ARENA AND THE EPIC: ON THE PRODUCTION OF NON-EVIDENCE BY KIRSTEN MAAR
Installation view: “The Epic” at NAK Neuer Aachener Kunstverein, Aachen, 2016
© Pola Sieverding, VG Bild-Kunst
Foto: © Klaus Mettig, VG Bild-Kunst
© Pola Sieverding, VG Bild-Kunst
Foto: © Klaus Mettig, VG Bild-Kunst
In Arena, we see the bodies of men in wrestling regalia: the shiny surface of the skin, the glowing colors of the regalia and the strong contrast against the black background that makes the staging clear from the outset. The bodies call to mind Rubens’ mobile masses of flesh, except these bodies are highly trained, evoking, though these are not ascetic sportsmen or athletic types, the sporting competitions of classical antiquity. The context, though almost entirely masked out by the black background, at first resembles the staging of boxing matches. Perhaps we are also reminded of the mournful and tragic figure Mickey Rourke plays of the aging wrestler in Darren Aronofsky’s 2008 film, revealing a world of ambivalent glamour.
At wrestling’s core is not only an athletic competition but also its staging and mise-en-scène, the theatricality of competition, putting the fighters in a certain context, placing them in a specific light. Going onstage, the spotlights, the moment of going in front of the audience turn the fight into a kind of gala event and the wrestlers into divas of the ring: vulnerable, yet with a specifically male-connotated habitus of apparent invincibility. Every fight is a fight for everything, and at the same time a big show, charged with high affective potential. It is not for nothing that wrestling regalia is in glowing colors, suggesting strength, power and attraction within a coded ritual. This performance is underscored by a set of postures, by a specific habitus, itself clearly different from the actual habitus of boxing and amateur wrestling.
The body postures, which appear as entirely staged poses, allow us to anticipate the course of a movement. Pola Sieverding for the most part captures the movement of the men in a clinch, when the fighters move with and against each other, mutually entangled between conquering and embracing. The indecisiveness of the situation is what charges the images with a tension that surrounds more than the moment.
The body images—or rather the body stagings—materialize in the chiaroscuro of contrasts. They are emphasized by the play of light on the skin that renders the musculature visible. The carnality of the bodies, tending to elude normative ideals of beauty, becomes the real event in the performance of the spectacle and the exhibition. Not the fight itself, but rather its visuality makes palpable in a moment the drama of conquering and being conquered.
Media, Immediacy and Materiality
With these descriptions, we have already departed from the level of the immediate and are instead in the midst of those things that structure, on a variety of medial levels, both the fight as well as our observation of it. Our gaze is directed by body and fighting techniques gained through training, with the help of methods of staging from lighting design to the “costumes” and an almost ritual arrangement of the wrestling ring. As in the arenas and theaters of classical antiquity, the ring and the stage, since surrounded by the audience, are literally at the center of attention. Beyond these aspects inherent to the given situation, our gaze is also directed by the photo¬graphic perspective and by the decision to separate, to abstract the scenes from their given situation—namely the audience or the training room that may have been present—so as to let us replace them as observers.
The whole¬room installation in the exhibition The Epic at NAK Neuer Aachener Kunstverein (ill. p. 17ff.), like the artist’s installation at the Museum Abteiberg in Mönchen¬gladbach (ill. p. 11), implements a third level of arrange¬ments that determine the various configurations among the wrestlers and between the wrestlers and their observers in the exhibition rooms, choreographing, as it were, the new audience in space. The fight becomes an event that communicates itself on a wide variety of levels and via different media, processes and techniques—even as it seems to reach us directly.
Unfolding a range of allusions is immanent to the event, and therefore temporally always oriented both to the movement that has just happened and to a fictive potentiality. It is through the act of observation that gestures, poses and movements that are materialized through repetition and variation first become tangible as events that are performative in and of themselves. Contributing to this tangibility is not only the fact that paths of movement can be anticipated, but also the situational nature and contextuality of this arrangement of images. These are images of similar things, of small differences in bodies, details, “accessories,” the further development of indi- vidual poses. The differences are what allow us to place individual photographs in a larger context—a kind of photo atlas defining the iconography. The numerous possible references and relationships, a few of which have been mentioned above, insert the act of observation into a play between visible and invisible.
The Epic—the title both of the exhibition and of the film shown with two boxers—refers to the great narration and broad depiction of a monumental hero narrative, a narrative that today can appear only as multiply broken, given the discussion of the end of narratives in postmodernism and given, moreover, narratives’ immanent ambivalence. This brokenness is reflected in the spatial layout as well. The title furthermore evokes Bertolt Brecht’s epic theater, which does not merely represent and reach the observer as directly as possible, but at the same time makes visible how it represents, showing, emphasizing, framing certain aspects—and in turn making others disappear. Here alienation appears as a shifting of the details of a realistic gaze onto the configurations of everyday life and fictionalization.
