKTIVe TANZKUNST and on the other adventurous contributions to the new edition of BIFRONS DVDs.
For those who were not yet aware of it: Loud & Clear TOO is the second Bifrons DVD project where an artist and then a publicity man are asked to react to a piece of music specially written for the series. Three people, three artistic works that try as it were to incorporate a single atmosphere.
Will it work?
There was no doubting the first series: the result is fascinating and fantastic in bursts, but never tedious. Precisely by accepting the exciting music with open arms, the artist and the publicity man always manage to hit it off in one way or another. Reflecting each other’s experiences, or contradicting them, but never dully avoiding each other.
Here in this new series you come across a similar surprising result. Always unexpectedly. Perhaps the relatively short duration of the videos has something to do with this. While you prefer to see long films on TV, short films seem to be just the thing for your computer screen, certainly when they’re so nice and short as the new Loud & Clear Too collection.
And this short duration actually seems to increase the artistic quality.
Take Anna & Bernhard Blume’s “Abstrakt”. The video really eludes all categorisation. The main colours are grey and white. A shelf on the wall displaying objects and cut out letters, evidently made from polystyrene. The objects are nicely stylised, the letters casually cut and placed, and undoubtedly geared to one another. All of this is depicted in a remarkable filmic way and though it’s not quite what you would expect, it is not disturbing. The camera repeatedly moves horizontally, from right to left, a bit higher, a bit lower. It is the repetition in particular that makes us alert, there’s evidently something that we have to find out, something that we’ve missed at first sight. This is logical since the letters, which are read not mirrorwise but back to front, are trying to tell us something which takes a while to discover. The objects on display are not so easy to read either: something that looks, if anything, like a teapot of Malevich, who desired to 'free art from the burden of the object' ; and a white cross; half corners of what seem to be conceptually large objects; and many indefinable forms, apparently packaging for domestic appliances.
And then this unreadable text. I end up clumsily making improvised notes with paper and pen, peering and fishing for the meaning.
I pass on my findings chronologically to the reader.
SUMSIVIT KURTSNOK RELATEDinezs ART
I read a lot of capital letters, five small ones and three spaces. Utterances by artists wanting to secretly convey something to us, I mutter to myself while making writing it down.
The notes on a second viewing, everything now in capital letters, but with six spaces:
SUM SIVIT KURTS NOK RELATED INESZ ART
This sounds better, but I still haven’t copied it down correctly, or the Blume’s letters have a deeper significance, or they speak a different sort of Latin than the one I know. Related Art, that’s a concept I do know, or at any rate relational art, but then I wonder if that’s really what the Blumes are concerned with.
It’s two or three minutes before I realise I’m having my leg pulled and that it’s a mirror image, or maybe not, as the letters go from front to back and are filmed back to front, but not in mirror-image; so a mirror offers no outcome, better to just correct myself as I go along:
I now note, which of course should be read as:
so my original notes were incorrect, it should have been:
SUMSIVIT KURTSNOK LATNDNEZSNART
and then I understand it, and I can dispose of that -RE- and see that it simply says:
on that plank attached to the wall.
A moment of relief, the riddle solved, but even then you don’t really feel released yet: what does TRANSZENDENTALER KONSTRUKTIVISMUS mean and what do all these objects have to do with it?
The Blumes have a reputation for irony, satire and self-mockery. There’s self-mockery here too, but also of course a mockery of the official world of art and their own place in it. How long ago was it that constructivism played an active role in the world of artists? And didn’t that have to do with rigid, hard and irrefutable, not infrequently literally iron constructions, often in the service of an equally rigid ideology? Here, if I see it correctly, it is polystyrene packing material or polystyrene forms and letters cut out with a good kitchen knife. Some recognisable as daily domestic articles, others more abstract, and some not easy to recognise at all.
