Monday, June 8, 2009

Shadows of memory- Jan Hafstrom

It was a great choice to close this series of performances and conversations with a performance by the important Swedish artist Jan Hafstrom, in collaboration with the Swedish choreographer Lotta Melin. It was a wonderful and fulfilling experience for all those present. Ten figures entirely cloaked in black, with their heads in tall, pointed hats draped in black cloth that covered their faces, traipsed across the stage, walking, skipping, nearly falling. One dancer made her way across plates set out like stepping stones, sliding them across the stage, and then another dancer gathered them up, a game that increased in intensity between them. The stage itself was decorated with scores of simply drawn skulls on thick, stiff paper below which the performance took place, mixing images and actions rife with the quickness of life and the specter of death. But describing this, word for word, seems unnecessary in a way. It was a real performance experience--unrepeatable. Carried by the poetic sense of mortality, a viewer could almost fall in love with death, as absurd as that may seem. Through the elegant and gracious movements of the dancers, one could feel the vibrations of life's force bizarrely drawn from mortality itself. It seemed that mortality and beauty became two indivisible phenomena.

The conversation that followed continued this flow of the bizarre that was enchanting us. The usual questions were left out, instead Steven Henry Madoff, who curated the performance and conversation series for the Biennale and published a book about Hafstrom in 1986, evoked some rather interesting moments from his fictionalized account of his encounters with Hafstrom, seeking the real essence of his thought. We could only question ourselves whether their conversation was a pure fiction or the stories they shared truly existed--though it turns out that Madoff's questions for Hafstrom were based on two classic texts that have been central to the artist's work: Conrad's novella, Heart of Darkness, and the film version of Thomas Mann's great book, Death in Venice. The mixture of the performance itself and the ensuing conversation were more than intertwined. In the end, maybe we don’t need to make distinctions between fiction and reality in order to find the right balance of things. Thinking about the performance, it seems that the balance we all need is precisely in this connection of the present paradise and the absent or even lost one.

At one moment, Hafstrom said that he was just “trying to resolve the riddles we all have.” So maybe all this back and forth of our memory is the right way to find answers. When we think about his work installed in the Arsenale, we can see his attempt to organize his experience by putting together the various parts of his memory. As he said: “It’s chaos and order at the same time, and I want to keep them together.”

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