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Radical Languages: Re-Animating the Spirit of Tadeusz Kantor

by Laura McLean-Ferris

Ian Saville, 'Magic for Socialism' (2012), performance at Radical Languages, photo by studioFILMLOVE

Contemporary art is often given the task of resuscitation – of poor neighbourhoods, dusty art collections or historical figures – as though it were some kind of fairy dust that can grant magical properties such as glamour, money, sex, creativity and pure life force. In the case of ‘Radical Languages’, a three-day event in Krakow, Poland in early December, the subject who was to have new life breathed into him was the late Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990), the eminent and influential Polish theatre director, theoretician and artist.

‘Radical Languages’ was organized by Cricoteka, a research centre, archive and exhibition space set up in Krakow by Kantor himself in 1980, which will move to a new site in 2013. The event, curated by Maaike Gouwenberg and Joanna Zielińska, was largely performative, marrying Kantor’s interests in performance and visual art, as well as his focus on death and in poor, low forms of culture. The result was an anarchic atmosphere activated ventriloquism, animism and séance, gesturing toward the radical potentials that might emerge from a cranky lower world populated by comedians, spiritualists, musicians, magicians and obsolete objects.

Nathaniel Mellors, ‘The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser Face’, (2010), photo by studioFILMLOVE

The curators set their scene by organizing an exhibition in Kantor’s former apartment, which featured works by Nathaniel Mellors and Egill Sæbjörnsson alongside a display of Kantor’s objects – theatrical props, divested of their purpose, which became interesting to Kantor due to their status as ‘poor objects’. (Throughout the weekend it struck me that Kantor’s writings on this subject might to fruitfully be considered somewhere alongside Hito Steryl’s writings and works on the ‘poor image’, and it is exactly these kind of sparks and reactivations that such an event is intended to inspire). Mellors presented a short video, The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser (2010) which saw the face of David Dimbleby (a prominent British current affairs presenter) unhooked from his body, and falling through the air from a great height. The work also featured an animatronic mask of Dimbleby’s face (The 7 Ages of Britain Teaser Face, 2010), brought to life by a selection of rigged movements and sounds, the uncanniness of which extended from its high degree of realism: the face seemed to gargle and writhe involuntarily, its eyes rolling, creating the impression of a person near death or suffering a stroke.

Sæbjörnsson’s rather airier installation, Various Projections (2007) animated a selection of objects, including a bucket, a suspended twig and a rock, by way of the light from a projector that cast the objects’ shadows on the wall. Rogue shadows also appeared occasionally, however, conjuring a jaunty bowtie for the twig, say, which created the sense that these objects might have unseen characteristics.

The majority of the programme, however, took place over two evenings at Theatre Bagatela: the first largely tied to language and performance, and the second more tightly focussed on objects. In an opening lecture, Yann Chateigné Tytelman connected Kantor’s ‘aggressive’ use of obsolescence to the ‘dilapidated, mildewed world’ that one finds in the works of artists such as Mike Kelley, Edward Kienholz, Mellors and in the videos of Jos de Gruyter & Harald Thys, two of which were screened over the course of the two days.

Sebastian Cichoki’s staged performance at Radical Languages, Krakow, photo by studioFILMLOVE

Sebastian Cichocki created a staged interview, …Of love, springing from pain and despondency, agony and death (2012) between a librettist interviewer (who sang her questions) and a ventriloquist’s dummy of Robert Smithson, an object highly dubious in its ability to channel liveliness, allowing Smithson to speak from a state of ruination. The evening also featured an entertaining magic show by ‘socialist magician’ Ian Saville, in which he brought Bertolt Brecht and Karl Marx to life via ventriloquism; a charmingly shambolic séance by Voin de Voin & Ancelle Beauchamp, entitled Calling Kantor for a Pattern. Piece in Three Acts (2012), in which members of the audience – each of whom had been anointed with a gold symbol painted on her head – was encouraged to look for signs from the spirit of Kantor; and a musical performance by God in Hackney (featuring Mellors and Andy Cooke), who freely employed a kind of nonsense syntax in their lyrics, such as ‘Holt Jamara, fat spaniel Lewis like a polecat and vinegar Tom’.

Voin de Voin & Ancelle Beauchamp, ‘Calling Kantor For a Pattern, Piece in Three Acts’, (2012), photo by Grzegorz Mart

That evening’s highlight, to my mind, was a performance by Michael Portnoy entitled Carrot Jokes and Cognitive Linguistics (2012), on the subject of ‘carrot jokes’ – a kind of nonsense form of unfunny joke – hilarious in performed failure of the form, and I was fully persuaded by the artist that this was a legitimate, well-known concept, though Google now refuses to confirm this. As well as comedically relating different examples of the form to different shapes of carrot, Portnoy brought two members of the ‘humour research community’ into conversation with him – Wladyslaw Chlopicki and Dorota Brzozowska – and though I couldn’t personally verify the ‘legitimacy’ of anything they were saying, it didn’t matter, because what they did say was profoundly interesting, particularly when they discussed the way that each small element of a joke is a tiny gateway to the larger spheres of meaning and association.

Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson, ‘The Death Show’, 2012, photo by studioFILMLOVE

The second evening opened with The Death Show (2012), a performance by Styrmir Örn Guðmundsson, who had brought with him a series of boilers that he had used throughout his life, each of which seemed to threaten to kill him somehow with gas or lead poisoning, and which allowed him to ruminate, with these objects playing the parts of ominous villains or relics of romance, on the presence of death in his body. Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset’s Drama Queens (2007) was also screened, a marionette show of famous historical artworks in Beckettian conversation, as was Thys & De Gruyter’s Das Loch (2010), in which hideously painted mannequins with shabbily stuck-on hair ruminated darkly on art and death in computer-generated voices. Zhana Ivanova’s performance Flipsides [1&2] (2012) demonstrated a new alphabet based on useless objects from her house, as well as useless actions – looking for things in the same place twice and so on – which she used to spell out words.

Nicole Beutler, ’1: Songs’, performance at Radical Languages

The finale of the weekend was the performance, 1: Songs, by Nicole Beutler, performed by Ibelisse Guardia Ferragutti, an outlandishly beautiful actress. Beutler has taken the words of female characters from the long history of theatre and literature – Medea, Antigone, or Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, say – and transformed them into blistering pop songs (together with DJ and composer Gary Shepherd), from the kittenish to the sexy, from the thrashingly enraged to the heartbroken. These were performed and danced to by Ferragutti, who crawled, gyrated and head-banged her way around the stage with the kind of superstar moxie that would put Rihanna or Lady Gaga to shame. The experience was shattering, powerful and funny. I found myself moved to startled laughter and a few tears by the sheer intoxicated energy of this work: a master class in raising the dead from their graves and making them sing.

Laura McLean-Ferris

About the author

  • Laura McLean-Ferris's photo

    Laura McLean-Ferris is a writer and curator based in New York. The second of the two-part exhibition she curated, Columbidae, is on view at Cell Project Space, London, until 5 July 2015.