Actually I’m at a loss what to do with this production of the Blumes. It makes me feel uncomfortable. Hasn’t their kitchen knife also left scratches in my artistic soul - which still can’t really renounce the constructivist tradition - scratches indicating perhaps that my soul is in fact just made of polystyrene as well? A quick gulp of air, because though I initially had the feeling that I had unmasked the Blumes as computer-illiterates, I now realise that it’s not their soul, but mine that is, if not unmasked, then at least unsettled for a moment. Their pottering around has disturbed my film soul, which, after all, is quite experienced, and they also seem to be playing a nasty trick on the world of glamour and advertising. As though they are aware that their form of art is actually a real challenge to all those working in advertising and the media, whose sophisticated materials and technical gadgets are no match against an effective artistic ambition. Ambitions which are certainly very simply made but are in fact far-reaching.
So the only way I can read Titus von Lilien's film is in the ‘Abstrakt’ spirit of the Blumes. von Lilien brings us on to the dance floor. His film is overwhelming in its colour composition and deformations, nothing is certain, everything turns itself inside out and upside down, as it were. The camera functions as an artistic black box, within which all the reflections of the outside world are rendered as though in a hall of mirrors. Everything is intensified, accentuated, X-rayed. In this enclosed space the already extravagant forms and colours acquire a splendid, wild intensity.
The illusion of this hall of mirrors in von Lilien’s camera - even though as illusory as the suggestion of the Blumes’ mirror-writing - is nevertheless an excellent metaphor. For couples moving across the dance floor are more than random images. Through the camera’s engagement we too, just like them, are caught in the wedding space, we ourselves become wedding guests. It takes a while before you realise it, but these dancing, rotating bodies are ourselves. We are being filmed on the spot, we’re doing our turns on the dance floor. Hall of mirrors or not, von Lilien’s camera joins in the dance and manages to register the emotional charge of the dancers and to involve us in it. We ourselves are the dancers, we are dancing voyeurs, as though hidden in the camera, taking part in the wedding dance. And, don’t be astonished, von Lilien´s subjective camera even makes us, momentarily, bride and bridegroom.
What I would like to say is, let’s just assume that what the Blumes refer to as TRANSZENDENTALER KONSTRUKTIVISMUS is realised here as TRANSZENDENTALER KONSTRUKTIVE TANZKUNST.
Statements on pornographic voyeurism
Should the artistic consequences of that nuptial voyeurism perhaps sound a bit exaggerated to us, the voyeurism in question here is of a wholly quotidian variety, but nevertheless immediately suspect nowadays: the adult gaze at the body of the child. The artistic gaze can not so easily be justified either. And that must have been what attracted the sisters Liesbeth and Angelique Raeven who go under the name L.A. Raeven. They certainly did not make this video without thinking of that social taboo. Of course, what we see is a vital, funny, alarming, crazy, remarkable fight between two children, sisters it seems. And that’s nothing special since the artistic work of the Raevens is about nothing other than competition, envy, love and the sensitivities of twin sisters who don’t get on so easily with one another. Sometimes confused, other times directing others, the sisters have artistically exploited their own wholly individual aura - and this can be as much charming as self-aware or aggressive. They project their complicated personal relationship in scenes from everyday life, as well as in extremely sophisticated theatrical atmospheres. In such a credible manner as only the best among us can do. L.A. Raeven, therefore, are unmistakably self-willed and recognisable. Art gives them the opportunity to magnify and thus to exorcise their own worries and pleasure, their own personal circumstances, in artistic projects.
This seems to be fully the case with “Prison in me”. Two young girls, dressed in underwear and fighting with each other, are held together by a nasty, unbreakable plastic tape in which they are wrapped. Our gaze here is not in the least free from what might call pornographic voyeurism, a gaze aimed directly at the children and reinforcing even more the suggestion of physical contact: it is easy enough to touch them, as it were. Which then increases the tension of this video. We want to separate them from each other perhaps, but we are unable to do so. We are powerless voyeurs of an event that we would like to put an end to as quickly as possible.
This is, of course, a reflection of the fate to which L.A. Raeven themselves are subjected. Or is the artistic and moral message of this fight more profound - do L.A. Raeven want to involve us, the viewers, in this dual? Is this childish scuffle not also immediately an indication of our own situation? Isn’t the fanaticism of the fighting girls all too recognisable?
