September Digest: A Postcard from Europe

For September, I decided to post my own reflections on some work I've seen while traveling. Perhaps you'll be inspired to share something in the same vein.

—Samuel Hanson, editor

I have been traveling in Europe for the last month, I started out by visiting friends and artistic collaborators in Berlin and Copenhagen, as well as spending time with my sister who has been studying art history here for the last few months. The two of us are now in Cornwall in the UK where we’ve been joined by the rest of our family. I’ve seen a lot of art and dance while in Europe and since submissions for the journal have been very quiet this summer, I thought I’d take some time to share with you all some impressions from my travels. 

Dajana Lothert/Tanz im August

Dajana Lothert/Tanz im August

In Berlin, I wanted to take advantage of Tanz Im August, a huge annual dance festival, but I was only able to get a ticket to one event, Isabelle Schad’s Inside Out, which I attended with my old friend and formerly Utah-based choreographer Lindsey Drury. As we entered a vast concrete room and joined the crowd sitting on the floor, a canvas bag writhed of its own accord in the gigantic void inscribed by the audience. Anyone who has ever practiced setting limits on their own movement to hone their improv skills would have appreciated the way this human puppet explored perambulation. Sometimes it was a plastic bag blown from a beleaguered city tree, a wry bear (the mascot of Berlin), even an anthropomorphized insect with a sense of humor that flauting Kafkaesque expectations. Then after what felt like about sixteen minutes, a naked woman was unceremoniously helped out of the sack by a few attendants dressed in black who soon joined a Greek chorus of about twenty similarly dressed dancers in their twenties and thirties. 

The large group of dancers, dressed in black dance garb each went through a prescribed series of tasks involving exploration of the ways in which their arms might move with or without the resistance provided by what they were wearing. It reminded me of that Merce Cunningham piece making fun of Graham where he dances with a sweater with no head hole – if that solo had been subjected to a minimalist explosion into a forty minute piece. It was strange and lovely. 

After that, we went upstairs, to a series of galleries where smaller groups danced looped material in pairs and trios. Three women traded a scarf back and forth while executing a series of precise steps that might have been translated from a book of bee dances. A pair of scantily clad men wrestled, interwove limbs, calmly unknotted themselves and seemed to consider their own capacities for symmetry and entanglement. 

The obvious comparison for me as an American, especially downstairs, was to another European choreographer who’s work I hadn’t been able to get a ticket to at Tanz im August, Anna Teresa de Keersmaker. But the comparison I found myself making upstairs was to the visual artist Paul Chan’s brilliant work with balloons, of the kind you see at used car dealerships. Chan is able to make these bags of air and plastic into moving evocations of humanness denoted by empty space. Here the was Chan’s work in reverse, the very present bodies of the dancers somehow reduced, made empty, mysterious. 

Berliner Kindl brewery turned art center

Berliner Kindl brewery turned art center

I’m still not sure what to make of Schad’s work. I will say that the performance took place in one of the coolest buildings I’ve ever seen. It’s the old Berliner Kindl brewery building which has been converted into the Zentrum for zeitgenössische Kunst, which I think is just German for “Center for Contemporary Art”. Here is a picture.

In London, I went to the Tate Britain to see Anthea Hamilton’s installation “The Squash”. It’s another big budget dance piece that I’m not sure what to make of. It claims to be based on a photograph of Erick Hawkins doing some kind of imitation of a Hopi dance, which the artist found and then lost. 

In both towns, I was honestly more wowed by the art museums more than anything else and by how strangely quiet these cities both are at night. I spent a lot of time in the Hamburger Bahnhof Museum and one of the state museums that had a lot of 15th and 16th century alter pieces — those German Marys that are covered in hair from head to toe and the like. And some Caravaggios that were amazing. The Bahnhof had a bunch of Joseph Beuys stuff and a really interesting exhibit about a small town in Armenia where an old Soviet factory was trying to turn itself into a contemporary art center as well as an exhibit about West African sculpture as the origin of European modernism. Its important to make time for work outside of your own wheelhouse.