Learning to look sideways

On 'Insignificant Others (learning to look sideways)' by An Kaler

Etcetera Sep 2013English

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Contextual note
First published in Dutch in Etcetera, this text was translated into English by Tom Engels.

After nearly a century of stagnation, Vienna is already for several years under the spell of a building boom and is preparing itself for the 21st century. Adjacent to the huge construction site where at the place of  the old Südbahnhof a new gateway to the East should arise right in the middle of Europe, already stands the 21er Haus, a new museum of contemporary art. Which spaces do we need to make us imagine the future? Which subjects and bodies can appear in them? At the same time the nostalgic Vienna of parks and coffee houses is still vibrant, and the expressionism of the Viennese painters did not lose its popularity.

Within a stone’s throw from the Freudhaus in Berggasse, David Cronenberg’s film A Dangerous Method came out at Kino De France in December 2011. Looking at the impact of their private lives and particularly their sexual manners on the theories of four prominent psychoanalysts, Cronenberg also shows a historical imagination of the body and the spaces that shape it. We get to know Sabina Spielrein (played and “danced” by Keira Knightley) by her hysterical fits and a frenzied, writhing and symptomatic body that is only to be curtailed through straitjackets, clinics and the staging of violent paternal admonitions. Then again the male body is outspokenly eloquent and literary; it resides in the study room, thinking, talking and dreaming in metaphors and theories and knows, as far as Sigmund Freud is concerned, no vulnerability. Against this backdrop Cronenberg follows the esoteric ideas of C.G. Jung and his sadomasochist relationship with Spielrein.

Also in December 2011, the Vienna Leopold Museum invited a few contemporary artists to enter a dialogue with the work of Egon Schiele in the exhibition Melancholy and Provocation. Choreographer Philipp Gehmacher created the installation Grauraum mit Egon Schiele in collaboration with photographer Eva Würdinger and set designer Stephanie Rauch. They painted one of the rooms grey and covered the entire floor with grey dance marley, a space that resists the generic promise of both black box and white cube and, above all, is a duplicate of Gehmacher’s own studio. In that room stood a decorator table with some documents and photos, and hung collages and texts alongside drawings of Schiele: an embrace, a squatting figure, a torso, a portrait and a self-portrait.

            “How do bodies present themselves a hundred years later?” How to put bodies in the museum? How to capture bodies in an image? That is the theme and problem of form wherein Gehmacher ties in with Schiele. The paintings and drawings by Schiele indeed show naked bodies pressed into planes: in a blanket or sheet, or just in the white of the paper. Also Schiele’s fascination with cityscapes, rows of houses and facades takes on a similar form: compressed into a plane and impenetrable, often surrounded by water and detached from reality. Elsewhere in the exhibition one could also see Indonesian puppets from the collection of Schiele: once again flat bodies used for a kind of shadow theatre.

One of the works in Grauraum with Egon Schiele was Turning 2011, a video projection on two perpendicular vertical planes, displaying the dancer’s bodies of Gehmacher and An Kaler life-size, next to each other, each squeezed into their plane, while they rotate around their own axis. Do they try to wriggle and squirm themselves out of the plane in an attempt to escape, to wrest their experience  from the image and to find their way, if not “their turning”?


All these viewing experiences resonate along when I’m in the same week attending the premiere of An Kaler’s Insignificant Others (learning to look sideways) in the studios of Tanzquartier Wien. Above the stage Stephanie Rauch suspended three planes in various materials, as enlarged but empty postcards that each time will be exposed differently by Bruno Pocheron’s lighting. Three androgynous dancers (Alexander Baczynski-Jenkins, Antonija Livingstone and An Kaler) are standing at the right side in a circle and breathing loudly, endlessly waiting while the electronic music of Brendan Dougherty charges their dance of restrained poses with vague memories that eventually will need more space to be able to resonate. The dance that follows is based on simple constellations and is completely improvised, but still holds on to a formal rigour. Again, a focus on arms and legs initiates turns around one’s own body, wrung poses that time and again trigger new configurations. Although the dancers continually operate in one another’s proximity, they do not arrive at a shared history or touch.

They are solitary figures, seemingly in a melancholic relation to a lost world. Or better: how they exactly are in the world remains an open question. Rather than searching for new images in a world bereft of horizon and periphery, the dancers are occupied with the inevitable question “how one is in the image.” Their lateral gaze is caught between two extremes: after opening up the space by staring at the horizon, the dancers still end up spinning on their axis, wavering between narcissism and self-reflection. How can bodies still present themselves in a world where every look and every experience is preceded by images?

In the unfolding and exploring of a world of gestures in a space in between, Kaler’s work is indebted to the critical expressionism of Gehmacher, but devoid of drama and pathos. It is cooled and understated, does not care about dramatic development and denouement. Music, lighting, set design and dance are juxtaposed gestures with a logic of their own, compelling in their formalism, yet still inviting to compose your own attention and experience. More than the high modernism of, say, Cunningham, Kaler’s training as a visual artist plays in here. Strictly speaking, Kaler’s works act as installations that frame the gaze and open up perspectives. In the dance of Insignificant Others the motif of the “framing” indeed takes on the form of exercises in lateral perception. This initiates a “tropological” turn of gaze and body, which connects and incorporates heterogeneous elements by simultaneously opening up to the world, sinking into itself and, in its blindness, being exposed dorsally to others. In the public space of the theatre that very gesture is driven by the hope to take on a worldly form and to bring a contemporary subject to appear.


After two years Insignificant Others finally will be shown in Belgium, once again framed by a multitude of sidelong glances, as they are constantly taking place in this “invisible prologue” from We are behind by Emily Wardill and Ian White, printed in the program booklet:

“There is no advertisement, no invitation. People are there, but nobody is there because they want to be an audience, and nobody is there because they want to ask anyone else to be an audience. Like a public street, though this can take place inside. Two people are standing next to each other, facing the same direction. Person One walks around Person Two and then, they stand next to each other again. Person Two walks around Person One and then, they stand next to each other again. They do this until they reach a wall or disappear into a crowd, the distance. They will have described an imaginary line (a line of perspective for some). They will have repeated themselves. At a certain point they become something to be looked at, which might occur at the same moment that they become copies of themselves. Representations. What they are wearing becomes a costume. They become separate from all the other people there. Including themselves. We could think of this as the point where a proscenium arch is erected around them, or at least where they are seen, as if they are on a stage. And, also, as the point at which the people who are there might also regard themselves as an audience. It is the moment in which a division occurs – physically –  and a confusion – perceptually that is also a possibility.”