But there are such beautiful details: the plastic tape in which they are wrapped up and imprisoned is of course an image of the umbilical cord that has condemned them both to a single merging. Here there are no escape routes, entangled as they are in a single life, two bodies, a potential source of energy, but equally each other’s opposites, a fatal combination. As though caught in each other’s mirror image where everything which is on the right for the one is on the left for the other, above is below, and “yes” is obviously “no” for the other. Never really agreeing with the other, always discussions and controversies, as if an obstinate life makes that almost obligatory.
Wanting to conquer your own individuality and at the same time being unable to do without the other. How do you experience that, how do you deal with this passionate love for the other, and at the same time the feelings of jealousy and rivalry?
And ultimately, when the fight is over and they’re on the verge of exhaustion, the realization that, after all, they’re something like Siamese twins.
Chris Rehberger probably saw the Raeven video in the same way. I don’t know whether he simply manipulated the whole fight on his computer with one of Kai’s Power Filters for Photoshop, but the result certainly looks like it. It is at once fantastic and disturbing. As though he has translated, as it were, the external world of the girls back into a bleak energy, concealed somewhere in the depths of their bodies. Perhaps even into an image of the beating heart of these twins. Rehberger himself leaves all suggestions open, does not commit himself to just one metaphor, but nevertheless.... Pupilla’s splendid, addictive music actually makes this association indisputable.
On exploding projections, cans, bottles, human limbs and the ruling out of an abstract school of painting.
H’m, metaphors, how does an artist or a publicity man deal with these? And how do we, as viewers, deal with them?
A legitimate way is to indulge one’s own obsessions in the light of a favourite metaphor. Without any ulterior motive, or precisely with, whether accompanied by a moral message or not.
Tamas Komoróczky’s “Shooting days” is full of elementary aggression. Or rather an aggression that is intended to question the very self-evidence of aggression. He does that by means of slowed-down images that have the effect of what architects, I believe, call “explosive projection”. This is what the architect does, for example, when he hides his new design for renovating a beautiful old museum, attacking the old tradition in the process, behind handsome drawings. Apparently so as to mislead the viewer. This has become the order of the day ever since the architect Pei, with his beautiful, exploding projections, managed to sell a ghastly glass pyramid to the Louvre. His computer graphics had apparently promised Pei an airy, floating pyramid of light and glittering crystal, but in the end the Louvre is now saddled with a leaden, underground monster, in which the escalators grab and spew out their cargoes of tourists over the various wings. Amsterdam’s famous nineteenth century Rijksmuseum is being renovated in the same way. The building has been visually cleansed in the design drawings, the left and right wings exposed in sections that revoke the space, floating above, beside and under their original place, as though it were a dream palace. The interior spaces are clearly worked out in detail, with the museum’s backbone, the much used and famous cycle passage, suddenly disappearing in favour of a few splendidly floating landing stages for tourists. I’m going on talking about museums because in fact I don’t dare to say what I really saw with Komoróczky. I saw vegetables and fruit, cans and bottles being shot and torn apart as though through a haze. But what I saw through it were human bodies and separate limbs being smashed to smithereens by well-aimed shots. In formal terms they were very fascinating forms and movements, but in terms of content I could hardly bear looking at it. Komoróczky knows full well, of course, that we cannot contemplate what he is doing without making associations. For, obsessive as he is, he shows us the precise consequences of what a shot actually does to organic substances. The question remains as to how often you actually need to see this video in order to appreciate it fully?
I don’t know, but OK, what we have here are images where the aggression is commented on in a certain sense. Shots are fired relentlessly and exuberantly at fruit and vegetables or Coca Cola cans, but the whole business acquires something human, it hits you as a shock, as though you are seeing living beings. A fascination with shooting which differs little from what happens “virtually” in computer games. But shooting “innocent” fruit does bring with it the association of deliberately shooting at living things.
