It’s only a matter of time before everything turns into bad theatre. Oh, the theme park that history becomes! All those momentous events and monumental ideologies… Walls slapped up and beaten down. Files filed and family members disappeared. Slivers of land fought and died for. Gruff men with bushy beards, whose big ideas engulfed 20, 50 years, entire lifetimes. All of it rendered ridiculous soon enough.
Coincidentally, (not really), two art pieces I encountered at Loop Art Fair last week explore the theme of recent history and how in hell we deal with it. In Romanian artist Dragos Alexandrescu’s 5-minute film, three fundamental tomes – the Bible, the Communist Party Manifesto, and a collection on Capitalism – are shredded, rolled up, and then re-knitted together by a solitary schoolgirl. Does this herald the creation of an all-new super ideology? The title of the piece, Exercising Failure, is ambiguous. This ideological scarf could strangle you; it could be full of holes.
In Some Engels, a 20-minute film by artist Sven Johne, six German actors try their luck at a casting. The role for which they compete, in a functional office space in downtown Berlin, is that of the German pioneer of socialism, Friedrich Engels. The actors’ ages range from mid 30s to mid 60s, they bridge the pre- and post- Soviet era, the former East and West Germany. Yet, while at the start they differ dramatically in terms of background, experience, fluency and confidence, when asked to deliver lines from a speech that Engels made, in English, at the London funeral of Karl Marx in 1883, melodrama infects all their performances. Finally, a uniform absurdity is imposed as each actor is asked to pose in Engels’ face-swamping beard.
This scripted performance, in which actors play actors, is both funny and uncomfortable in the struggle between candour and inauthenticity. The production company representative, an informal American called Waldorf, is no less ‘theatrical’. He introduces himself to each Engels differently – he is Waldorf, like the hotel, the German village, the Muppet, the salad – creating a series of identities that rely on familiar yet irrelevant contexts. In the same sense, we could be seen to glue together our social and personal histories, not through relevant facts but through arbitrary clichés.
We think of the events and ideologies of the past as immortal; they seem to take their place in the archive of history where we can always access, study and learn from them. Yet with time, as objectivity is gained, emotional contact is drained, until all meaning is blanched from the once resonant. Quirks and curiosities, funny films and photos – that’s what history comes down to.