The poster for Performatik 17 shows a constellation of plaster hands reaching out from black, the same hands repeated, splaying, cupped, begging, flowering from the wrist, contoured palms, frozen mid applause. We saw those hands, part of Miet Warlop’s Crumbling Down, in action on Friday night, as black-clad performers haunting the bar with their spectral prostheses flocked to the stage and began to clap out hollow variegated rhythms, quarrysounds; we watched as they stood and clattered their frozen hands together, which, piece by piece, cracked, shattered and fell. Each performer made an exit, once their prostheses were extinct to the wrist, until the last stood, surrounded by scattered debris.
All this followed Dorothea Von Hantelmann’s leaving the stage, upon which our chairs were swept away, and we replaced by this parodic audience, facing outward, applauding us. The thesis to which Hantelmann had just introduced us, while we sat, facing inward, in the place this spectral audience, facing outward, now occupied, was that of two separate modalities of art experience: The communal temporal modality of the appointment, and the individualised temporal modality of the opening hours.
The communal modality, said Hantelmann, allows for concentration and focus of energies, the coming together of a group, where appreciation (or depreciation) is expressed en mass, and consensus is what counts. This is what we get in theatre, and what we may hope, in part, to regain within contemporary art through the emerging emphasis on performance. The other extreme, the individualized modality, is what we have come to expect from contemporary art; that is, an object in isolation, which we, in isolation, react to. This modality is flexibilized, liberalized. It saves the individual from collective control, but it also debars one from certain potentially desirable aspects of the communal modality; it is, after all, the context of the community which creates and perpetually reifies the individual.
Pointing to the shifting economies of attention at play in the art world over the past three hundred years, Hantelmann spoke of the changing shape of the exhibition space. From baroque decor cluttered with artworks almost hugging each other’s frames, we see a trajectory in which the works gradually reduce in number, the space between them widening, the space surrounding them becoming ever more nondescript, until we are left with the white cube, a single artwork, a single observer, clotted sediments of an evaporated context. Why is it that, alone in one’s cognition, the spectator is no longer driven to applaud?
An elderly man in striped pyjamas announced something that may reduce the radius of our orbit around the answer. “I try to focus,” he declared, “upon my daughter’s hands. But every time I do, they fall off”. A long-suffering employee, this gentleman traipses down to the beach every day to collect dead birds. He sends them off for analysis at Heriot Watt University, to discover whether the oil which killed them was crude or refined. He is the protagonist of Grace Schwindt’s Opera and Steel, and he finds between two and thirty birds, or parts of birds, per day. He holds them. They are moist. He lets them go. His hands are dry. His hands are covered in burns from the oil that covers the birds. The dryness reminds him of the dryness of his daughter’s hands. He tries to focus on his daughter’s hands, but every time he does, they fall off. He holds his daughter before his mind, but his daughter becomes his father, and his father takes on the amorphous, multi-hewed texture of the sea.
Opera and Steel was a fine tuned sculpting of objects, movement and sound, and though such a format seemed natural enough to us, Hantelmann made it clear that such had not always been the case. She recounted her own early curatorial career, during which a higher-up curator had explained to her that, “Art came in through the freight elevator”, “Horizontal and dead”. Live art was not part of any curricula. But then performative studies, “emancipated itself from theatre studies”, allowing for new modalities of knowledge production. In her show, Decor, the mission was to move sculptures, sculpt movement and open social space. The idea was not do to theatre, but to exhibit theatre. In i like theatre and theatre likes me, we saw Jérôme Bel miniaturized by sitting on a giant chair, an amalgam which had replaced all the individual chairs of the theatre space, highlighting the diminution of the individual in the communal context, Jan Peters sleeping in the theatre space emphasizing the unhomeliness of the spectatorial context. Further works in I promise it’s political used moving benches, shifting walls and flying machines to disrupt the spectatorial position.
Indeed, the unheimlichkeit of the clappers in Warlop’s piece, who applauded so solemnly, drove home the distance at which the individual must hold themselves in order to enter the communal mode. Their steady pose, empty expression, made it seem as though they were merely the activity of clapping. But individuation strove within them, their rhythms were out of sync, and it was one by one, alone, that they left once they went to pieces.
The pieces of birds, tells the protagonist of Opera and Steel, are difficult to identify when they have fallen away from the body. Removed from the whole, they lose their identity; what appears to be a section from below the tail-feathers is in fact a piece of the animal’s back. In a corner of the stage a woman in a red-sequined fish costume lifts herself upside-down, exhibits slow gymnastic manoeuvres throughout. There is the constant slow drone of a Tibetan bowl, the marine acoustic of a muffled xylophone, drenched in blue light. A white-winged soprano holds court. The overarching narrative is punctuated by shorter vignettes: two paper octopi dance in a fluttering passion; the soprano wails ear-shatteringly, swooping around the stage; the xylophonist wildly batters the drums as all the characters lose themselves in dance; movement slows almost to a halt, the characters communicating through a dilated mimesis; a young lady from time to time takes over the protagonist’s stories, merging with and then drawing away from his voice. The work is a series of thematically tight but acoustically and kinaesthetically diverse moments, which repeatedly lull and shock the audience through an experience that is at once sympathetic and horrific.
The protagonist’s stories, visions and confessions bring us through a series of modalities in which humanity can position itself with regard to nature: primarily that of violence, or of horror, but also of wonder, of assimilation, of inverted gravities and morphological communication. The birds kill each other, the birds kill the fish, the oil kills the birds, the man picks them up and sends them to the laboratory for analysis, to discover whether the oil which has killed them is crude or refined. But analysis of his situation, his corpse collection, his empathetic hallucinations, makes the supposed differentiation between the crudity of animal, and the refinement of human life, ever harder to detect. He is alone with the birds, the oil which has killed them burning through his own ungloved hands; individuated, he is their ally, but seen through the lens of community he is a functionary, only serving to enable the mechanisms through which this killing can continue. The lights went down, and we all beat our hands together in a mad, protracted applause lasting through several cycles of gracious bows.
There is a modern craze, according to Hantelmann, for live art in exhibitions. Documenta has morphed into a festival. There has been a widespread “festivalization of the exhibition” over the last 20 years. There is a growing discomfort with the traditional, and this exhaustion with the exhibition has led to a problematization of the format, in which modes of temporalization have played a key role. But this mode of critique, with its celebration of the momentary, of that which is lost just as it is grasped, comes with its own all-too-evident set of perils.
To exhibit, Hantelmann reminded us, is to ex-hibit, that is, to offer, to hold out. The holding out is a removal from context, an individualization that is the hallmark of our liberal capitalist culture. But we must also remember that at the centre of ‘hibit’, that is ‘held’, from, ‘habere’, ‘to hold’, is the pair of hands which holds out, the hands of the craftsman, both essential and somehow antithetical to capitalist culture, ineluctably inscribed in tradition, the makers of things.
Performatik 17 runs in various venues across Brussels until the 1st April.