On Thursday 19th November I attended an open rehearsal at Carriageworks in Sydney, showcasing Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s, Temporary Title 2015. As part of Kaldor Public Art Projects 31, participants were invited to watch some of the rehearsal process and reflect on their experiences. This is my reflection…
Temporary Title 2015: Human and Animal.
In his philosophical work, The Open: Man and Animal (2004) Giorgio Agamben describes an image from a 13th Century Hebrew Bible: ‘In the centre are the seven heavens, the moon, the sun, and the stars, and in the corners, standing out from the blue background, are the four eschatological animals: the cock, the eagle, the ox, and the lion’ (Agamben 2004, 1). He continues, ‘The last page (136r) is divided into halves. The upper half represents the three primeval animals: the bird Ziz (in the form of a winged griffin), the ox Behemoth, and the great fish Leviathan, immersed in the sea and coiled upon itself’ (Agamben 2004, 1). The image is taken from a miniature titled, ‘The Feast of the Righteous’; it shows a group of not- quite- human or not- quite-animal figures standing at a long table laden with food. Agamben seems to suggest that the feast of the righteous performatively realises the beginning of the end of human history, perhaps the uncoiling of the fleshy temporality suggested in the primeval body of the fishy Leviathan. Of course the Leviathan image remerges in Hobbes as the symbol of an incorporated humanity, or rather an entity that absorbs the bodies of the many and constitutes them into one, massive, political body.
The ‘conclusion of human history’ is depicted as a grand banquet where half human half animal figures feast on the meat of the Leviathan and Behemoth. By consuming these symbolic meats, the figures are liberated from structures of human embodiment, space and time. Here, Agamben returns to a motif of the in-human/non-human; an expression of ‘life’ outside the bounds of human history, speech and law. It is a motif I projected onto the dramaturgy of Xavier Le Roy and Scarlet Yu’s latest collaboration in Sydney, Temporary Title 2015.
…beneath the crowns, the miniaturist has represented the righteous not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads…Why are representatives of concluded humanity depicted with animal heads? (Agamben 2004, 2)
Temporary Title: The Emergence of the “human” through acts of speech .
In the middle of the room was a mound of bodies. It was difficult to discern one limb from another. The mound of bodies resembled a tangle of snakes or spit fires coiled together. Limbs writhed and torsos strained. The image was also a beginning of life image, molecular or cell-like. There was a sense of the internal structure of the body, the lining of a stomach or foetal collection of cells multiplying and gathering. The mound slowly split in two separate parts, a cell dividing at the beginning of ‘life’.
A body then breaks away from the amorphous and sightless mound; a moment of individuation as a person emerges from the fleshy coil. They crawl, their posture is cat -like and they sit with a thump next to two public participants behind me. The individuated body speaks, she asks, ‘May I ask you a question?’ The women are a bit surprised, they answer ‘Yes’. ‘How do you feel about ageing?’ My attention oscillates, moving in and out of this conversation and toward the dispersing bodies in the centre. The conversation behind me has the sense of being both curated, performed, yet is also natural or pedestrian, an accounting of quotidian concerns. Another woman to the left of me is asked the same question, ‘how do you feel about ageing?’ she answers that she’d recently had a baby and that her body had changed. ‘I used to be a performer too but I stopped performing after I had a baby. My body has changed…’ I continue to watch the other naked bodies. The nudity is important it seems, as it suggests some originary state. They are naked and we are clothed; this stops feeling like an imbalance of power and begins to open up another sensation, another vista or horizon. The summer light pouring in through the windows and high concrete walls with the soft, dampening, acoustics of carpet gives an impression of nudity as endless horizon. I feel my awareness stretching beyond the immediate scene.
The bodies are animal like and prowl around the space. More of the performers break away from the sightless group (sightless because their eyes were barely open in the opening choreographic sequence). The other performers asked questions too, different ones. A cacophony of questions and general speech reaches critical mass. The noise and conversation overwhelms the initial choreography. Le Roy later describes this movement as the oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity.
Arriving at speech determines the human, we are told. What is it to speak? It determines the condition through which we might appear as human to the other, but why and might this change? Where speech is censured, buried, disappeared or not recognised, there is a devaluing of the human. Speech is a political event just as it determines our place in the amorphous and yet intimately calculable mass called society. Speech is like a form of ‘drag’; it clothes and disguises the body as “human”. At least, this is how I read the choreography…
I was deep in conversation with a performer, Michael, when I noticed the choreography had changed again. The bodies were dropping to the ground more frequently, like lions after a strenuous kill. They panted and dropped. Some of the animals began to decompose, their legs and arms folding in like a machine running down, perhaps signalling the end of the body and the end of time. My thoughts inevitably turn to the philosophical and political treatises of the 20th century. Here I am thinking of Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the human condition, with its spaces of appearance and fetish for the world forming activities of speech and action. My thoughts turn to Foucault’s appraisal of Greek tragedy and acts of speech, such as parrhésia; parrhésia is a compromised kind of speech – risky, liable and not necessarily “free speech” – but nonetheless affective and charged. Temporary Title offers an opportunity for a close reading of choreography and dramaturgy, which I feel speaks to the philosophical appraisal of what it is to emerge as “human” and why this emergence is understood to coincide with a speaking subjectivity.
I return to the exhibition today…