In the play of these different levels of reference, the materiality of the bodies against the black background, the wrestlers’ glistening, sweating, oiled skin, the tattoos, the quality of the polyester fabrics, the proficiency of the holds and the facial expressions all create a particular contrast, showing over the course of the fight, in counterpoint to the dramatics, the quantum of stamina the fighters have, their pain, the wearing out and burning out of their bodies. This effect is intensified by seeing the protagonists in extreme close-ups, individual body parts in motion, fragmenting the body and presenting its materializations as a search for different identities.
Pola Sieverding’s prior works contained queer body enactments that negotiate gender norms and body images. Here we see something else, a queering of our expectations as observers, an undermining of certain normative ideas. It makes an absolute difference whether a man, a woman or another gender is observing these body images and what that spectator finds, or wishes to find, in them. Conventional definitions like “gender trouble” and “queer performance” do not seem to fit, since Pola Sieverding’s prior works already even called into question new gender categories. An earlier work, Make Up (2010, ill. p. 7), shows the slow transformation of the masculine into the feminine. The scene: a makeup table at which a man becomes a diva through a slow process of transformation. The face is shown in close-up, the camera capturing the gaze in the intimate perspective of the mirror. The transformation tips, however, as lipstick is applied to make the mouth bigger and bigger, till at last the whole face glows signal red. The removal of the makeup, the deconstruction, is celebrated with the same slowness as the process of creation.
In another work, Cross Metropolis Machine (2012, ill. p. 8), which was shown in the Museum Abteiberg installation together with the wrestlers and boxers, we see a single female dancer at a club. The delicate movements of her fingers and arms at first seem to affirm a familiar image of dance as the movement of beautiful form. Yet she ceaselessly seeks new positions. Her gaze is directed straight into the camera, but seems trance-like, lost in herself. Zooming in on individual body parts that take on the appearance of detached living matter in the alternation of darkness and colored light, we approach the body as fragmented, as trying out different roles that never succeed.
Although gender norms are broken over and over again in Pola Sieverding’s works, gender clichés appear as potent and performatively affirmed. Each work polarizes the viewer’s feelings in a different way. This is because the photographs of the wrestlers and boxers do not in any way seem like medially normalized expressions of a mass cultural merging of body and image. Likewise, the poses and gestures, as with the dancer in Sieverding’s video Cross Metropolis Machine, are not permeated, for example, by a simple critique of the image in mass media. The poses and gestures endeavor instead to free each deployment of one’s own body as an image of its transparency and obviousness. Pola Sieverding explicitly exhibits the performance of gender, of the image of the self and the other, in the course of a feminist appropriation, as a “dance” of different forms of movement, as a choreography of space and configurations in space, as the mise-en-scène of body images.
The performative bodies that do not fit into that scheme, not least because of their panoramic arrangement, are instead a reminder in their ambivalence that the shortcut pursued in cultural criticism and affirmative theories alike, that of conflating visual culture and consumption, does not work here. Seeing-feeling is not opposed to, but rather interwoven with a consumerist economy.
Materializing Affect and Intrinsic Obstacles
Despite the different levels of staging, the wrestlers and boxers never gaze aggressively into the camera. What we see here is not the moment of the confronta- tional, provocative pose, of the spectacle. The images avoid explicit visual contact with the camera’s eye, a contact so often emphasized as decisive in photography theory. Instead the camera seems to move directly between the fighters. Yet this work also does not seek a documentary character. What, then, is effected by the experience of closeness, on what level does it arise?
The pose—between tableaux and scene, between two movements—constitutes a snapshot. Between photography and choreography of movement and its installation in space, this snapshot gets to the heart of something that touches me as an observer. This power of affect brings me into the state of being the “in-between,” as though I were slipping into the role of the medium. Sensations are situated not solely in my gaze; rather my body transmits those repertoires of affect. Something shows itself, something becomes visible between image and movement, and it is this moment of what is potential that charges the range of poses so strongly with affect.
The theatricality and the dramatics inherent to the images not only tie them into a progression of before and after but create an “afterlife of images” in Aby Warburg’s sense: Through the combination of images and their ranges, the images refer to numerous other images and thus create a network of connections operating not only on the level on which images create meaning but beyond it, conveying themselves to us as a sort of sensation.
The affinities and conflicts between image repertoires are ultimately means of cinematographic montage as well. Film, more than any other art form, is regarded as the medium of affect, melodrama and immersive involvement. On the photographic level, the situation, the drama of the wrestling match is captured in singular moments. In the installation, by contrast, these are linked anew to one another, and there appears a filmic and theatrical setting that lets us experience these moments.
Emotions that go through the body and change it are not only rendered visible in the bodies of the wrestlers, the boxers or the dancer we have mentioned, but depart from the level of pure visibility and become tangible between levels of perception as something that is also kinesthetically, imaginatively and affectively linked.
Wrestling as an irretrievable exertion of the body recalls, like dance, the temporary constitution of our corporeality and how constitutive this is for our connection to the world. The transmission of a sensation constitutes us as subjects who are not self-contained, positioning ourselves in the act of observation between the individual and the general, between the affective potential of images and within a market of images. Pola Sieverding’s work skillfully reflects on the process of reappropriating affect that is not one’s own. She is deliberate in her approach to the fact that symbolic exchange value is decisive in an economy of affect. This ambivalence forms the springboard for her work.