A text for Documenta X Kassel

Hundred Days, Hundred Guests Program Documenta, Kassel

[Pre-show cue, sound only; approximately 4 minutes before start of talk, 'Human Rights' set to music by Henk van der Meulen]

"Never before in the history of mankind have the feelings of a Street had such decisive force. The ancients worried about the moods of the skies, mountains, seas and forests. We're placating a pavement."

So said Robert B. Reich, Secretary of Labor for President Clinton's first term of office. When Reich talks about the feelings of a Street he's referring to Wall Street: i.e. the American stock market. More specifically, Wall Street is where men, and a handful of women, determine the value of money. To a frightening degree, and no matter where we live, the activities on the Street will determine the value of all money circulating in the world today. Beyond the abstraction of statistics, the Street's concept of "value" has little to do with physical material goods, and even less to do with the labor required to create those goods. Any emotional truth which may be associated with these goods, with the process of their creation, or with the purpose for which they are created has no place in the reality of this Street.
For this, the tenth Documenta, Catherine David has completely rejected the Wall Street view of the world. This is an enormous accomplishment. In this Documenta, Ms. David has offered us a meditation on the fact that we have, perhaps unthinkingly, but certainly overwhelmingly, chosen to follow the dominant ethos of our time. We are also, to greater or lesser degree, "placating The Street".
She has been determined not to allow the art market to dictate the shape and form of her statement here. Instead she communicates to us about choices, perhaps even to remind us that -- in the first place -- we do have choices. In what is on display we are not offered "muchness and variety". Rather, we are offered material which demands of us utter concentration. Documenta X is one, single-minded obsession. The implementation of this obsession has been guarded by fierce loyalty to a concept. This Documenta forces the public to either take it, or to leave it. Either way, we must work hard for this. Nothing else will do. The exhibitions are adamant and uncompromising.
But the other side of this Documenta is much looser in form. The Hundred Days, Hundred Guests program leaves one feeling that choices in this are almost random in their variety and geography. Here we have a vast array of different disciplines, and of approaches to discipline: a wide trans-cultural range of guests, a golden promise of how rich humanity is... and of how rich is humanity's future. Here we're invited to make our own choices, to make our own freely associated decisions of what can enrich us. At least, that appears to be the theory. I am gratified to have been invited to speak from this platform, but I must confess that I'm still struggling with the question of why I am here.
What, in fact, may I offer you? Perhaps this struggle is the center of the idea. The only clues I was offered made it sound as if almost anything was allowed. Three minutes of poetry, a tape or slides, or three hours of discussion... And: discussion? with whom, I asked. With whomever will come, was the answer. So I made my choice. I will give you the most personal material I can possibly -- under the circumstances -- offer.
In 1985 I was in my twentieth year of running Mickery, an international avant-garde theatre I'd founded in Amsterdam. Mickery would last another five years before I would decide to blow it up for good, but at that point Mickery was -- once again -- threatened with loosing it's government funding. In this period my personal life was in complete disarray. And both of my parents were simultaneously seriously ill. A course for the future was completely unclear. It seemed a good time to determine the "Good, the Bad, and the Ugly" of my life. An inventory was called for, and on the basis of the inventory, some vital choices had to be made. I made my reckoning the only way I knew how, by translating my life into a theatrical spectacle entitled "Rembrandt and Hitler or Me". I gave the production a subtitle: "The Journey, Not the Destination". The production could be simultaneously experienced by three different audiences in three different spaces. Each space was sound-proofed, and each had windows inset so it was possible to see portions of the action in another space while witnessing the spectacle before you.
In the upstairs theatre David Brisbane had a solo performance as he portrayed a private hell of existence. He became a man who mixed fact with the fiction his life had become; his paranoia suggested that he was trailed by endless secret agents. This was literally a "found" text: copies of it were scattered through the streets of Manhattan on the occasion of Ronald Reagan's second term election, either by someone with a rather odd sense of humor, or by a profoundly troubled human being. The rest was a theatrical construct of material also either found, or made specifically for the production; a dramaturgy was created out of a completely mixed shopping bag. There was an interpretation of Ophelia's speech, found in a Swedish newspaper, Ronald Reagan's State of the Union speech for his second term in office, the applause for a performance at the Bayreuth Opera, a song by Danny Kaye, Bugs Bunny doing Wagner, replicas from a Chinese archaeological site, a fragment of "Apocalypse Now" (the Wagner bit, of course), the spoken and sung text of the UN Declaration of Human Rights set to music by Henk van der Meulen, a fragment of Leni Riefenstahl film of the march to the Fuhrer, a taped interview with Abel Herzberg, a survivor of the concentration camps who spoke on the contagiousness of cruelty, of forgiveness, and of reconciliation, a marionette show with plastic tubing and gloves, quotes from the work of Kiefer, Vostell, and Ulay and Abramovic, bits of Speer's architecture, the sound of Niagara Falls, [Cue Video One, Rembrandt & Hitler or Me, with Sound] a toy helicopter........and, etc.

