"Raimund Hoghe and the Art of Ritual Substitution"
Lecture at Kaaitheater, 26.1.2004
The empty stage is lined by five young men with lowered heads and downcast eyes. They listen attentively to the Mozart tune that fills the air. One by one, the little man in black calls out their names. One by one they leave the stage to take a seat in the auditorium. The sound of their names reverberates in our head. They are gone, and where they once were, only emptiness remains. They have changed sides. They are with us now, but since they have thus opened up the space of the stage, by extension we might equally well have been where they once were. They become stand-ins for us, stand-ins in the place where we are not - which is the stage. Their absence is marked in the course of the performance by a bunch of flowers that Raimund Hoghe leaves in their stead. At the end, when "Lettere Amorose" is over, he will call them by name again. They will rise from their seats to take up the places again they had at the beginning. But now, they hold on to a bunch of flowers.
Flowers take the place of a person, who is a substitute for everybody in the audience. What we watch is therefore our own absence from the scene that is performed for us. An absence that is made felt by stressing it. Objects stand in for something absent - that is one way of characterizing the performances of Raimund Hoghe.
After the young men have left, Hoghe brings on lots of other objects from the wings. A glass of water and small bundle of flowers, little paravants, a pair of wooden Japanese shoes, Mikado sticks and, above all, various pieces of fabric which he will unfold in the course of the performance. He will dip the flowers in the glass to toss the water over his shoulder while kneeling on a long piece of cloth. He will hide behind the paravants like a small boy would lie behind them seeking shelter from the wind on a beach. He will build houses with little sticks and then destroy them again. He will traipse across the stage wearing the shoes with his head covered by a veil.
The connection between Raimund Hoghe's art and ritual, which I am going to speak about, has its origin in this time-consuming attention to detail. Every step and every gesture are meticulously articulated by a performer who is completely absorbed in what he does. He appears calm and composed, almost neutral, displaying no emotions while performing. Rigidly he adheres to a fixed sequence of steps and gestures whose rules are not to be altered, or the act performed might lose its magical power. In little choreographies, Hoghe performs geometrical patterns on the floor. He structures space and time as if the world would lose its coherence if the patterns were broken. But perhaps the world is already broken, and Hoghe establishes order where there is none simply by performing. He casts a spell over his objects in order to work miracles. All this draws on ritual practices, but has, as I would like to argue, nothing to do with rituals in the strict sense of the term. The crucial difference is the notion of absence as opposed to presence which I have stressed in the opening scene of my paper and which I would like to explore a little further now.
A Space for His Body
In all of his pieces, Raimund Hoghe acts as a master of ceremonies. Just watch him lead dancer Sarah Chase back to her seat in the first row of the auditorium in "Sarah, Vincent et moi", while he protectively holds a Japanese umbrella over her head. The space is his. The performances that take place here are tied to his body. In "Lettere Amorose" he takes off his shirt to reveal his hump. A red line marks the crookedness of his spine. With arms open wide he turns himself along the back wall of the stage thus measuring its distance according to the form and dimension of his body. His body is a presence in the space of the symbolic site of representation that is the theatre. He is present in a space where people like him, especially in the world of dance with which he associates himself, are traditionally absent. The objects with which he performs only take on meaning in relation to his body in a performative act that actually puts them to use. His pieces are dialogues with objects.
Dialogue with Objects
In The Origin of the German Tragic Drama, Der Ursprung des deutschen Trauerspiels, where he unfolds his theory of melancholy, Walter Benjamin is above all a reader of Baroque literature and dramatic texts, a fact that is as banal as it is crucial for his perception of melancholy. Like his own times - the book was written in 1925 - Benjamin considers the seventeenth century a time of decline and fall. Benjamin's world like Hoghe's is already broken. What was lost then was the eschatological horizon that instils phenomena with meaning and gives them a reason to exist. The experience of seventeenth-century men and women is therefore marked by the uncertainty about the status of objects and, by extension, their own subjectivity and its position in the order of things. What the reader, and above all the modern reader for whom the loss of (religious) certainties is a founding experience, is confronted with, is a set of hieroglyphic signs. Mute, they leave the reader at a loss about their significance and yet constantly appeal to his or her ability to rescue them from oblivion. As a vivid reminder of death they become mementi mori filling the absence with their fetishistic presence. As with Freud, melancholy for Benjamin -and in extension in my argument concerning Raimund Hoghe - is not so much the loss of an object. Objects are indeed everywhere. It is the loss of a small detail about the object, which leaves the subject adrift towards its own absence from the field of meaning.