Guido Heffels' “no title” seems mainly to be commenting on Komoróczky via the equally obsessive music of Thor Eldon. You see that Heffels' continually changing colour fields also mean something different to what we are seeing. All right, as we go along we see his work table and on it some bottles, some tools, some coloured sheets. But they are also, I think, an answer to Komoróczky’s aggressive images, in the main a purifying reaction, as though, little by little, yet not entirely, he wants to take the sting out of Komoróczky’s work. And to replace it with an artistic struggle. At least that’s how you could describe the successive, bustling squares of colour. Heffels' artistic computer game still looks innocent at first, but all too soon it turns out to contain a critical evaluation, one that refers to an old art movement that computer graphics have made outdated, as it were. Heffels' choice and use of colour patterns is, to be sure, an innocent execution because it is artistic, but it is certainly one that cuts you to the bone. At least for anyone familiar with the extensive school of post-De Stijl, post -first generation abstract art, and in particular the French-Swiss-Dutch variant whereby artists conducted fundamental research in their studios into colours, forms and the application of paint to canvas. Many artists in the period around 1945-1975 were examining in canvas after canvas after canvas after canvas the fundamental norms and values of painting. Yet Heffels' colour fields, adjacent and superimposed, fast and precise and seemingly at random, alternating in form, colour and size, these colour fields are perhaps not so much created from amazement as meant as a reckoning. But whatever the case, when you are seeing what was once the result of serious artistic considerations andis now being rattled off, overhauled and supplemented quickly and efficiently, then you’re reduced to silence for a moment. Imagine you’re a systematic painter and for years, day in and day out, you’ve been working on personal, formal and technical grounds, slowly building up a colouful universe of colour fields. And then suddenly you’re faced with this continuous, changing and seemingly inexhaustable wealth. And what do you then make of Heffels' attitude when, with a few colourful bottles and sheets of colour as filters, he appears to serve up a truly incredible excess as though by chance? Or perhaps Heffels' intends his colours video rather as a homage to all the pain, suffering, sweat, tears and paint that it cost the makers of those countless abstract canvasses in their various studios. And are those violent images now elaborated for him in a more softly addictive rhythm? Yet somehow I still see Komoróczky’s shoot-out as emerging from somewhere under Heffels' flowing forms and colours.
On dancing toes and a sweet reconciliation with Gustav Leonhardt.
I’ve kept the loveliest videos for last. ‘Unterhappy’ by Amir Kassaei, for example, in which dancing toes are themselves. Just watch the video and your idea of what toes are will never be the same again.
Christian Jankowski’s ‘Überhappy’ brings us back for a moment to the tinkering, handicraft art of Anna & Bernhard Blume. Anyone seeing the first scene of this video, and I’m not going to let on what you see, will be quite shocked. Too loud & too clear, I thought for a moment, but no, because what we see later, a dancing figure, is the best secret of this second Bifrons video collection. And this dance is not in the slightest obtrusive.
Someone opens the door to her office, or rather her studio, or even better, her music room, to let in a remarkable apparition with a bunch of flowers. Should she really be doing that, you think, isn’t it likely to turn out bad? And who is she, and who is the one seducing her into a lonely dance in her office?
‘Überhappy’ shows a woman doing a short dance. Dancing alone and thus immediately posing the question: happy or not so happy? Because there’s something about dancing alone that makes the viewer unsure, something all too narcissistic, being cut off from the world, a curious introversion that can suddenly rebound on the viewer.
But fortunately it all turns out differently. First of all it is scarcely baroque, it is almost all too everyday, were it not for the fact that an almost indiscernible musical instrument emerges from the shadows there to the left in the office. A harpsichord that is really loud & clear. And which immediately supplies the key to the video.
This is the dance of someone radiating happiness, and - now I’ll spill the beans - that person is easily recognisable as the organiser of this project, Thora Johansen. What we see is not so much a person making herself happy by dancing. No, she is happy and she is dancing.
