Body and Time: Jerome Bel, Isabelle Schad and Anne Imhof

This selection is not as arbitrary as just providing a collection of pieces I saw recently. Though certainly that I have not written here in long contributes to bringing these three works together in one longer post, instead of three. It not only manifests a sort of catching up, but a different approach towards the pieces selected to write about. Some of them due to their lingering on my mind posing repeated questions of why. In this case it accounts for all three pieces for different reasons. A. Imhof’s Angst II, which as e.g. the works of C. Spooner stand out as ‘operas’ in the field of arts, attracts attention as a crossover from the visual arts to theatrical forms. At least this is how Imhof defines her work and thus constitutes points of interest for my observation that dance already started to incorporate more and more elements from artistic performances in the last years. So do these claims for opera (C. Spooner – singing, A. Imhof – dancing, silent track opera) now mark a viceversa direction or is it just a development of artistic performance practice, which always has been an experimental field.

Main points though for bringing these three pieces in relation are other factors, in this case time and body. Both certainly are essential for any performative event, however in each of the pieces – J. Bel’s Jerome Bel, I. Schad’s Solo for Lea and A. Imhof’s Angst II – they are used rather differently and set parameters that allow to distinguish between them. Aside that all three operate in and through physical language. Further unifying elements are de/construction, a will of exceeding the format while at the same time staying within the given frame. While Bel and Schad question the material through explorations that are partly uncomfortable to watch, in other cases that can also be simply uneventful ( also Bel, Imhof).

Jerome Bel, 'Jerome Bel' (1995)
Jerome Bel, ‘Jerome Bel’ (1995)
Jerome Bel’s work Jerome Bel seems to take an almost classical position especially in hindsight of performative notions that mark a radical habit by being declared as a dance event. The 1995 piece uses a common frontal theater set-up, a lamp, singing, writing and erasing and five diverse (dancer) bodies to explore its theme. By keeping the frontal stage format and being announced as a dance piece the work defines an early trait in Bel’s work of interrogating what constitutes a choreography. As he explains – it is about what comes before the performance – the body. It also can be seen as working through the discomfort he experiences with the stereotypes of a dancing or the dancing body.

The body in its de/formations is also essential for the Schad / Moro collaboration of Solo for Lea (german review). At first sight the work does not seem to question the aesthetics of the body. Displaying a white young female corpse in an all over black staging, which through acts of repetition and acceleration explores the mechanics and shapes of ab/normalities the human body can express. Alienation as method to explore the human body is a task reminding Spinoza’s statement that we do not know what a body can do. Schad and Moro manage to create/find images that are not yet are connoted with the human, or if so in a rather abject way. These forms more likely remind organical designed shapes and their possible bionic movements. These are bodily animation that at once seem to imitate and to exceed the abilities we associate with human and other lively forms, proposing shapes to come rather than depicting possibilities of the existing.

Isabelle Schad withe Lea Moro, 'Solo for Lea' (2016)
Isabelle Schad withe Lea Moro, ‘Solo for Lea’ (2016)

Isabelle Schad with Lea Moro, 'Solo for Lea' (2016)
Isabelle Schad with Lea Moro, ‘Solo for Lea’ (2016)
Schad’s work certainly is indebted to her former collaborator L. Goldring ( Petite chronique de l’image 1995/2002), who also worked with X.Le Roy on his early piece Self Unfinished. But in Lea Moro she finds a partner who supports the idea to push the boundaries beyond aesthetic limits. Due to the beauty of her young female body shaped instances of discomfort as emerging from unfamiliar depictions of what a body can do are rather rare. A return to the aesthetics of the female body, though from bewildering angles, soothes the audience. Despite its interesting attitude the work the daring questions seem to be posed, but not followed through in consequence. This allows traces of a different kind of unease that such bodily aesthetics produce sneak in as well.

Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Imhof’s Angst II is a is a work for an art gallery that regards the entire exhibition space as its stage. Quite blatantly bringing in aesthetics of daily life and consumerism. The piece, an opera only audible to the actors via their smartphones, is performed at the Berlin Hamburger Bahnhof in two sets of subsequent evenings, each time with a duration of several hours. Inside it is foggy, reminding H. Hesse’s It’s strange to wander in the fog! A lonely bush, a lonely stone, No tree can see the other one, …

Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Not true – one can see each other, though the big hall appears dimmed down and partly hidden by a milky cloud. The visitors dispersed across the wide hall, seemingly flocking without clear reason in some spots. Spread across the space are also the performers, only few of them remain or rest at times at the two ‘home’ plateaus on both side of the entrance of the hall. Each plateau marked by stacks of one of two competing brands of carbonated soft drinks and at least at the beginning of the first day by a blindfolded falcon sits on each side. A tightrope dancer walks along the wire that splits the long hall into two symmetrical halves. The performers actions are determined, but cryptic: they walk, dance, group, burn cigarettes, sit, kneel, lean, open cans of the soft drinks, empty them by pouring the sticky content down the walls, start drones and collect them again, etc. Each detail is a gesture, offered and wasted at the same time as is the cigarette smoke. Every can opening’s characteristic ‘cli-ack’ sets a sound, as does the buzzing of the drones above the audience heads.

Angst II has no explicit connotation, no traumatic reminder. It evaporates like the dry artificial fog, that does not crawl into the bones with a creepy wet heaviness. Angst II though creates the blurry illusion of communicating in and through a big space. In fact each one walks alone, the performers cross the audience paths with starring gazes, group action emerges without obvious reason from either side. People rush to catch a glimpse of the next gesture – social media in 3D. Communication happens outside on the museums stairs beyond the stars of the mild September nights.

Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)

Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Though what interests me here is that it worked. Despite having a stage, no narrative, nor excitement – the sensation was the event itself. Visiting the museum hall at several diverse points of time throughout the evenings throughout the duration of the performance sequences I found the big hall quite crowded each time. To be part of that audience as for being part of the event seemed already to be enough. Visitors stood in groups and moved when action could be detected, some settled in a spot and became accidentally as effective as the performers. The opera participants communicated by mobile phone, as the audience did anyway. The event became a mixture of performed rituals and the mingling of daily habits. After its initial appearance I had wanted to extinct my thought of Hesse’s poem, yet it returned. Though it was not the fog, but the calm that took over, time elongated – no longer relevant.
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016), audience

Angst II worked as a playground in a hall that is not easy to play with. The event had an unforeseen attraction that did not emerge from any spectacular movement. Not from fears for the tightrope walkers, nor incited from nowhere leading stairs. A performer pressing the body against the wall, burning cigarettes in her hand, others dancing across the ground floor, three further actors group as changing still images near the left staircase. I keep reading that Imhof’s pieces work through the creation of images, but what else did performance ever do then to create a momentary ever again overwritten layer of images.

Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)

The strongest point in Imhof’s work is the directed non-directedness (if that makes sense) that leads to an immersion of the beholder without conscious confirmation. It is like part taking in social media, a form of communication, which at the same time refuses to exchange other through the bodily presence of the format. Better than any forceful integration of an audience – at least in the Hamburger Bahnhof’ Angst II – the audience not became, but always was part of the event. The performance was not based on an understanding of what was going on, but on an interaction that integrated the visitors not participatory, but as passers-by, who provided the backdrop and mediated what is going by their appearance. Not as individuals and not as collective, but as a crowd that wanted to be part of what is happening without knowing what that is. In this regard the piece, despite its bored nightclub behavior, emerged as the very moment in time, as a communication not exchanging classified content, but as one longing for physical presence …

Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016), audience
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)
Anne Imhof, Angst II (2016)

 
 
Update June 2017: An interesting article on Anne Imhof’s ‘Angst’ piece has been recently been published by Texte zur Kunst > read here.

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