Adelaide Festival 2021: Ben Brooker

Ben Brooker at the Adelaide Festival

While completing The Magic Flute in 1791, Mozart was commissioned by an anonymous intermediary of the aristocrat Franz von Walsegg to compose a requiem mass. Walsegg, an amateur musician, was grieving for his twenty-year-old wife and wanted a piece of music to commemorate her death. Having finished only the Requiem and Kyrie movements, Mozart himself was dead aged just 35, leaving the rest to be completed by others, primarily the Austrian composer and conductor Franz Xaver Süssmayer.

More than a little mythology – fomented by Alexander Pushkin’s play Mozart and Salieri and its more familiar offspring, the curiously overpraised play and film Amadeus – has attached itself to the circumstances of the Requiem’s composition and Mozart’s coterminous death. Little disputed, however, is that an ailing Mozart (he believed he was being slowly poisoned) came to view the Requiem as his own, a dark obsession instigated by the Angel of Death  — in reality, probably the musician Franz Anton Leitgeb — that had called on him. Purportedly, Mozart’s last action was to make the sound of the timpani in Requiem with his mouth, his body at the last an instrument of a lifetime’s addiction to making music.

In some sense, the Requiem stands apart from this historicity. Like all canonized pieces of music, we hear it without really hearing it, its musical and emotive qualities denuded by repetition into, if anything, a kind of shorthand. We turn to it reflexively, as New Yorkers, after September 11, did when flocking to performances of Brahms’ German Requiem to speak to, and on behalf of, grief that feels ineffable. As much as anything else, requiems, with their deployment of archaic language and ritual, are signifiers, lending events the imprimatur of serious spiritual and moral purpose.

 

Requiem. Photo credit: Tony Lewis.

 

This year’s Adelaide Festival programme featured two works, animated by very different kinds of mourning that placed the Requiem at the heart of their soundscapes. Both had me feeling that Mozart’s music was adding drama not to their ostensible subject matter but to their own enervation as, rather like the dying composer himself, they reproduced sounds not for affect, but out of some fading, preconscious will to live. Afterwards, l kept recalling the words of the late English cultural theorist Mark Fisher: “While twentieth-century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available, the twenty-first century is oppressed by a crushing sense of finitude and exhaustion”.

Romeo Castellucci’s Requiem — which, on the strength of his previous Adelaide Festival offering Go Down, Moses l could not have been anticipating more keenly — dramatizes, with the famed Italian director’s usual modular structure, striking visuality, and sense of scale, the theme of species extinction. From the opening monochromatic sequence in which an old woman (Chrissie Page) is slowly absorbed by a bed in what appears to be a contemporary nursing home, we are in the presence of death and its grim auguries. Only an orange, ripe and vital, seems imbued with life-force, a suggestion of some fecund Edenic past. The scene gives way to a greater palliation: that of the earth itself, enumerated by a projected roll-call of disappeared — or soon to disappear – animals, places, and things (languages, words, concepts). As time seems to flow backwards, the woman appears as successively younger versions of herself while the white-box stage fills with choristers dressed in the style of European folk traditions. The ensemble, a mix of professional and untrained dancers, move in great, concentric sweeps in Evelin Facchini’s simple but taut choreographies inflected with Balkan dance and contemporary dance-theatre as well as pagan ritual.

Arresting images abound, stitched together by not just Mozart’s Requiem but also anonymous plainchants and selections from other works by the composer chosen by Castellucci’s key musical collaborator, Raphael Pichon. A girl (Mietta Brookman) has different coloured paints poured over her and is hoisted onto the back wall of the theatre to be left invisibly suspended as though by supernatural means. A car wreck with multiple fatalities, splayed against the crumpled bonnet in hideous tableaux, recalls Renaissance paintings of saints, and of Christ crucified. At one point, the choristers collapse en masse, taking with them a forest of trees in a scene that appears to reference the intertwined fates of nature and humankind.

 

Howl by art collective APHIDS included Australia was Stolen by Armed Robbery.
Credit: Aaron Claringbold.

 

ln Requiem, as in much of Castellucci’s work, such images, composed with a painterly attention to aesthetic affect rather than interpretative clarity, remain multivalent, perpetually hovering between the enlivening spaciousness of unfixed meaning and the frustrating void of empty spectacle. Here, too often, it’s the latter that dominates. Unfavourable critics have made much of the car crash as a symbol of the work as a chaotic disaster that commands, if anything, merely the audience’s morbid rubbernecking. l think that’s a cheap shot. Rather, for me, it’s indicative of a lack of space, a piling up of disparate images, one after another swept away almost before we can register them, which fails to leave enough room for our contemplation. The car is wheeled off almost as quickly as it’s wheeled on, carrying with it the unmistakable air of an auteur’s indulged, and indulgent, whim.