[....film begins, text film: "Mother, will you tell me a story?" "Yes, my child, what would you like to hear?" "Tell me something that couldn't happen in a million years..." film runs till end. Live spoken text with background sound of film is about 2'20".]

This production was wondering out loud about truth. About Rembrandt's truth, about Hitler's truth, and about mine. Hitler's diaries had just been proven fake; Alice Miller had published a book in which she suggested that given Hitler's childhood, his life as a grown man could hardly have been any different than it became. Gary Schwartz had published a book which proved that -- as a human being -- Rembrandt was an utter bastard, never mind the beauty of his paintings.... many of which had just been declared fake by the Rembrandt Research Committee. And, finally, there was me, aged eight when the war ended. That coincided with the divorce of my parents and the death of my brother. I remembered a different kind of war... and wondered if I had any right to my own version of it. In the 39 years that followed it had become clear that history repeats itself in one's personal life as well as anywhere else. This show was an attempt to share some of the questions about life and living. Like: why am I here? What am I doing here? What's the good of what I'm doing? What world do I live in? What's fact... and what's fantasy? What's my responsibility in all this? And, if responsibility is the key, then what part belongs to me, and what part belongs to other's? My production did not attempt to answer these questions. But by posing them, by interweaving them with stories, statements, and associative "found" items, it did try to create a sense of an answer. The overall effect was confusing... but I think it was also healing. The show offered an awareness of place, a sense of being alive, and of how important that is. It also conveyed a sense of awe at the commitment and obligation life requires of us.

[Film continues. Live text stops just before Danny Kaye: "Mommy, gimme a glass of water. And etc., length approximately 27.30 minutes.]

From within each evening's performance, film director Mike Figgis sat on a camera crane doing his own version of archaeological research out of the contents of the performances. (To briefly introduce Mike, he's now directing his eighth Hollywood film, known as "Short Stories". His most recent success was "Leaving Las Vegas", and last Monday his latest film, "One Night Stand", was shown at the Venice Film Festival.)
Location description (and back to our reality): Is this where the visual arts and theatre meet? Is this where we try to determine how to say something of the world we're a part of? Is it an arrangement of hearts and minds? Is it possibly a portion of our struggle to come to terms with our part in this world, with our determination to be a passionate counter-force to what the Street -- to what Wall Street -- designs for us? Is this the place where we jointly speculate on the quality of life?
Flashback: In the summer of 1959 I attended my first Documenta, Documenta II. I went with a friend and we rode in on my motor scooter. Big eyed, we wandered among the work on offer. We were happy, inspired... we felt enriched. But most of all, we both fell in love with Simone Signoret when we saw the film "Room at the Top" in one of the cinemas around the corner, even if she amazingly spoke German for the occasion. Later came the visit to Rudy Fuchs' Documenta VII. There were more days of exhilarated joy with what he'd arranged to be on display, and the way he'd put it together. But most of all I remember standing in front of a Rembrandt self-portrait at the Wilhemshohe. As I cried my eyes out before the magisterial authority and very human melancholy of Rembrandt's work I was severely scrutinized by a guard who was ready to plunge toward me, should my tears threaten to splash the canvas. Establishing shot: My "thing" is probably first and foremost theatre. But theatre, for me, has encompassed a wide range of form. This has led to the occasional crisis of identity, and not only because my activities seem to confuse outside perception of what I'm "supposed" to be doing. Well... for my theatre work I twice received the Dutch critics' prize, and once the European Council Statement of Merit. For an installation I made in the Reuten gallery in Amsterdam last year, I suddenly (and quite unexpectedly) received the Sandberg prize, a major Amsterdam prize honoring a Visual Artist. That was followed by the Sphinx prize, for being a valued cultural manager. I also write scripts for short television films, which I love doing. And more... So... take your pick. Perhaps not so strangely, all these activities are preoccupied with the same themes and ideas. As is my present directorship of a post-academic program for theatre makers called DasArts, a school I was commissioned to put together by the Dutch Ministry of Culture and Education in 1993.
"The theatre marathon in Kassel," I read meanwhile, "accepts the challenge of the crisis in the theatre." I smile just a bit. What crisis, for heaven's sake? Flashback: Dinner with Tom Stromberg in Amsterdam at Restaurant Bordewijk. While we sample the goodies offered by the master chef, we scrawl notes on scattered bits of paper. Subject: if the Documenta will program theatre, what should that be? My suggestion: offer -- and offer with generosity -- the inspiration of what Documenta X stands for. Then wait to see what happens. And: trust what theatre can stand for; trust with your whole heart.
But it was important for me to add also a warning, namely that of course everything depends upon the theatre artists he chose. I describe to Tom another dinner, years ago, with Rudy Fuchs. He'd asked me the same question. My answer was different then. I suggested that he place the largest Fairground ride he could lay his hands on outside the Fridericianum, and then fill the thing with multi-media which reflected the power-play circus surrounding the Documenta's existence. In the end he choose Bob Wilson. (Don't misunderstand, I'm for Bob Wilson, but that was hardly what I was talking about.)

