"'Chambre Séparée' - a room behind the curtains"
New York University, 2001
The German writer and performer Raimund Hoghe, presented his piece "Chambre Séparée" in Oslo in 1998. The performance had a great impact on the theater community in Oslo at the time because of the way it uses time and space as a way to deal with lost love, shame, and stigma. As the curator of this performance in Oslo, it was interesting for me to see the influence this work had on following performances made by Norwegian artists, using objects and time in similar ways in order to deal with their own stigmas.
Hoghe gave the audience an experience of the temporality of time and the importance of objects as a historical referent to the shaping of identity. He prolonged and dwelled upon certain actions, and the audience were taken on a time-travel into personal memories and history. Simultaneously he managed to make the audience aware of the shared present moment through the proximity of flesh in the meeting between the audience's body and gaze, and his own stigmatized body. I will look at the affects his performance evoked in the audience, and using a phenomenological approach, I will discuss this meeting in terms of the different bodies' experience of being-in-the-world.
In "Chambre Séparée", Raimund Hoghe takes the audience gently by the hand, and brings them behind the curtain of shame and stigma by telling the story of his life. When he openly returns the audience's gaze, revealing the hidden, he gains agency through disidentification. In this paper, I will explore ways in which this artist deals with his stigma of growing up without a father, being homosexual, and having a hunchback. In the piece he identifies with other foreigners who have lost their point of reference, people who were not accepted. Growing up in post World War Germany, there were many stories of migrant souls "whose experience of identity is fractured and split" (Munoz,p. 31).
After the liberation of the concentration camp Theresienstadt, the Jewess Hertha Berthold returned to her home town D¸sseldorf. "But I no longer had a home. At first I was very depressed and utterly lonely. Often I stood in front of the gas oven and thought: either end it all or leave Germany."(... ) A woman who was reported to the Gestapo by her father says, that in the night she sometimes watches horror films on television in order to "see if anything can still frighten me", but nothing can.(...) Marlene Dietricht was considered to be a traitor. The first time she gave a guest performance during the post-war period of reconstruction in Germany, she was spat at and greeted with banners like "Marlene go home".
(From the script of "Chambre Séparée" by Raimund Hoghe)
I see Hoghe's performance as a very subtle form of disidentification using melancholia and the disidentification with his heroes as a way of gaining power. The powerful images of "stars" used in the performance are recycled, in the way Munoz explains it in his book Disidentifications, to empower his own identity and occupy a place/space in the current cultural production. The performance is part of a process of worldmaking and transformation of hegemonic cultural codes.
Raimund Hoghe is alone on stage in this performance. He performs actions using objects that recall memories. He swings a Chinese lamp around the room, he throws sand over his shoulder, he lights candles in a long row across the stage, drinks tea like in a Japanese tea-ceremony, and slowly moves projected images of stars such as Natalie Wood, Bette Davis, Marlene Dietricht, and Jacques Brel across the walls and the ceilings, being the only source of light in the room. The objects and icons (and sounds) refer to a personal, and western - cultural history, which is recognizable to the normative cultural production. By using them in the way he does, Hoghe inscribes himself as part of this culture. The music and the songs that were performed by these stars form an important part of the performance, creating a melancholic atmosphere. They represent a lost world of dreams and hopes in a protected childhood. This atmosphere tells a different story, which is that of disidentification. As soon as the audience is content and can identify with the cultural frame of reference that Hoghe offers, he draws the curtain and reveals his deformed body and tells us of how he had to throw away these childhood idols and negotiate between socially encoded roles to create an identity-in-difference "at the point of collision of perspectives" (Munoz,p.6).
Many of the actions in the performance are performed very slowly, or rather Hoghe takes his time when performing the different scenes. An example is when he slowly walks across the entire stage lighting a candle at every 2. feet with a match. Afterwards he slowly walks in front of the candles with his back to the audience. This sole activity may take 10 minutes and easily bores the spectators. I believe there are two ways of dealing with the prolonging of time in this case. Either you put up a barrier and refuse to enter into the stillness of the image, or you let go of the expectations of action and narrative and let yourself contemplate on the presented image. Hoghe insists on making the audience watch his exposed hunchback lit by the candles. I believe the use of time in this context is important in order for the audience to perceive the image, have an emotional reaction and finally reflect on what they see. It becomes a way of sharing presence and proximity of flesh. Hoghe says he is interested in the individual gaze. The insistence on time in the flesh, gives each individual member of the audience a possibility to experience the image physically within their own bodies.
