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The Realm of the Real (Warsaw Lecture. Part 2)

9. August 2012, 13:10 Uhr

Therefore, before rehearsing and staging „Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus“, the first and biggest part of my work was not an artistic, but a journalistic one: to meet the specialists of the Romanian revolution, to find and interview the soldiers who shot the Ceausescus, to interview the lawyers who defended, the general who betrayed, the judge who judged, the revolutionaries who decided to execute them, and finally visit personally and literally the last scene of the drama: the barracks of Targoviste, a dirty and depressing townlet in the north of Bucharest.

So, making „Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus“ was, in the first one and a half year of the production, a pure investigative task, as for instance:

- the fabrication of a complete transcript (because in fact, the well-known video only shows a little section of the trial room and the off-voices are often incomprehensible or difficult to attribute)

- the locating of the different stations of the getaway of the Ceausescus (from the Central Committee to their graves – if they are really in-there)

- the collection of the historical properties and costumes (for taking an example: the soldiers where part of a special elite paratroopers unit created three months before the revolution and dissolved shortly after it)

- and the measurement of the trial-room itself (today a military zone) and the scenery of the trial: the yellowish and brownish colours, the anxious nervousness and the hibernal cold, the number and the names of the „dramatis personae“, their biographies, their characters and so on.

After this journalistic or scientific work (by the way, the performances of the two bomb attacks against Hitler and the „Dresden without us“-project would have been reconstructed in the same meticulous way: with the help of specialists and witnesses, professionals of disaster and decay), after one and a half year of research in Romania, all details were collected, and the basic and essential question came up again:

What do we mean, when we say that something „really was like this“? What is this thing, this object called reality or event or, if I may say so, History?

With these questions we come obviously to the innermost problem of all re-enactments (or realism itself): How the real can be denoted by art? And how can it be repeated in the same time concretely (as a fact) and as a narrative – as a living memory?

Because as I mentioned before, the problem of re-enacting History (with a big „H“) is to do it without ‚inflecting’ it in the one or the other side: not to be mesmerized on the one hand by what Adorno calls disdainful „facticity“, by the complex, ruin-like status of the past and its (from a neoliberal point of view) depressing uselessness – and on the other hand not to be seduced by what we can observe in popular re-enactments: this monotone and pseudo-authentic happiness of „being there“.

So, when I staged the trial against the Ceausescus, I had to crossfade constantly two actions: Reconstructing all the details and gestures, than freeing the scenery from it in order to get at what’s crafted from the images’ internal energy – and than back again, in circles. I was confronted to a paradoxically duplicated reality, a strangely doubled and inversed genealogy of what happened on the 25th of December 1989 and what we can see reproduced on the historical video-tape: These images document undeniably something that really took place, in an actual room and in real time – and that’s what is re-constructible until the smallest detail, like a clockwork made out of gestures, tables, words, sounds, light and space. On the other hand, there’s the second reality of the historical images, shaped from day to day anew by their path through the collective imaginary and their different interpretations: the morbid tragedy of a democracy founded on the cadavers of two confused dictators killed by their former collaborators and present oligarchs.

As a consequence, the performances were the constant experiment to blend these two levels of time into one event – not to say: to realize the event in both meanings of the word – and to present it as what I called previously „memory space“: hermetic and closed on its own rules, a capsule from long ago, ruined by the bygone time and despite open to actual interpretations. Perhaps this doubled „reality“, this mimicry in exclusive honour of the event is what Lacan calls simply and shortly „the Real“: the shocking and distant being-there, the horrifying undead existence of the past, disturbing the sleep of history. „This one hour of performance“, wrote a newspaper after the premiere of „Die letzten Tage der Ceausescus“, „contains all what has gone wrong in Romania since 20 years“ – and perhaps it was only consequent, that the Romanian performances were followed by a lawsuit carried on by the last son of the Ceausescus against the Teatrul Odeon and my production company, the IIPM.

(Bild entfernt)

Instead of a conclusion, I would like to touch finally two questions which raised in the morning lectures yesterday, the one in the context of the film “Catastrofa” from Artut Zmijewski, the other in the discussion about the “Katyn” reenactment: first the problem of irony (or the possibility of a non-ironic point of view), than the problem of historical truth, both absolutely crucial for the art of re-enactment.

The problem of irony is obviously connected directly to the method as such, because  performative repetition (with another word: mimicry) is as well the most naive gesture of irony as the first state of a reenactment. A schoolboy who wants to make fun of his teacher “re-enacts” him, and the hole tradition of Ceausescu-performances in the Romanian theatre is one of a (more or less intelligent) aping of the former dictator (by the way in Germany the same tradition exists relating to Hitler). So mimicry not only shows, but discredits the real, in both meanings of the word: as a gesture of freeing (“Look at this idiot, he’s only an analphabetic.”) and, what’s obviously more negative, as a gesture of suppression (“It’s just a play, it wasn’t that bad”, what means in last consequence: “It wasn’t real.”)

Behind both actions lies cynicism and finally the oblivion of the past. The art of re-enactment thus consists in a – as mentioned before – constant shift between a “being here” and a “being there”, a total and nearly grotesque concreteness of gestures and a awaken sensibility for their actual (what means: scenic) tightness, their political, and if I daresay: utopian meaningfulness.

So a re-enactment is the paradoxical gesture of a remembering forwards, as Kierkegaard expresses it in his novel “The Repetition” (beginning of quote): “Repetition and memory are the same movement, just in opposed directions. That what you remember has happened and will be repeated backwards, whereas the actual repetition is a memory forward.“ (end of quote)

This leads us to the other problem: the one of historical truth and, in the worst case, the annihilating of the event and the creation of an avatar. As we know, the modern history of re-enactments starts with a lie, with a false re-enactment: the one created by Nicolai Evreinov in 1927 on the occasion of the 10th birthday of the October Revolution in St. Petersburg with 100’000 extras, the so-called “Storming of the Winter palace”. The overwhelming show that Evreinov performed (and which a couple of years later was re-enacted again by Eisenstein in his pseudo-documentary “Ten Days in October”) had nothing to do with the event in October 1917 which consisted in an obscure coup d’état of a small and elitist group of extremists – but the pictures which are remembered (and which we can find in the history books) are those of Evreinov and Eisenstein.

We can notice this strange process of “exchange” between the “real” event and its double in a lot of reenactments. Since Marina Abramowic performed her “Seven Easy Pieces” in the Guggenheim – a series of 7 re-enacted performances (Beuys, Valie Export a. o.), including one of her own -, the historiographie of performance took a strange shift in a new, Abramowic-ruled direction. Because most of the historical performances weren’t documented photographically, the press-pictures of Abramowic’s re-enactments are now the only ones that “prove” their existence. And if you search on “Google video” the word “Ceausescu”, it could happen that your first hit is not the historical video, but the trailer of the film we watched in the beginning.

So “remembering forward”, as Kierkegaard wrote, is a dangerous thing. What’s our present will be the future’s past. And what’s our version of history will probably become truth.

Thank you for your attention.

On March 2011, the founder and director of the IIPM, Milo Rau, was invited to Poland to discuss in the Library of the University of Warsaw with artists and academics (a. o. Artur Zmijewski, Yael Bartana and Magdalena Marszalek) the esthetical concepts of his work and the history of his production company IIPM. To the first part.

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