[-empyre-] on performance and terror

Johannes Birringer Johannes.Birringer at brunel.ac.uk
Mon Dec 1 05:10:59 EST 2014

dear all

I learnt that Ricardo Dominguez's call to action was successful. 

And lastly, a small story I want to tell, again asking about the relations of art to terror and war, its creative powerlessness in the face of conditions that seem overbearing and yet are evolving and never set in stone.

yesterday, Michèle Danjoux and I visited an exhibition at the V&A Museum in London, titled: "Russian Avant-garde Theatre: War, Revolution, and Design 1913 – 1933,"  and we came across numerous examples of
tremendous artistic activity and vibrancy during the years of the devastating World War I, during which the Tsarist empire collapsed and the revolutionary transformations after 1917 changed the course of the history.
Looking at the drawings and sketches for a 'futurist" and 'constructivist' theatre, and at the mystifying abstractions of Malevich's suprematist paintings, we then read that "many of the artists stayed away from the war-action
and continued with their artistic ambitions; they understoo art and theatre are powerful mediums (and a magnifying glass) for expressing views of the new transformative society."

In one the rooms, to my surprise, I found a monitor displaying a fragment of Eisenstein's never completed film (shot in 1930-1931) "Que viva México!"  (apparently Eisenstein had traveled to Mexico to work on the film, and was then recalled by Stalin). The fragments, filmed with a very kinetic camera, focus on what appears to be "día de los muertes" (day of the dead) celebrations, a parade, dancing and music, all protagonists dressed with skeletal costumes and death masks. As we watch some spectacular close ups of this dance of death, a Russian voice over ponders, "The Mexicans triumph over death through mocking it...."  "this is not a death cult.... the masks show the corpses of the dead classes...".
Then we see a sequence (slow motion) where a masked dancer removes the death mask from a head –  and underneath there is a another skeleton, death on top of grinning death?

Wondering what Eisenstein was searching for, and why he traveled to México (a country he calls "so tender, so sensual, and so cruel"), I then recalled that the end of this vibrant period of artistic experimentation was stopped short by Stalinism in the 1930, and yet the impact of revolutionary art sustained itself throughout the century, inspiring many.  

What many of you have argued here, I think, is a belief, or a spirit (against apocalyptic nihilism) that endows us to stand fast against assuming a terror to be absolute. 

I wish to send my heartfelt thanks to everyone here, our guests and all participating subscribers to the list;
you have made this month a very powerful demonstration of dialogue.

Johannes Birringer

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