In the meeting with the stigmatized body affect is provoked in the audience. Many found the fact that Hoghe dwelled for so long on this particular image, repulsive and provoking. The meeting with the imperfect, disabled body was a strong confrontation for many audience members. His stigma was served to them in their faces, so to speak. By going against the hegemonic writing of normal bodies represented in contemporary society and art, feelings and emotions are aroused. The articulation of presence is crucial in the shaping of future social consciousness because it is precisely through the personal, which is alive, active, here and now, that the hegemonic, fixed cultural consciousness is challenged. Hoghe's body in itself challenges esthetic ideals in theater and dance, and at the same time the audience's own experience of normativity is questioned.
Raymond Williams speaks ,in his book Marxism and Literature, about how cultural consciousness is changed in the social sphere. In his essay "Structures of Feeling" he points to the fact that such changes happen through changes in the social structures of feeling, which can happen when meanings and values are actively lived in relationships between affectionate people. This is a social experience that is in process within the present according to Williams. Raimund Hoghe takes part in this shaping of new social consciousness in his work as an artist when he challenges accepted structures. The proximity of the flesh in the present forces the audience to confront their emotions evoked by such a body as his. In the theater space, there is no way to avoid it.
So what is being confronted in this meeting with the stigma, and what affects does it provoke? First, I think it is important to point to how we as socialized beings always seek to belong to a group, a tribe, or a family. It is our social group that helps creating our social identity. When we see a dancer with a healthy body on stage, we have no trouble identifying with that image. Hoghe's body on the other hand disturbs our sense of who we are and who we want to identify with. He becomes a stranger in a healthy social setting. He is a less desirable member of the hegemonic physical body-culture to which most of the audience belongs. When Erving Goffman wrote about Stigma in 1963, he wrote;
"While the stranger is present before us, evidence can arise of his possessing an attribute that makes him different from others...and of a less desirable kind...He is thus reduced in our minds from a whole and usual person to a tainted, discounted one. Such an attribute is a stigma...sometimes it is also called a failing, a shortcoming, a handicap" (Goffman, p.3).
Hoghe is trying to overcome the perception of his body as stigmatic both by giving it focus and pointing directly to the problem, and at the same time creating an image that would carry meaning even if it was performed by a so called normal body. He asks the question; why is my naked back more provoking to watch than any other dancer's naked back? Why is Hoghe's back red as a stigma in comparison to other performer's straight backs? This shows that a stigma is really nothing but a relationship between an attribute and a stereotype that are equally dependent on each other to exist. Or, in Goffman's words, "The normal and the stigmatized are not persons but rather perspectives" (Goffman, p.138). In the performance, Hoghe gives the audience a different perspective. After all, as the creator of the piece he is in charge of the situation and from the stage he can choose and define the point of view.
Goffman's book on stigma was written in 1963. Much has happened since in the western society when it comes to the acceptance of certain stigmatized people, at least those with physical handicaps. One may ask however, if this acceptance is a phantom acceptance? Phantom acceptance implies that even if society tries to incorporate and normalize stigmatized people, it is still in order to let them "pass" as normal. Society merely tries to close its eyes to their stigmas, but avoids questioning normativity on a whole. In my opinion one question remains; is it possible to get away from the dichotomy between normativity and deviance?
As Judith Butler points to in much of her work, these dichotomies are dependent on each other in order to be upheld. I believe that the affect the stigma arouses in the audience is connected to fear. It is fear of the stranger in themselves that Julia Kristeva talks about, and fear of not belonging to a community or a social group. Ultimately it is a fear of loneliness and expulsion.
It is interesting to notice how Rimund Hoghe by not being ashamed of his stigma, sends the emotion back to the audience. It is the audience who feels shame because it becomes difficult to deal with their own affect as mentioned above. In the performance Hoghe reads a text about his relationship to his mother who has passed away. During the construction of the story of his childhood, Hoghe makes the same point by presenting the mother as the one with shame, more than the boy himself. He says:
The word hunchback she never uttered. She just called it his back. In loose pullovers it would be scarcely noticeable. "there are worse things than a back like that" she says.(...) When the son tells that he had heard that also men could kiss each other, and that he would like to know what that was like, he receives from the mother the only clip around the ear he can remember.