And it’s written all over her face that she’s consciously playing the role of an historical figure once portrayed with equal intimacy by the German filmmaker Jean-Marie Straub. Here she is Anna Magdalena Bach, the second wide of the composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Thora has momentarily landed in this severe and beautiful film made in a period of unprecedented strictness by a man who was perhaps the strictest filmmaker ever. The film was made in 1967 and is called The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. And yet it is a heart-warming film, one in which only one scene is lacking and that has now - almost forty years later - finally been filmed by Christian Jankowski. The twenty years that Anna Magdalena spent with Bach, her marriage with Bach the family man, his musical life, as well as the last year with her husband, his blindness and his death, are brought here to a conclusion.
Of course, Straub’s film, with Christiana Lang as Anna Magdalena and harpsichordist Gustav Leonhardt as the master Bach himself, is, in a very curious sense, cinema verité. Christiana Lang gave a really exciting shape to Magdalena, and Gustav Leonhardt not only played Bach’s music, not only played the character of Bach, he simply was Bach. By freeing Bach’s music from the dust that had accumulated through the ages, and by going back to an authentic musical practice, he was the God of the Baroque at that time, and the God of every young musician with ambition. Leonhardt was brilliant, severe and non-compromising in the film, later remarking that it was “so non-compromising and honest a document that it still gives me shivers”.
Thora felt the same. Just as young people today go on a pilgrimage to Pope Benedictus, she came to Amsterdam from Iceland in order to meet Leonhardt, sorry, Bach, in person. And just like so many other talented young people, Thora initially imagined herself as a potential chosen pupil of Leonhardt. After graduating as a pianist, she had been struck by the fascinating, hard plucked sound of the harpsichord, but in the end she completed her harpsichord training with Anneke Uyttenbosch and Jacques Ogg. But perhaps she has never forgotten her dream of once playing a small role in the life of Bach - not the one Bach, but the other.
So the harpsichord in her studio testifies here to the dream finally come true: the final missing scene from Straub’s never really finished film. Straub filmed Bach’s marriage with Anna Magdalena - from 1721 until his death in 1748 - using 113 shots spread over 32 scenes. Now an extra scene is being added: the dance scene in Thora’s office. In Straub’s film it is mainly the diagonals that play a role, images that are generally of an unprecedented severity. Now, many years later, the severe camerawork has been replaced by a much more, let’s say, “humane” style. The attention is no longer drawn to binary symmetry and left-right polarity, nor is there the system of a consistent eye-level whereby Straub’s camera follows the actors just a little bit higher or lower than them. And all the many harpsichords seen in Straub’s film are replaced here by just one.
Thora succeeds in dancing away the enormous artistic tension that fills The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach. As a musician she manages to use a little dance to put into perspective the mechanical way of playing that possessed Leonhardt in those and later years, and which he later magnanimously admitted was an abhorrence. The tone of Leonhardt’s first harpsichord, a Neupert, with a sound that he later described as “a small explosion followed by an endless whiny sound”, but also the later harpsichord built by Martin Skowroneck - with a “crystalline tone”, “a mild plonk at the beginning, followed by a powerful, melodious tone” - are outclassed here by Thora’s inaudible humming.
She thus turns her revenge, or perhaps rather her score settling with the strict Leonhardt of old, into the weapon of humanity. Leonhardt remarked once that “the core of the musical event should result from the inspiration of the piece of music, not from the listening public.” He adds: “In my opinion the creative or performing artist can never make contact with his fellow man.” 1)
This severity possesses him even now that he is much older, although he does say that he can also look at things in perspective. Thora, turning and dancing through her office, also lets us know that she has forgiven Straub and Leonhardt for their strict, dictatorial attitude at the time. Thora, as Anna Magdalena Bach, takes the initiative in this last dance, leaving that fascinating, masculine mechanism for what it is, to conclude an age with this image.
He who laughs last laughs longest, as the saying goes, and this is what happens here.
1) About his own earlier recordings and older gramophone records Leonhardt once commented: “I’m ashamed of them. I played like a machine, completely sterile. It had to do with the times - as a reaction against romanticism. And then you keep going! At a certain moment I’d reached the absolute zero in sentiment.”