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“Carousel”: Pablo Bronstein at OGR, Turin

by Alice Bucknell

 

A janky plywood maze stapled together with brick-print wallpaper unfurls inside the cavernous hall of the OGR, Turin’s old train factory turned cultural mecca. Embedded within its increasingly complex geometry are a handful of video monitors and twice as many dancers, who periodically leap to life like stuttering floppy disks when the ghastly gaze of a Silver Witch falls upon them. A cultish melee of self-actualizing shot through early nineties Microsoft screensaver aesthetics, Pablo Bronstein’s new commission Carousel is by turns disconcerting and hypnotic, serving as a mirror image of our fractured present while remaining rooted in a fabricated history of dance.

 

Curated by Catherine Wood and choreographed in collaboration with Rosalie Wahlfrid, Carousel and its are stuck in an endurance marathon of quasi-historical dance. They sidle through slits in the maze, narrowly dodged by anxious visitors terrified of toppling the ratchet stage set in a dramatic domino effect, or worse, shattering the illusion of captivity. But a shared floor plan offers no sympathy: the performers refuse to break eye contact with their partners or simply stare straight ahead, as if far gone in a late-night Instagram infinite scroll. For spectators, the only commiseration is a fake friend: from chirpy folk to Baroque excess, familiar motions are, in fact, total artifice, both a pantomime of dance history and a parody of those cultured enough to know the difference.

Beginning with the open piazza—the ultimate symbol of democratic space in an era when dance was a wild and unruly thing, before it became a symbol of upper-class refinement—the winding labyrinth of Carousel rapidly morphs through a seventeenth-century court, an early proscenium theater, and an opera house and finally tops out as a circus ring, from where a monumental zoetrope watches over its hallucinogenic dance kingdom.

Follow the dancers through this choreographed maze, and watch as their movements are shaped by the passage of space and time. Effervescent public play transforms into a high-key Renaissance courtship ritual in which two perfectly choreographed bodies are bound to perform the mirror image of each other’s actions.

“Before mirrors, our only means of self-evaluation came from the looks of pleasure or disgust of others,”  Bronstein explains.1 Here, the acts of seeing and being seen bleed together, consumed by the overarching desire to observe oneself through the face of another.

The invention of that grey reflective glass changed everything. Before its popularization in the eighteenth century, we used each other as mirrors; in the centuries following, the mirror has evolved to sustain this hunger—from selfie sticks to kaleidoscopic filters, the veritable un-kill-ability of infinity rooms, and the continual clamoring for selfie-ready art installations. That’s not to say we were any less narcissistic back then; if anything, it was exactly the opposite, for the selfie was the world: every other human serving as a potential point of self-reflection, each face a surface from which to harvest traces of lust or horror.

The invention of mirrors pooled our desire for self-reckoning into an inanimate, quasi-objective space, but beneath its reflective sheen is a world of dark matter. It’s precisely this nefarious underbelly that Bronstein’s Carousel wants to unpick, to sink its teeth into and overturn. The Grey Witch is an embodiment of the heady forces lurking just under the mirror’s polished facade; she is the anthropomorphized space we enter every time we catch our reflection or consciously go hunting for it. And here in Carousel, she finally gets her own back—with each damning, commanding leer.

Moving into the maze’s Baroque lair, a lone dancer is ensnared within an equilateral triangle. Her geometric prison signals the introduction of perspective (courtesy of the Italian architect Andrea Palladio)—yet another illusion we take on board as pure fact. With its acute geometry, the sharp floor plan of the dancing arena punctures the classical architect’s fantasy world of circles and squares, revealing the flimsiness of this so-called pillar of reality.

But perspective’s authority isn’t derived from its ability to hold true; from the sweeping drama of extravagant Baroque domes to the glossy, gargantuan office tower block endemic to global capitalism, spatial impressions—and our own impressionability—have always called the shots. Here they appears to see and be seen from all angles, and both characters almost hit breaking point because of it. As the dancer cycles through her GIF-length sequence of moves and the fearsome eyes of the witch are reflected from a trembling vanity mirror, one is given the distinct impression that this flimsy, bootleg stage set might just crush the pair with its pretense.

Next door in the existentialist opera house, a bougie ballerina is obliquely commanded by the fleeting figure of the Grey Witch. She periodically tumbles across the screen in a slow-motion free fall as the dancer stoops down to admire the rosettes on her ankles; here, actor and commander appear to have retreated back into their separate worlds, and neither is the better for it.

Curve around the serpentine barriers of Bronstein’s pasteboard fortress, and you’ll finally flow out into a postmodern corridor, where exhibitiongoers can mingle freely with the dancers. A nod to the contemporary democratization of dance following its big break into the streets in the second half of the twentieth century, Carousel reaches the present in a space that geometrically and stylistically mirrors the folk-friendly opening piazza. What’s next for this haunted fairy tale of dance history?

 It’s the siren song of a secret future. Across the forbidden kingdom of its mystic circle rises the iconic zoetrope—a cunning nineteenth-century device that offered the illusion of still objects in an animated sequence a half century before the first real film was made. Blown up here into a monumental-scale structure, the architectural muse is roped off by a loose roll of the maze’s garish brick-print wallpaper that has seemingly run out of viable surface to cover.

Hardly reaching knee height, it’s a weak barrier to an intoxicating mystery. I watch as a senior visitor in stilettos deftly hurdles the paper fence and enters the arcane circle. Several others (including yours truly) follow suit, roused into action by the acrobatic grandma’s intrepid performance. Up close, the zoetrope becomes almost blinding: a forest of mirrors and fluorescence lines its interior, creating an infinite series of reflections, broken by the piercing honey-brown stare of the Grey Witch.

“All of history is basically an artifice,” Bronstein says coolly; with Carousel de Crystal, the work’s second and considerably more compressed half installed the within Venice’s Ospedaletto Complex,  a thirteenth-century ek in a thirteenth-century convent turned palace Venice, that idea is taken to a devilishly campy extreme. Bronstein himself will appear, dressed (and painted) in red, poised as the very essence of desire. Running from May 8 to November 24, it is primed to parody the stuffy processions of blazer-sporting curators, gallerists, and other Biennale-bound art world VIPs to hell and back.

“Honest, vulnerable storytelling is a worthwhile ambition of contemporary performance,” reasons Bronstein. “But you can’t play with history that way.” As performance pivots increasingly toward ideas of authenticity, identity, and the self, Carousel comes as a revitalizing reminder of what the medium can do when it’s feeling naughty.

 

[1] From a conversation with the author during a tour in the show, May 2019. All author quotes are from this conversation unless otherwise indicated.

 

at OGR, Turin
until 9 June 2019

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