Just as l thought the least successful parts of the otherwise masterful Go Down, Moses performance in 2016 were those that most resembled, in their deployment of distinct characters and dialogue, a conventional play, so too Requiem missteps when language, leaden with significance, falls heavily over the work‘s collage of images. The unalleviated “Atlas of Great Extinctions” (as Castellucci calls it)  — from my perspective problematically. Eurocentric at first, then so broad as to be meaningless – distracts more than interests, hitting a sustained note of didacticism. And in this context, Mozart’s music feels, almost bathetic, its beauty and anguish deadened by the work’s lack of dramaturgical shading (the dramaturg is frequent Castellucci collaborator Piersandra di Matteo). It’s telling that the only time Requiem moved me was when the stage was emptied of bodies and scenic clutter, and a boy treble (Luca Shin) stood alone to sing, exquisitely, “In paradisum.” “May choirs of angels receive you and with Lazarus, once a poor man, may you have eternal rest”. l wish the work had ended there, on a note suitably final and redemptive. lnstead, reinforcing the work’s tiredness, Castellucci repeats an old gimmick of his: the appearance of a live baby, an irruption of the real that shatters the fourth wall, leaving us helplessly cooing.

 

Howl by Melbourne-based art collective APHIDS. Photo credit: Nat Rogers.

 

The other performance l saw, Howl, was created by Willoh S. Weiland, Lara Thoms, and Lz Dunn of the Melbourne-based experimental art organisation APHIDS. Appearing as part of the Art Gallery of South Australia’s 2020 Adelaide Biennial, it is also a collage of sorts. Described as “a no-holds barred performance at the intersection of parade, protest and procession”, the work re-enacts famously controversial pieces of art, tying these fifteen commemoratory vignettes together by means of something like a pageant or fashion show — including Mozart’s “Requiem”. There’s Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ” (1987) modelled by an almost nude female performer clad in yellow cellophane; Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” (1917), an oversized reproduction bestrode by two performers who squirt water from their mouths; and various Australian works, from the video game Escape from Woomera (2004), images of which are projected onto white sheets, to Jason Wing’s Australia was Stolen by Armed Robbery (2012), memorably represented by a performer in full Captain Cook garb riding a Segway. The work, previously presented in Melbourne (2016) and Perth (2018), is also tweaked to reflect local histories — in Adelaide, those of Berlinde de Bruyckere’s “We Are All Flesh”, the Art Gallery of Southern Australia’s (SA’s) controversial 2012 purchase featuring two horse hides sewn together, and Margaret Dodd’s feminist short film This Woman is Not a Car (1979).

What qualifies these works for inclusion is not straightforward. Some, in their original iterations, were banned or censored; others merely bewailed by conservative commentators or members of the public. Staged across the rather overcrowded Art Gallery of SA’s Elder Wing of Australian Art, and an enclosed laneway adjacent to the gallery, the recreations gradually ratchet up in scale and ambition, moving from the faux-austere to the almost bacchanalian. Once outside, a restored HR Holden — the car of Dodd’s piece — is driven through the audience. A scissor lift ascends to maximum height, unfurling a vast banner referencing Paul Yore’s “Everything is Fucked” (2012), a work that occasioned child pornography complaints and a subsequent police raid. All the while, interleaved with the odd, irreverent burst of techno, the Requiem lends proceedings a kind of ironic pomp.

Exactly what is being lamented or, indeed, celebrated here? Taking place within cultural heritage institutions, Howl is an exercise in the satirical canonization of art once considered deplorable. At its best, it refocuses us on the subversive qualities of these works, inevitably dimmed by the passage of time and the now taken for granted effects of liberalisation. In the process, the original artists are rightly venerated for the vision and, in many cases, the courage pivotal to their creation. But, as with so much contemporary performance art of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, it all feels hollowed out by ironic detachment, the work suspended awkwardly between parody and homage. The question of what it means for these controversial pieces of art to be (re)inscribed on the body feels barely reckoned with. And why set the work to Mozart’s music if not to mourn, but  who or what, l wondered. Is Howl a funeral for canonical art? The ability of the countercultural to displace it, or at least to shock us? Or the artist themselves perhaps, mis- or un-remembered by an amnesiac culture?

In the end Howl, much like Requiem, felt to me like a kind of auto-funeral, a self-immolating pyre of its own misconceived intentions, haunted, like the enfeebled Mozart himself, by the shadow of death. Exhausted art, infinitely recursive, for exhausted times. Afterwards, I thought of the words of David Foster Wallace, that great scourge of the ironic mode: “The old postmodern insurgents risked the gasp and squeal: shock, disgust, outrage, censorship, accusations of socialism, anarchism, nihilism. Today’s risks are different. The new rebels might be artists willing to risk the yawn, the rolled eyes, the cool smile, the nudged ribs, the parody of gifted ironists, the “Oh how banal”. To risk accusations of sentimentality, melodrama, overcredulity. Of softness. Of willingness to be suckered by a world of lurkers and starers who fear gaze and ridicule above imprisonment without law. Who knows.” Who knows indeed.