[ Cue VHS video, VPRO material Bonnefanten Museum installation, without sound, can run till the end]

Material for intercuts 1: Documenta as the stock market of the arts? Surely not this time, and yet... you should have seen the army of 2,000 plus press people at the opening. At least half of them were carrying heavy video equipment. The other half clutched elaborate still photo cameras, all of them were in proud possession of wireless radio phones. Almost no art could be looked at without also seeing a person, fashionably dressed in black, ostentatiously phoning the outside world. Sometimes you can't escape the circus, whatever you do. Ask Princess Diana. Material for intercuts 2: A crisis in the theatre? Michael Billington, the head critic of the Guardian, has something to say on that subject. "Paradoxically theatre is the medium most susceptible to change. The spatial relationship of actor to audience is a matter for constant debate. The form of drama itself is endlessly shifting. Never have I known a time when there was less consensus as to what makes a play. Theatre begins in a room and expands to contain the universe. ... Theatre lives by its ability to adapt. And, I suggest, its greatest opportunities lie in the confrontation with a standardized, dumbed down, and spiritually bankrupt mass culture." A scene for light relief, or -- if need be -- for reassurance: "Do you like horses?" This question is fired at me without warning or preamble by a stern looking lady who has marched toward me, her stride filled with purpose. She's shooting the question from the hip, as it were, just as I cross the threshold of the building. I'm unprepared for this question, given that the occasion is the opening of an arts exhibition. Struggling for a proper response, I suddenly realize the connection. The work of one of the DasArts students is being shown in this exhibition, and he earns his living taking care of horses. This must be then the lady he works for, she must be checking up on her "adopted" protege. I cast around for a response, playing for time to think this through. I tell her, "In the work I do I don't have very much occasion to know anything about horses." This doesn't get me anywhere, so I rather feebly add, "Of course it's wonderful that they are there..." The lady frowns. It's just occurred to her that as a topic of conversation this hasn't got a very promising future. She's just turning away when I'm hit by sudden inspiration. I tell her, "Metaphorically speaking I'm completely obsessed with horses, with thoroughbreds, that is; with full-blooded nobility and the promise of great things. I'm less interested in tamed horses... but I'm very concerned with the unstoppable Beauty of the Beast." Not surprisingly I get a blank stare, and I attempt to explain myself. She knows I'm the director of DasArts, now in it's third year of existence. I tell her that working with DasArts does resemble working with a stable of proud thoroughbreds. It's a stable with a difference, though. The students may come in tamed, but -- and I hope this is the truth -- by the time they leave they are untamed, "let loose," and fiercely loyal to what made them full-blooded in the first place. These are the people who will be responsible for what theatre will be in this world tomorrow. And, so: theatre crisis? What crisis?

[Cue start photo dissolves, of photo works of Bonnefanten installation; Kodak Carroussel 1 & 2; run till the end, can be on time clock.]

