teteExhibition Opening REWORK – Verena Billinger & Sebastian Schulz

A Little Introduction by Irina Raskin

In more than one way, REWORK could be considered an opening act. On the one hand, it marks the beginning of a series, created by Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz, allowing the choreographer duo to rethink and refocus some of their previous work, reimagining it for a current context and thus reworking it. On the other hand, this first part in the REWORK series represents Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz’ first solo exhibition. A selection of installations, video works, and audio plays created between 2005 and 2012, are joined by recent pieces that were completed this year and even one future piece – art that will yet have to “have been” created. More specifically: a “Pferd” (absent horse) – a horse that isn’t there.

Starting point for this piece is the idea of an automaton in the shape of a life-sized horse, galloping in an endless circle. The exhibit will present four different versions of it. Three of them are already sculpted objects, created in collaboration with students of the Köln International School of Design and their professor, Andreas Muxel. These three approximations of the ideal “horse automaton on loop” are kinetic sculptures: a mechanical wooden horse, making slow motion movements without actually going anywhere; then the dissolving form of LED panels attached to aluminum rods, their flickering lights imitating a horse’s movements, yet dissolving its form, never allowing us to fully grasp the animal in its entirety; and in the horse’s third incarnation, its static gestalt eludes the eye of the beholder just as much, because its shape-giving plastic foil, blown around by fans, never stays in the same position and is never completely filled with air, undermining the completion of its full gestalt. The fourth variation of the absent horse is brought to life vicariously through the exhibition’s poster, which features an equestrian statue without a rider mounted on the horse; thereby referencing the original idea. Here, the circling automaton may not manifest itself physically but inside our heads, it has already begun its endless loop. The absent horse is already a phantom of our imagination, immaterial at that, yet no less conscious. Of quasi-immaterial nature, the work bears a certain resemblance to literature, whose stories also rely on the readers’ ability to imagine. A certain uniqueness is at play here, one that can hardly be achieved in other art forms, because every single person will imagine this automaton quite differently.

Culturally and historically, the horse has had close ties to literature: as an in-between creature, the winged horse Pegasus is an emblem of literary and poetic expression, owed to its capacity of being able to grasp the imaginary and the fantastic. Similarly, the concept of the automaton embodies humanity’s age-old dream of bringing to life inanimate objects. The key to this magical transformation started indeed with movement. The first automatons that rose to popularity in the 17th and 18th century were mechanical machines, imitating the appearance of man and beast by copying their motion sequences. A hint of life was breathed into objects, and simultaneously a kind of natural component; one that’s usually reserved for those able to move on their own, as opposed to being put in motion by others. This era of automatons was – not unlike the absent horse of this exhibition – marked by the idea of automated anatomy in tandem with moveable anatomy. Driven by the scientific impulse to understand the inner workings of human and animal apparati on the one hand, research was funded by the Paris Academy of Sciences, among others. On the other hand, automatons were primarily designed to entertain and were presented in theaters, town squares, and conventions to the general public. In 1778, for instance, Wolfang von Kempelen presented his speech machine, capable of imitating the pitch of human vocal chords. An idea that had been realized only a few years prior by Abbé Mical with his piece „Têtes Parlantes“ (talking heads), a performance of a four-sentence dialog, presented by the mouths of two head-shaped, life-sized automatons. These automatons were operated via keyboard. It can be said that at this time, perhaps similar to Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz’ “Absent Horse”, automatons had not yet reached their full potential and were still dependent on the humans that were operating them. While these entertainment devices were marked by the belief that the imitation of natural movements, by means of the artificial, might elucidate the mystery of life, one has to wonder, however, whether fate may have different plans for the horse on its eternal circle. Because that horse, often symbolic of passion, strength, and freedom, seems to have morphed into some kind of slave to entertainment. It moves for movement’s sake, leaving a bad taste in our mouths. Especially if one considers the possibility that this horse could be interpreted as an allegory of dance itself.

