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A festival grounded in transitional space

Jana Perkovic: Ruhrtriennale 2015-2017

The things that pass, Ivo van Hove, Toneelgroep, Ruhrtrienniale 2016 The things that pass, Ivo van Hove, Toneelgroep, Ruhrtrienniale 2016
photo Jan Versweyveld

In an era of art festivals as vehicles of economy and gentrification, there is something irresistibly likable about Ruhrtriennale. Though the festival was seemingly conceived in that Richard Florida spirit, it is as far removed from the thin-veneered bling of art-for-tourism as the Ruhr is removed from, say, Singapore. Located in the west of Germany, Ruhr is one of the oldest industrial regions in all of Europe, once synonymous with coal, steel and heavy industry. The impetus for the triennial, which commenced 2002-2004, was in part to repurpose Ruhr's industrial architectural heritage.

It is impossible to talk about the art without talking about the region, because it is rare that the festival location frames the art as thoroughly as it does here. Ruhr today is simultaneously rural and urban, industrial and post-industrial, post-future and pre-present. Despite the de-industrialisation that started in the 1960s, it still has a significant manufacturing base. A conurbation of small cities linked by Deutsche Bahn, interspersed with villages, factories, shipping terminals, open fields and workers' suburbs, it is a hard-hatted landscape, more function than form. To quote Gerard Mortier, the Triennale's first Artistic Director, it was clear that the visitors would not come for the Vienna Philharmonic. Instead, the festival endeavours to establish a dialogue between its complex architectural and social heritage and art, and in doing so, shed light on our time. The art is everywhere: in nature parks built atop former factories, in still-operating loading docks and in abandoned factories sitting in a field, as imposing as temples of an ancient civilisation. It is as if the entire European civilisation, its heritage and its future possibilities, refracts through a contemplative lens. The result is almost impossibly grounded. It is strange that we no longer expect that from art.

Urban Prayers, Björn Bicker, Ruhrtriennale 2016 Urban Prayers, Björn Bicker, Ruhrtriennale 2016
photo courtesy Ruhrtriennale

Björn Bicker, Urban Prayers Ruhr

Take Urban Prayers Ruhr, an earnest meditation on religion and multiculturalism. Each of the six performances took place in a different place of worship across the region, from the Lutheran church in Dinslaken-Lohberg to the Sri Kamadchi Ampal Temple in Hamm, the largest Hindu temple in Europe. Between musical pieces ranging from Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli via The Battle of Jericho to traditional Jewish, Islamic and Serbian Orthodox liturgical songs, five diverse performers speak fragments of a post-dramatic text by German author Björn Bicker.

Bicker's speakers form a chorus of concerned citizens, undifferentiated by dramatis personae, religious and moral positions, their voices washing indiscriminately over the singers’ bodies: a Babel situation. Topics covered: Praying, Helping, Paying, Marrying, but also Building, Dreaming, and that most faith-related everyday activity, Driving. “I dream of another world./ I don't./ I don't either./ We are not naïve. / We are political./ We're not.” They list how they pray, how often, on a mat or sitting, what they wear, how big the shrine needs to be and whether someone will sell them the land for it. This cacophony of difference ranges from profound to trivial: “We're thankful for satellite dishes.” Misunderstandings, conflict, hostility, acceptance, ignorance, fear, resistance, pacifism and evangelism, exist side by side without resolution, and yet the setting, the liturgical form of the delivery and its considerable length, have a cathartic effect of keeping diverse elements together until all tension collapses. Re-written by Bicker specifically for contemporary Ruhr, it is an ecumenical work of enormous sensitivity.

The things that pass, Ivo van Hove, Toneelgroep, Ruhrtrienniale 2016 The things that pass, Ivo van Hove, Toneelgroep, Ruhrtrienniale 2016
photo Jan Versweyveld

Toneelgroep Amsterdam, The things that pass

Ivo van Hove's The things that pass is the second in the planned trilogy of dramatisations of novels by Dutch author Louis Couperus, a chronicler of the Hague middle class at the turn of the 20th century. A co-production between Toneelgroep Amsterdam and Toneelhuis, it premiered in the Maschinenhalle Zweckel, a castle-like edifice built in 1909 that used to supply the nearby mine with electricity and air. The imposing-cum-crumbling building serves to effectively highlight the themes of Couperus' text: the weight of Protestant ethics, the weight of unexamined emotions, the weight of what we inherit.

The set is an enormous, dreamlike waiting room in which numerous members of two well-to-do Hague families sit and wait for older generations to die. A few things happen: the youngest two get married, visitors reveal past intrigues, there’s a honeymoon in Italy, money changes hands. But these are mere blips in the wait. Though the laws of inheritance divide them artificially into generations, apart from the newly-weds, everyone is already old, old and unhappy, lost in the kind of malaise that grows in insular families in which happiness is a skill forgotten many generations ago. The characters hold onto fantasies of salvation: inheritance to prop up their lives, Italian sunshine to restore their joie de vivre, revelations that will explain the subterranean tensions within the family, death as a release from guilt. Beneath the restraint of the Dutch middle class is a cauldron of inchoate, infantile, sexually charged emotion that can only find release by going berserk in the exotic South. There is, indeed, a murder in the family history, a crime of passion committed in the Dutch East Indies that has poisoned the bind between the two families. But neither its revelation, nor the eventual death of the cursed couple, offers escape.

Manifesto, Julian Rosefeldt Manifesto, Julian Rosefeldt

Julian Rosefeldt, Manifesto

The stand-out work in Ruhrtriennale was Manifesto, a 13-channel video installation by Julian Rosefeldt, in which Cate Blanchett’s 13 personae deliver the most salient art manifestos of the 20th century. A news anchor explains conceptual art. An irritable punk musician voices The Strident Manifesto and calls for an electric chair for Chopin. A drunken hobo in the ruins of Berlin's former US Cold War listening station rants against capitalism, as per the Situationist Manifesto. And a Wall Street broker, in a mellifluous voice, extols Futurism (“Our hearts know no tiredness!”).

Sometimes the setting reveals the historical urges beneath an art movement, such as with the Midwestern mid-century family that prays for pop art, a “political-erotic-mystical art.” Sometimes the tension is ironic: the worker in an industrial incinerator delivers praise to the functional aesthetic of Modernism. Sometimes, as when a primary school teacher delivers the Dogme Manifesto to her students (“Nothing is original.”) the effect is merely sardonic. Yet there is a larger purpose to the work: once every 10-minute cycle, 13 videos sync up in climactic, liturgically intoned unison, like a mass for all the hopes of art. As these quieten before the cycle restarts, a calm takes over: the news studio is cleaned, the homeless man walks away, the children play in the school playground without a worry in the world.

In its understated willingness to ask important questions, Ruhrtriennale is remarkable.

Urban Prayers Ruhr, concept, direction Björn Bicker, Malte Jelden, script Björn Bicker, direction Johan Simons, performers ChorWerk Ruhr, Bochum Synagoge, 14 Aug-18 Sept; The Things That Pass, direction Ivo van Hove, script Koen Tachelet after Louis Couperus, set design Jan Versweyveld, Maschinenhalle Zweckel, Gladbeck, 16 – 24 Sept; Manifesto, performer Cate Blanchett, director, production, author Julian Rosefeldt, Kraftzentrale, Landschaftspark Duisburg-Nord, Germany 13 Aug–24 Sept

Ruhrtriennale 2015-2017, Ruhr, Germany, 1 Jan-24 Sept

RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.

© Jana Perkovic; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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