Retrospection at the Holland Festival
By SAMUEL GRAYDON
I recently went to Amsterdam for the Holland Festival (which runs until June 26). It advertises itself as “showing innovation in art”; it was to my surprise, then, that all of what I saw insisted, in a variety of ways, on retrospection.
Looking back does not necessarily mean that innovation is lacking, of course, as was shown by Mark Cousins’s film about atomic power, Atomic: Living in dread and promise, compiled from public-service broadcasts, stills, documentaries and interviews. An informative work that dragged you into a mindset of the past, it made you reconfigure your understanding of its subject. The film was perhaps not as strong in narrative as Cousins suggested in a discussion before the screening of the film, but it was offhandedly threatening, thanks partly to Mogwai – the Scottish post-rock band; they were commissioned to write the soundtrack to the film, and performed it live. Their ambient and droning music nicely complemented the film's explorations of the devastating and the healing potential of the atom.
Atomic was greater than the sum of its parts – Cousins's direction was subtle and respectful. In his interview, Cousins said that he believed that “good storytelling should take your hand and walk with you to begin, and then it should let it go”. I'm sorry to say that, elsewhere in the Festival, I got a bit lost on occasion. Nowhere did I want a friendly guiding hand more than during Christine Jathay’s The Walking Forest, a “video and theatre installation” inspired by Macbeth. Jathay intended to make members of the public think about their part in oppression, and what they would do if a real Macbeth came to power. We were spectators, free to wander around as we pleased, but we were actors too. About twenty of us were wired up with earpieces, and we had to do as we were instructed – at times we were given mundane tasks such as “stand by the women at the bar”; at others they had a more exotic flavour: “feel inside this dead fish filled with fake blood to find two teeth”. There was a free bar, which people made understandable use of; I was given ten euros (covered in fake blood, of course), and ten of us had to (nearly all rather drunkenly) read lines from Macbeth into a microphone. Julia Bernat (the only actress involved in the installation, playing Lady Macbeth) wandered around naked, before getting dressed, pouring water over herself and crawling like a fish across the bar. She then delivered a diatribe on the crookedness and injustice of world politics, lying motionless on the floor. All the while, screens, which eventually moved across the room so as to hem the audience into a corner, informed us about forced migration, corruption, dictatorship and violence inflicted on people by their governments. I seem to remember a semi-naked man wearing a boar’s head, as well.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, my thoughts did not immediately turn to my role in mechanisms of power and oppression.
The problem was that, had I not had any information about Jathay’s intentions before I saw The Walking Forest, it would have made no sense at all (in fact, I couldn't make much sense of it even with the information). I often run into this situation; if I find myself reading the placard next to an artwork more than I actually look at the artwork, it's usually a bad sign.
I had similar trouble with a film by Julian Rosefeldt, specially commissioned to accompany an excellent performance of Haydn’s oratorio Die Schöpfung (The Creation). This film was meant to be antithetical to the music (“if the music evokes a babbling brook, then perhaps you’ll see a dried-up riverbed on screen”) – a response, not an interpretation. Whereas in Haydn’s piece, humankind is presented as the height of God’s creation, in Rosefeldt’s film the species has brought about its own destruction by striving at technological advancement.
Once again, I can only make these comments because of the festival press pack. The audience spent an hour and a half looking at aerial views of deserts, the abandoned Atlas Studios film sets and the industrial ruins of the Muir Valley, shot in slow motion with men in white overalls wandering aimlessly around. There was also footage of dogs mating. The landscapes were immense, beautifully filmed and wonderfully colorized, but even so, there is only so much slow-motion desert one can take.
Much more successful, in my opinion, was the Dutch National Opera’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame, directed by Stefan Herheim. It was my first acquaintance with the work, and I found it rather awe-inspiring as played by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra and conducted by Mariss Jansons – with a powerful performance by Alexy Markov as Count Tomsky. At one point, the chandelier turned into a huge swinging thurible, pouring smoke onto the stage. With the striking black-and-white costumes, the austere but grand sets and the cold lighting, Herheim drew out the oppressive atmosphere implicit in the opera, aided by Misha Didyk’s paranoid and aggressive portrayal of Hermann. Having said that, even though I did not know the opera, I could tell that Herheim was introducing a novel twist that, unfortunately, was not quite paying off. He wanted to explore how “Tchaikovsky’s unspeakable homosexuality and passion rises through the music to the surface”. And so during the sublime overture, the curtain rose on Tchaikovsky reclining in an armchair while a scantily clad Hermann rose from his knees, lifting his head from the composer’s crotch. Tchaikovsky then proceeded to die, and remained on stage for the entire performance, “conducting” his fellow performers and playing the piano. Great pieces of art can be interpreted in different ways (indeed, as Auden had it in his essay on reading, being read in a number of different ways is one of the signs that a work actually has merit), but this was not simply interpretation; it was imposition.
Perhaps I am being facile to suggest it, but sometimes a piece does not need reinterpreting, but simply rereading.