(From the script of "Chambre Séparée" by Raimund Hoghe)
Here he explains how he was taught that his stigma was something to hide and be ashamed of. Both the boy and the mother escaped into a world of dreams in order to avoid the difficult emotions in facing the social community. Together they lived in an illusion where television provided the images of heroes and heroines. She lived her entire life behind the curtains, while he broke away after her death.
From the magazine "Bravo" he cuts out each week the colorful sections from life-sized star posters. Two dozen of them together make one life-sized star. Connie Francis and Caterina Valente, Cliff Richard, and Rock Hudson. Folded up they live in the cupboard. After the death of the mother in 1968, he throws them away and moves to another place.
(From the script of "Chambre Séparée" by Raimund Hoghe)
Hoghe points to the fiction of identity. The superficially colored photographs of the famous stars emphasize the fiction, which is so far away from the reality of the boy living in postwar Germany. His heroes offered a model of identification that was impossible for him to obtain outside of the closed, fictional world he lived in with his mother. After her death, he had to struggle to find his identity in a normative environment.
Referring to the French linguist Michel Pecheux, Josè Munoz in his book Disidentifications writes that, "disidentification is a strategy that works on and against dominant ideology" (Munoz,p.11). It represents a struggle for the shaping of alternative identity, as well as a struggle to change a culture's structures of feeling from within. Hoghe redirects the power already invested in the images of his childhood heroes. By the means of melancholy and the mourning of their death, he can redirect their power and expose other images of identity created by him self. The stars are only images on the wall while he is alive in flesh and blood. "Chambre Séparée" is not only a ritual of grief in memory of a lost and loved mother, but also in memory of a lost identity. The performance can also be read as a mourning ritual for the audience's own lost communal history - a fiction long gone. At the same time the performance represents a celebration of the ambiguity of identity.
When using the songs of these musical heroes as the only soundtrack for the performance, and slowly moving their projected images around the space, melancholy is used to disidentify with the common structures of feeling. MuÒoz views both portrait photography and mourning as performative practices. "In the case of portraiture a lost object is captured and (re)produced, and in melancholic mourning the object is resurrected and retained" (Munoz, p. 65). In "Chambre Séparée", the queer subject creates his own queer mourning ritual that is highly personal and different from the aesthetics of mourning in the western (European or North American) culture. Hoghe resurrects the lost object on the portraiture, but he reproduces it in a queer structure of feeling. The audience becomes caught in the ambiguity between the melancholia of past times, at the same time as they are confronted with a totally different present/ presence. A present that tells a different story about identity trajectory and mourning than what is common to the hegemonic social structure.
Josè Munoz argues that "melancholia is part of our process of dealing with all the catastrophes that occur in the lives of [queer] people" (Munoz, p.74). In Raimund Hoghe's case I believe this to be true. I also believe it to be true that through exposing the melancholia as "identity-affirming melancholia" he is able to find disidentification and empowerment. Disidentification enables him to gain new agency and to find his own place within the cultural production precisely because of the exposure of mourning and melancholia. In my opinion Raimund Hoghe exposes hybrid and unfixed identities. Having several stigmas he probably finds it difficult to belong to any kind of community. He will always carry another mark that makes him a stranger in most communities. In a gay community he is different because of his physical disabilities, and in a community of handicapped people he is different because he is gay. I find it astonishing however, how he has been able through his work to transcend all social communities. His performance is deeply personal, beautiful and sensual. He belongs everywhere and nowhere he is a floating subject with a complex, hybrid identity.
written in the context of an MA degree in Performance Studies at
New York University 2001
Butler, Judith: Bodies that Matter, Routledge 1993
Goffman, Erving: Stigma, Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity.
Simon & Schuster Inc. 1963
Munoz, Josè: Disidentifications, Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics, University of Minnesota Press, 1999
Williams, Raymond: Marxism and Literature, Oxford University Press 1977