Still and immobile, the objects in Raimund Hoghe's pieces wait for an operation to be performed on them. They rely on the gaze of the reader, who is also a spectator, to take on a meaning. Only when the figures in space and time are looked at, when they display themselves to the melancholy allegorical eye for which their existence takes on a meaning, can they be saved from oblivion. Reading thus becomes a performative act that, paradoxically, rescues that which is already absent and dead. The objects saved will inevitably sink back into their state of unredeemability. Hoghe leaves them behind and moves on to the next object. They thereby remind the spectator of his or her own inevitable absence to be - which is death.
Emblems of Absence
In this respect, the musical dramaturgy of Raimund Hoghe's pieces takes on a different meaning. In his productions, every scene is accompanied by a song. For every image Hoghe creates on stage there is an atmosphere and a text that goes with it. The crucial point, here too, is the undefined space between stage and text, between the body performing and the body singing, between movement and voice. His pieces thrive on a series of dissociations that create absences between objects and meaning. There is no intrinsic motivation that links song to action, rather Hoghe as allegorical melancholic combines them in performance. These dissociations reconfigure voice and body into a visual phenomenon. The set-up of his pieces therefore resembles a sequence of emblems. An emblem consists of three parts: an inscriptio, or title, a pictura, the image that the title refers to, and the subscriptio, a kind of morale or meaning underneath the image. The allegorical images consist of heterogeneous parts already encoded with meaning, which are combined to produce a message. Since meaning, however, is no longer inherent in the objects as such, everything can indeed mean everything. In the Baroque tradition, the same items could mean different things in different contexts. To guide the viewer, who is at the same time a reader, towards the intended meaning, the titles were necessary.
Hoghe's emblems are of a much more open character. Since they have no titles, the combination of object-images and text does not produce a fixed meaning or morale. Yet the lyrics of the songs create a context for the actions on stage, opening up room for associations. If in "Lettere Amorose" the overall subject of the five letters that he reads out loud is alienation, being a stranger in a strange country. The songs that Hoghe has chosen are all sung in Italian, French or Greek. In a German context this hints at the experience of immigrants or guest-workers, of uprooted people far away from the place they call home. Hoghe's emblems do not overcome absence, but leave the space open for personal desire as a kind of memory that is never in the present, but always in the past future instead. Past future here means a prefiguring expectation of something that, by desiring or fearing it, already has the status of a past thing or event, even though it has not yet occured (or might indeed never happen).
In Hoghe's performances, references to ballet as an art form and simultaneously as a space for desire are frequent. His most recent piece "Tanzgeschichten" opens with music from the "Nutcracker". Like "Sarah, Vincent et moi" and "Dialogue with Charlotte" it also includes strong images to Tschaikowsky's "Swan Lake". In "Sarah, Vincent et moi" dancer Sarah Chase gets up from her seat in the first row of the auditorium. She lies down with her back to the audience lifting her left arm in the air. She tilts her wrist and twirls arm and hand as if it were the extended neck of a swan, while the central motif of "Swan Lake" is playing. Object-Images and music-text in Hoghe's pieces create emblems of absence that are emblems of desire for an Other that is forever out of reach.
Ritual or Art?
After what I have just outlined about the use of objects in Raimund's pieces, can we still talk about ritual? On the one hand, clearly not. A ritual is grounded in a community's religious belief that does not question the sequence of events that belong to a ritualistic ceremony. It accepts the events unfolding and trusts in its outcome. It requires specialists like priests, who have been given the mandate by society to speak and act for everybody, to heal violence or other disruptive acts that would ultimately destroy the community. Since the Renaissance our world has become increasingly secularized, and ever since Kant's Critique of Judgment in the late eighteenth century, art is part of the autonomous realm of aesthetics and not of religion. Art and religion belong to two different social sub-systems, as German sociologist Niklas Luhmann would have it. Our institution of the theatre depends upon this split, which is also a split between stage and auditorium. Things are presented from a distance for us to see, hear, feel and judge. Unlike ritual, art questions the rules of society and its ways of functioning. Art instills distrust und rupture, because it is not a celebratory practice but a reflexive practice of signification.
