Verena Kraft & Kurt Petz
The difference between the aesthetic action of theatre and performance art lies in the role of the actor. Performers present themselves: they expose themselves to a situation which they have deliberately chosen or created, instead of representing a literary figure which expresses the intentions of an author, a third party.
In the performance Tanz der Relikte (Dance of the Relics), staged at the Kunstbetrieb in Dachau, Verena Kraft and Kurt Petz present themselves by representing the roles of performers. The performers today no longer present themselves immediately, in the way that was possible when the medium originated. The immediate presentation of attitudes and gestures has itself become a role mediated by the history of the medium: rather than non-mimetic presentation, one finds in performance art the mimesis of an established role. Kraft and Petz confirm that nowadays, in order to find a basis for the articulation of differences, it is necessary to refer to existing types of performance. In the work of Kraft and Petz, the modern polarity between mimetic and non-mimetic representation, or between theatre and performance is converted into a post-modern relationship of supplementarity: the two forms of representation become interchangeable. The self-presentation of the performer serves to thematize the process by which a signifier is charged with meaning in the course of a narrative. The story of the performance becomes an exemplification of the story of all media, of the general relationship between origin and history. In Tanz der Relikte, slides of scenes from historic performances – by, among others, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Gunter Brus, Gilbert and George, Yves Klein, Boris Nieslony and Hermann Nitsch – are projected onto a wall, in front of which Kraft and Petz imitate the poses of the performers. On their heads they wear rings of reflecting glass which appear to glow, reminding one of the halo used by the Italian performance artist Salvo in his parodies of religious gestures (e. g. in the 1970 action The Blessing of Lucerne).
The imitation of the pose, a mimetic invocation of photographic representations of non-mimetic actions, inevitably takes on the character of a commentary. This is the case, for example, where a familiar photograph of Beuys’s Performance with a Coyote, staged at the Rene Block Gallery in New York in 1974, is reproduced as a ‘tableau vivant’, with Petz imitating Beuys’s pose and Kraft imitating the coyote. Reversing the conventional gender roles, the Austrian artist Valie Export did a similar performance, leading her lover, Peter Weibel, on a chain through the streets of Vienna (Aus der Mappe der Hundigkeit, February 1968). Kraft and Petz undo this role-reversal: the woman reverts once more to the status of an obedient dog, and her master asserts himself by raising his arm in a Nazi salute, imitating the gesture which Beuys makes with his stick. (This also echoes Anselm Kiefer’s self-portrait in the series of photographs entitled Besetzungen (Occupations) which he made in 1969.)
However, the dog is not chained up: like the coyote, it stands with its fangs pointing in the direction of its master, whose raised arm makes him defenceless against an attack below the belt. Meanwhile, both master and dog wait for the next slide.
At the beginning and end of the performance, Kraft and Petz: dance a waltz. A precoded choreography of bodies is repeated, but here, unlike in the slide-show, the mimesis is not accompanied by a presentation of the pattern of action which is being imitated. This doubling of pattern and imitation is seen in the central section of the performance, the only part of the piece in which the act of mimetic representation is conceptualized. When the Beuys slide is shown, Petz switches on a set of ultra-violet lights in the auditorium, and above their heads, the viewers see cardboard rings which are identical with the haloes on the heads of the performers. Hence the viewer is at one a spectator and a participant in the performance: seeing other viewers with the same halo of light above their heads as the performers, one is compelled to reflect on one’s own role in the spectacle. Hence the relationship between presentation and representation becomes a question addressed to the viewer: in his self-presentation before others and his self-perception through others, is he not confronted with the same problems as those which face the performers in respect of their relationship to the history of the medium?
Performance art is conventionally a nonmimetic presentation of certain actions and materials. In the work of Kraft and Petz, performance becomes a conceptualization of mimetic representation in the theatre of everyday life, i. e. of the role-playing through which we represent ourselves to others: by assuming particular roles, we present ourselves as we wish to be seen or as we think we ought to be.
In the performance Neuer Deutscher Zoo (New German Zoo), staged at the Lukaskirche in Munich, neon and ultra-violet light and phosphorescent paint are used to conceptualize the relationship between presentation and representation. The situation in which the action begins is constituted by a pyramid of ultraviolet tubes enveloped in complete darkness. Kraft makes a square of vertical white fluorescent tubes around the pyramid; each time she fetches one of the star shaped stands in which she places the tubes, she switches the light off, presents the stand to the audience and then switches the light back on. At the same time, the halo above her head is switched off and on. Petz crouches under the pyramid, holding simple but symbolically potent signs, such as a triangle, in front of his face. The signs are made from a brittle material and covered with phosphorescent paint. One by one, Petz throws them away; they break and vanish in the darkness. When Kraft has finished making the neon square, Petz abandons the presentation and destruction of the signs and moves away to crouch in front of a video monitor which shows a film of a roaring bonfire. Like the neon and ultra-violet tubes, a monitor is a medium which emits light, causing the means of projection to disappear in the darkness behind the light source. When the performers leave the stage, the ultra-violet pyramid, the neon square and the light from the electronic bonfire remain as relics: materials which emit light but which themselves become almost invisible as a result of the emission.
The material presence of the light sources plays a role in the action of disposition, but at the same time, the action is illuminated by prearranged lightsigns which increasingly tend to eclipse their own material presence. The material signifier, the form of the sign and the circumstances of their presentation stand in a relationship of tension between presence and absence. Kraft and Petz break up the passage of time into similar or identical parts, following a purely additive logic. Kraft’s action is distinct from that of Petz, insofar as it leads to a predictable conclusion which the viewer can anticipate. But although her action is directed towards an identifiable end, the goal itself is just as arbitrary as the succession of signs in Petz’s action of showing and throwing away. The passage of time between beginning and end is annulled: when the performers leave the stage, the only ‘result’ of their work is the fact that there is more light now than at the outset.
Neuer Deutscher Zoo establishes a system of oppositions between archaic signs and electronic media, between material action and immaterializing energy. By using the device of repetition, the performance places itself in an oblique relation to history and to time, the constituent of narratives. The pictorial impression of light and the spatial disposition of the light sources are at least as important as the passage of time: “A tension between the game and history, a tension also between the game and presence ... The presence of an element is always a reference which signifies and substitutes, inscribed in a system of differences and in the movement of a chain. The game is always a game of absence and presence, but if one is to think it in a radical way, one must think it before the alternative between presence and absence.”
Translation: John Ormrod
S. D. Sauerbier, Gegen Darstellung: Ästhe-tische Handlungen und Demonstrationen, Cologne 1976, P. 83.
Jacques Derrida, La structure, le signe et le jeu dans le discurs des scientes humaines, in L‘ écriture et la difference, Paris 1967, (trans. J.O.)