Born in 1952, Heiner Goebbels is a difficult artist to categorise, although it's probably most accurate to call him a composer. He has written music for film, theatre and dance, as well as for various contemporary ensembles, including Ensemble Modern and Ensemble Intercontemporain. But he most often composes in three dimensions, and since the mid-1980s, when he made audio plays based on texts by Heiner Müller, has worked consistently in the theatre. Since 1999, he has been a professor at the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies of the Justus Liebig University in Giessen: an institution that focuses on scientific and artistic research, and searches for the links between them. For beauty is nothing All this, and then a gesture as everyday and heart-shaking as the touch of a hand. Seldom is simplicity this profound.
Which is to say, Goebbels is a most interesting mind. His 2007 piece Stifters Dinge (Stifter's Things) is a little like entering that mind: it's a kind of dream about technology, culture and nature, a strangely celebratory lament for the natural world. Although the audience sits watching it from the auditorium in the conventional way, the experience is surprisingly immersive, gathering a meditative intensity as it evolves. A dynamic collage of sound and objects, text and music, it packs a considerable emotional punch.
Like many people in the English-speaking world, I hadn't heard of Adalbert Stifter, let alone read him (I am remedying this deficit at once). In Germany he is considered a major early 19th century Romantic novelist. He was admired by Thomas Mann and W.G. Sebald, and seems a clear precursor to writers such as Peter Handke. On the evidence of the extract in the show, the sensual precision of his prose seems to have much in common with the American essayist and observer of nature, Henry David Thoreau.
Here Stifter's careful attention to the natural world is placed next to a selection of other texts: a poem by William Burroughs; a speech by Malcolm X that predicts the end of Eurocentricism and the rise of Africa and Asia; indigenous songs from New Guinea and America; an interview with Claude Levi-Strauss, in which he confesses that he would prefer the company of his cat to Mozart. The whole piece seems saturated with Stifter's vision of the human being alone and isolated in the midst of the deadly beauty of the natural world, which itself recalls Caspar David Friedrich's vision of the sublime. And indeed, this show seems deeply Romantic: but it is a contemporary Romanticism in which the self has vanished, and which is fraught with a very contemporary anxiety, a very contemporary nostalgia.
The paintings Paolo Ucello's Night Hunt, and Jacob Isaacksz van Ruisdael's Swamp are also part of this theatrical collage. Ruisdale's Swamp transforms into a hallucinogenic, toxic landscape, while Night Hunt is revealed in details. The effect of this detritus of European culture - its music, its writing, its visual splendour - is an increasingly powerful sense of melancholy, of "fragments / shored against my ruin". Stifter's Dinge is an elegy, not only for the natural world, but for the beautiful things we made while we were destroying it.
Strictly speaking, it is automaton theatre, theatre made by machines without any sign of performers. This is hardly a new thing: Heron of Alexandria invented an ingenious device in the first century AD, in which a series of ropes and pulleys operated a ten minute play, complete with artificial thunder. Goebbel's machine has something of the same ingenious charm, but is vastly more complex. When we enter the theatre, it looks like the interior of some insane factory: forestage is dominated by three empty rectangular flatbeds, that look like distillation pools. Alongside these run sets of rails, and next to those are vaguely sinister rows of speakers on high stands, that stare at us like electronic eyes. To the right are three illuminated tanks, with large pipes leading to the flatbeds.
The two technicians appear to be finishing off the set, laying down railings on each side of the beds. Gradually the attention of the audience shifts, although people are still, quite comfortably, talking: it seems that this is the beginning of the show. The technicians then methodically sift what appears to be salt onto the three flatbeds. The lighting shifts, throwing sharp shadows, and quite suddenly we are looking at what appear to be aerial maps of an industrialised landscape, bisected with roads and covered with snow. Then, one by one, they turn the taps on the tanks, and black water slowly floods the landscapes. By now the audience's attention is riveted to the stage.
Screens begin to descend gradually from the flies, punctuated by a blindingly bright light from the back of the stage that turns on and off, like a miniature sun. The ripples of shadow and light from the water dazzle on the screens, which fall and rise in a slow, beautiful ballet of light and shadow, and it begins to feel like we are watching the rhythms of days and nights, a simulacra of the whole planet. Then, at last a voice speaks - Bill Paterson reading a passage from Stifter's novel, My Great Grandfather's Portfolio, a vivid (and disturbing) description of a snowscape which focuses, in particular, on its sounds.
At the back of the stage is a construction of mysterious objects that gradually reveals itself to be five pianos and several naked trees. The pianos are operated by some complex electronics as well as robotic arms. They are beautiful, ingenious, strange; I found myself watching them with the kind of fearful awe that can only be generated by human creations that seem to have their own lives, going beyond us.