Flashback: Choices. We all make them every day. Some are banal. Some are of great portent. We don't always know the difference in advance. But once you make a decision -- and more often than not -- you enter a world of exceedingly strange, not to say weird responses. Some twenty years ago, Beatrix, then the Crown Princess of the Netherlands (and now our Queen) decided to create her own spiritual version of a Documenta, "100 Guests in 100 Days". In several different configurations she hosted a choice of writers, painters, sculptors, theatre makers, poets, philosophers, composers, critics, musicians, and etc. She wanted to learn about the creative quality of life in the Netherlands, and -- or so rumor had it -- she wanted to create her own Think Tank to develop new impulses and new visions. This initiative drew a lot of controversial publicity in the newspapers. Not about her intentions, or even about what was actually happening... instead, prospective guests wondered out loud, and the papers worried in print that the politically left-ish thinkers might be corrupted by close dealing with Royalty! Similarly, discussion around this Documenta seems to focus on what it chose NOT to present, rather than on what it has done, and how, and why. We are becoming less and less generous with strong views, with powerfully concentrated choices, with clear statements of intent. In the debates raging around this Documenta there's little focus on the center of things. At best, people are dealing with side issues; with the sauce, and not the meat. If there is a crisis, I'd say that this is where we find it.
As for this so called theatre crisis, theatre needs a context. It also needs content and it requires that the maker has an urgent and even obsessive need to make the statemen she or he offers the public. There must be a profoundly thought-out reason for any given theatre piece to exist, it must have deeply felt roots. There's the misunderstanding: without this you don't get a crisis, you just get very bad theatre.
In lieu of film titles for this story: It now occurs to me that all of my life... or, at least in the conscious parts of my 59 years, I've been obsessively and greedily involved with thoroughbreds, whether I was working with Mickery, or with DasArts, whether I was writing for something, working on a film, helping make a festival, a theatre production, a school... whatever. In essence it was all about the same thing. About living life to the full, about an ongoing wondering and curiosity, about hoping for the courage and inventiveness to frame the necessary questions, about posing those questions, about getting just a little closer to a better understanding of my situation and how that situation intersected with life in a much larger sense. Hence the installation I made for the Bonnefanten Museum in Maastricht. Mirrors were hung at eye level in the big exhibition space. Across the center of each mirror was printed a quote from Heiner Müller: "To survive is also a choice." Higher up were endless washing lines hung with the dirty linen of our daily existence in the utterly inescapable form of newspapers from countries throughout the world. In the middle of the space was a tower of crates reaching up through the false ceiling created by the newspapers. At ground level was an original etching for the creation of a Peace Palace. Not the one that was finally built in The Hague, but one Berlage designed, which was never executed. Adjacent to that was a blindfolded kitschy representation of a Lady of Justice, aimlessly swinging her torch (with a small electric light bulb glowing on top) back and forth. The crates which built the tower were stuck full of the largest yellow Post-It notes I could find, copied over with Articles from the UN Declaration of Human Rights. Nearby was a forgotten and wilted bunch of flowers, and a series of news photographs which are part of the daily bombardment of the daily news. In the back of the space, a mirage: a woman, her husband, their two children in a landscape that cannot exist. To the left of that, a display of personal mementoes gathered in the course of a lifetime -- mine. Lying on the floor is a five meter long grey matted metal box housing soft blue neon in the handwriting of Joseph Beuys: "Ohne die Rose tun wir's nicht da können wir gar nicht mehr denken". (Without the rose we won't do it, we wouldn't be able to think anymore.) (It seems apt that that neon now hangs over one of the DasArts studio buildings.) If there was a sense of disconnection at ground level, of past and present going all wrong, for relief you could climb a ladder just inside the entrance of the space. Above the newspapers there was a reassuring border of fluffy clouds painted on the wall all the way around the space. In the middle, up high, is a Scale of Justice, one side of the scale was filled with rose petals, the other side was empty as a machine blew bubbles over it. Next to that, the European flag fluttered proudly in a machine driven wind. Close up, right under your nose, in fact: a filled ashtray, an empty Champagne bottle and an empty glass. Next to that, a book. In the book are listed all the names of those who died in the Holocaust. Only the names. Reminding us of those days, as if we are not every day filling book after book with new names. Flashback, and farewell: We find ourselves here in Kassel in an environment which denies seduction, but willingly offers a lot. Within this reality, I must mention a moment from the opening which I treasure. I was walking into a second floor room in the Fridericianum. An older man dressed in black busied himself with a camera. At first glance I thought he was photographing a work on display. In a way, he was doing just that, but his focus was on a woman, standing back-lit in an alcove with a window. She was breast feeding a baby, and she was the picture of extreme sensuality, of beauty and peace. She was a living echo of many of the photos I'd just seen downstairs, in Richter's Atlas. And here there was a new work of art in the making. In 1959 I fell in love. In 1982 I wept over Rembrandt's self-portrait. In 1997 I watched art being made of and for a next generation. It's been worth it all to know just that.

[End cue, video and slides, both fade out; house lights fade up]

Slow fade to black: Time to begin a theatre marathon. A beginning, rather than an end; the journey, not the destination. Thanks.

Kassel (D)


Hundred Days, Hundred Guests. Edited by Colleen Scott