On the other hand, perhaps we can talk of Raimund Hoghe's pieces as being rituals after all. He stages a different ritual, a ritual in reverse, a ritual that is so far removed from a ceremony that it touches it again from the other side. The crucial issue here is of course once again the idea of absence. Whereas in rituals such as Condemblé or voodoo the act depends upon the real presence of the gods, in Hoghe's pieces it depends upon its opposite: the absence of the things or people remembered. Ritual, and that may include football matches or rock concerts, is about establishing presence. Presence in art and especially Raimund Hoghe's art, on the other hand, is only there to make us see, feel or even think about the absence behind it. Hoghe stages absence. While doing so, he lays bare the Judeo-Christian roots of our concept of the artist as a substitute, even a scapegoat, who stands in for us on stage. Since all bodies have fallen from grace through Original Sin, we need somebody (and some body) to transcend the body towards the sphere of the soul. This is what the dancer does. Even for Paul Valéry, poet-priest of High Modernism, it is the soul that dances, not the body. Raimund Hoghe is such a Judeo-Christian stand-in. This is why his small ceremonial acts on stage draw on ritual and their strict order of events. He stands in for us to commemorate absence. And he does so with a body that is not fit for beautiful dancing in the classical tradition of the beautiful soul.
But again, he does it differently, namely in an artistic and not a ritualistic way. His body disrupts the idea of the soul dancing. Hoghe disrupts the idea of fulfillment in the real presence of the thing remembered. Rather, he inhabits the absence that is the stage in order to put his finger on mourning and loss, thus on exactly that which our society of conspicuous consumption, liveness, and Reality TV denies. He takes on the role of the artist as a scapegoat, as "un bouc emissaire", yet an unusual scapegoat who refuses to be sacrificed. This refusal to go away, to exit and take his unfit body with him, disrupts the ritual. Instead, he insists - and irritatingly so. This insistence and perseverance is Hoghe's radical gesture. Hoghe's art is a radical break with ritual while nonetheless drawing on ritual in the act of performance by quoting it. Therefore, whether he succeeds in remembering, is up to anybody to decide. In Walter Benjamin's sense he is a melancholic producer of allegories who stops and stoops to pick up meaningless, already secularized and commodified objects in order to remember absence and loss.
To conclude, let me remember two related scenes from "Sarah, Vincent et moi" which premiered here at the Kaaitheater two years ago. The performance begins with Raimund Hoghe preparing the stage. He walks along the three walls of the stage, which are covered with thick black curtains. His lets his left hand slide over the fabric as if his touch could perform magic. The gesture transforms the whole space and prepares it for the act of remembering that will take place in it. Hoghe fetches a bag of sand from its hiding place behind one of the curtains. He takes out handfuls of sand and lets it slip through his fingers until it produces a little circle on the floor. Twice he changes places to repeat the procedure, so that in the end he has formed three circles altogether. Next to each of them he places a little chandelier and a small candle, which makes the sand look like the shadow of the lamp. With mute objects, Raimund Hoghe has transformed the stage into a ballroom.
At the end, the dancer Vincent Dunoyer returns to these three places. He revisits them, although they no longer exist. Where the ballroom once was, other images have emerged blotting out the light and the shadows. Images like the one in which Sarah Chase turns around on the spot with her arms stretched out. She, too, lets sand slip through her fingers which forms a spiral on the floor around her erect body. The scene is accompanied, or rather underlined, as one might say with reference to the emblematic tradition, by Bobbie Gentry singing "Ode to Billy Joe". It is a mysterious tale of suicide off the Tallahassee Bridge, which Sarah Chase's repetitive act of turning might repeat by standing in for it.
Like Chase, Vincent Dunoyer revisits and remembers the three places from the beginning by re-performing them. He places three photographs on the very same spots where the shadows once were, and one by one covers them with sand until they have disappeared. However, Dunoyer eventually retrieves them again. Carefully he takes the pictures out of the sand, leaving behind three gaping holes, three empty rectangular spaces where they once were. Sarah Chase and Raimund Hoghe step onto the stage holding a bag of sand in their hands. In the following scene, all three of them slowly fill the holes with sand, until the open wounds have healed and the pictures are forgotten. In the traditional iconography sand is, of course, a symbol of time passing, of the fleetingness of things that sink irretrievably into oblivion. By staging absence by means of ritual substitution, Hoghe seduces us into an act of remembering - remembering something that is not even a memory of our own, but rather a cultural memory as in his solo performances "Meinwärts", "Chambre séparée" and "Another Dream". In this trilogy it is life in Germany in the 40s, 50s and 60s that is remembered by configurations of objects, music, text and Hoghe's body.
Yet remembering is far from overcoming or closing off that which is remembered. It is clearly not "Vergangenheitsbewältigung", the mastery of the past, in the problematic German tradition. Hoghe's multiple presences are ones that refer us to something, or some things, that are not present. His ritual performance therefore cannot be a ritual in the traditional sense, but substitutes rituals for ritual - and thereby reverses the original intention of ritual, which is the healing of symbolic ruptures, the making of renewed sense. Instead, he remembers things as absent, and through their irritating and stimulating absence, they keep his and our and culture's wounds open.
Lecture at Kaaitheater, 26.1.2004