At one point, in an image that was like a direct realisation of a scene from a Tarkovsky film, and which possessed the same astonishing beauty, the pianos poured out Bach's Italian Concerto in F Major while raindrops pattered onto the pools of water. In another, the whole backstage construction started moving imperceptibly towards us on silent rails. The pianos seemed to be played by ghosts, the keys depressing faster than human fingers could possibly manage, as they slowly came closer and closer. It was at once absurd, beautiful and unaccountably menacing.
Then the pianos paused, rattling their teeth, and began to retreat. Their retreat revealed the pools beneath them, which once again became aerial landscapes. This time we were placed high in the stratosphere, looking down on swirling cloudscapes of dry ice. By then, such was the meditative power of this work, I was content to observe the entire chemical reaction of dry ice transforming into gas, creating a complex and beautiful brownian motion both like and unlike mist or fog.
At the end of the show, after the applause, we are somehow invited to come and look at the stage. (Which is to say, I don't remember the actual invitation being given, but everyone took it). The beds of the pools, where the remaining chunks of dry ice are still giving off tiny puffs of smoke, are covered with what looks like handwriting. You can't see this unless you walk up close and look: it plays no part in the actual work. I think they are facsimiles of pages from the notebooks of Adalbert Stifter.
So many texts, meanings under meanings. As Stifter says in the show: "I had never seen a thing like this before". It's been haunting me for days.
I find Bill Viola's video art shattering: it is as if he slices open, precisely and mercilessly as a surgeon, the most protected, most painful part of my pysche. Even so, I was totally unprepared for The Raft, a video work of apparently transparent simplicity which somehow expresses all human sorrow. How does he do it?
The Raft is a direct reference to Théodore Géricault's famous Romantic painting, The Raft of the Medusa, which records a horrifying 1816 shipwreck, when the French naval frigate Méduse foundered off the coast of Mauritania. 147 people were set adrift on a raft, but after a fortnight of starvation, thirst, cannibalism and madness, only 15 survived. Géricault's painting is of the crucial moment of rescue: he paints the survivors at the nadir of catastrophe. Some are dead, partially eaten; others are dying. Some are waving to an unseen ship, shining with hope.
Using slow-motion video, Viola recreates this narrative of atrocity with devastating simplicity. Twenty people - different ages, different races, different classes - gather together in some indeterminate public space. It might be a railway station or a bus stop: in any case, it's a place where people wait for something to occur. They are all strangers, all differently dressed. Once they are gathered, and without warning, a giant jet of water hits them from the left. They reel: some fall, some brace themselves against it. Shortly afterwards, another comes from the right.
Their forms are obscured in a violent mist, flailing helplessly. You almost feel the shock when the water impacts on these bodies, its horrific weight and turbulence, the fragility and helplessness of human flesh. They can do nothing but endure the water: it has no thought for them. All difference is erased as they are all hurled into a horrible equality of crisis. Then, gradually, the water stops. Bit by bit, they pick themselves up. Some turn to others, try to help them. Two women embrace, holding each other as if to let go will cause them to fall into some abyss. In the centre an old woman lies on the floor where she has been thrown, and only slowly begins to move as hands touch her in inquiry.
I can't really explain why this work affects me so deeply. There is much art here - the flailing bodies in Viola's slow-motion are as graceful as the classical nudes in Géricault's painting, but here translated into a heightened sense of the ordinary that also makes them immediately familiar. Just as immediately, it recalls news images of catastrophe - the stunned survivors of the London Underground bombings, the floods of New Orleans. The score is complex and strange: there is the punishing rush of water, the elongated sounds of slowed down speech, but also a dog barking. Perhaps what is most moving is how it frames the artless - the tiniest involuntary gestures, here magnified and made epic. Maybe it is simply that The Raft is so nakedly exposing, both as a work of art and as an observation of people.
But there is also something excessive in it, something of Rilke's terrible angel: a sense of being violently seized by the inhuman:
but this terrifying beginning, which astonishingly we endure,
and we admire it so because it calmly disdains
to destroy us.
Pictures: Top and middle, Stifters Dinge. Photo: Mario del Curto. Bottom: Still from The Raft, Bill Viola.
Stifter's Dinge (Stifter's Things), concept, music and direction by Heiner Goebbels. Set design, lighting and video by Klaus Grunberg, music collaboration and programming by Hubert Machnik, sound design by Willi Bop. Merlyn Theatre @ Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 12.
The Raft, by Bill Viola. Executive producer, Kira Perov. Performers: Sheryl Arenson, Robin Bonaccorsi, Rocky Capella, Cathy Chang, Liisa Cohen, Tad Coughenour, Tom Ficke, James Ford, Michael Irby, Simon Karimian, John Kim, Tanya Little, Mike Martinez, Petro Martirosian, Jeff Mosley, Gladys Peters, Maria Victoria, Kaye Wade, Kim Weild, Ellis Williams. ACMI 2, until February 20, 2011.
For beauty is nothing
All this, and then a gesture as everyday and heart-shaking as the touch of a hand. Seldom is simplicity this profound.