It doesn’t take long before the automatons, originally built for entertainment purposes, acquire economic value – towards the end of the 19th century they’re being designed not to simply copy natural movements, but to make them expendable. Now all motivation is directed towards the development of robots that can replace human craft and productivity. The automatons’ design is guided by the fabrication of machines that have mechanical limbs, capable of becoming productive workers on an industrial scale. REWORK presents an absurd relic of this philosophy, through the piece entitled “Kundenstopper grüßen Dich!” (Customer Stoppers Say Hello to You!). Inside a semi-dark room, Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz present these so-called “customer-stoppers” as a chamber of the obscure. The customer-stoppers, their existence in real life curiously linked to selling mattresses, are cardboard figures whose moving limbs are designed to capture pedestrians’ attention, so that they might step into the store. Lifted from their original context, these customer-stoppers become entertainment machines as well, and they don’t lack a sense of humor. The newly found futility of the customer-stoppers is further driven to extremes by a closed-circuit video installation. The portrait of one of the customer-stoppers is recorded in real time by a video camera and simultaneously projected as part of the installation. The customer-stoppers not only perform for us, they also perform for the camera.

REWORK also presents us with human bodies that – if you will – draw inspiration from a mechanical image. Assembled by a multi-part video series entitled “Cheerleader”; as well as “Ninfa”, an installation that presents videos of ballerinas during a training session. The women’s bodies’ movements focus on repetition of the same sequence, a synchronous performance by several groups. The dancers can only reach perfection if they embrace movement’s mechanical aspects, so to speak – only through repetition of the same movements during their training session can there be a forming, and ultimately transcendence, of the natural body.

This seems to be the general question precisely, posed by Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz in this exhibition: what constitutes natural vs. artificial movement, what constitutes an ideal body image, or actual embodiment, always keeping their focus on the ambivalence between these categories. In their piece “Übermalungen” (repaintings) for instance, they illuminate the idea that the body does not only find its gestalt through movement, but always needs an image as well, in order to find its form. The image, however, that one has of oneself, meaning: how one’s own, moving body feels like, is just as important as the view onto the self, meaning: how others perceive the body. The body, according to this cycle of work, is never natural – in the sense that it is “given” – but it has to be created and manufactured first, which would be impossible without accessing the outside perspective. Imagery allows for an articulation of the body between internal and external forces; an expression that is also facilitated by interference, as well as alienation, that the choreographers bring to their created images.

Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz may have left the Black Box of theater in exchange for the White Cube of the exhibition space; their work, however, continues to reflect the themes of choreography. The formal transition from performance to presentation is hereby marked by a significant distinction: namingly the fact that the audience itself, its physical body, is put in motion. Unlike theater, the ritual of exhibiting does not ask the audience to assume a default perspective, but rather invites them to move freely, to choose for themselves how close or distanced their encounter with the work should be. With their installation “Ninfa” – which can be found in three different variations throughout the exhibition – they realize a sort of convergence between exhibition and stage production. Equipped with flashlights, the audience can enter into so-called search rooms, one by one. Inside the “Ninfa” rooms, artifacts of nature – such as tree branches, scrub, water, moss – interact with artifacts of culture – such as videos, text fragments, and illustrations. Their compilation is inspired by the myth of nymph. In Greek and Roman mythology, nymphs are creatures of the in-between, somewhere between divine and human. Inhabiting young women’s bodies, they are physical incarnations of the forces of nature. They live in places like the mountains, the forest, or caves and are generally portrayed as a lightly dressed and light-footed species in cultural and art history. Since they aren’t tied to one location, they dancingly wander about. The nymph is a kind of supernatural creature, its portrayal of eternally young physicality a mode of self-expression, which therefore awakens a desire for the ageless and immortal body. Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz found inspiration for this installation through two texts by the philosopher and art historian, Georges Didi-Huberman. The portrayal of the nymph as an erotic figure, according to Didi-Huberman, is an embodiment of desire and time itself. This embodiment manifests, for instance, in the cocooning of the body with translucent veils. The gaze onto a complete nakedness is obstructed, yet the fragile surface attracts that gaze in the first place. In this installation, Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz contrast the myth of the timeless body with imagery that decidedly points to the vulnerability and transience of all corporeal beings. Which brings us back to our starting point of the “absent horse” and the dichotomy between the ideal of endless movement, and the alive.

Eternal life, so to speak, cannot conquer the transience of life itself. A movement, condemned to repeat eternally, is robbed of the possibility of actual motion; in the sense that it could change its gestalt and actually become something else.

With REWORK, Verena Billinger and Sebastian Schulz present a visceral experience of dance; the art form that unlike any other has dedicated itself to the exploration of the ephemeral and fleeting. With this exhibition, they show that it does not need to be confined to the set-up of the stage, but can also find its performed gestalt in various other media.


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