Katarina Zdjelar “Not a Pillar not a Pile (Tanz für Dore Hoyer)” at SpazioA, Pistoia
by Federica Bueti
How can common forms of resistance and solidarity be possible in and against the histories and conditions that divide us, and how can art contribute to articulating a new grammar of existence? Katarina Zdjelar’s new film, Not a Pillar not a Pile (Tanz für Dore Hoyer), which doubles as the title of her exhibition at SpazioA in Pistoia, is a reflection on the body—what Fred Moten calls “the subject’s constitutive prison,” and at the same time, a space of potentialities and a site of collective struggle and resistance. It also points to the desire to find a language to articulate a common condition and struggle against the current hate speech and a language of violence that only deepens and reifies divisions. How do we stand up and against, together? Katarina Zdjelar’s work delves into the histories of anti-fascist resistance in Europe to find examples of proto-feminist artists who have experimented with the possibility of transformative links between aesthetic forms and bodies under pressure, calling for new models of interaction between abstract concepts of political progress and the “damaged materialities” produced by violence and war.
The exhibition opens with a series of photographs, Entangled (2018), which shows entwined bodies in close-up. Hanging on the two sides walls of the main gallery space, these photographs look like annotations—preliminary sketches that accompany the viewer to the central piece of the exhibition, the film and video installation Not a Pillar Not a Pile (Tanz für Dore Hoyer), the culmination of the artist’s research on the German dancer and choreographer Dore Hoyer. Born in Dresden in 1911 into a working class family, Hoyer became a famous expressionist dancer and after the end of WWII went on to found an only-women dance school in Dresden. What seems to have inspired Zdjelar’s film is Hoyer’s dance philosophy, her focus on the expression of human condition (which had gained her the epithet of “first existentialist in Modern dance”), and her political commitment to social justice in the deadly aftermath of the Second World War. The title makes a direct reference to a dance piece by Hoyer: Tanz für Käthe Kollwitz premiered at the State Opera in Dresden in 1946 and was inspired by the graphic works of German artist, proto-feminist, and activist Käthe Kollwitz, who, through her work, documented the effects of war and poverty on the working class and women.
If Kollwitz’s drawings inspired Hoyer’s choreography, the existing photographic documentation of Hoyer’s piece is the starting point for Katarina Zdjelar’s own work. The artist has asked a group of performers and activists to freely reinterpret Hoyer’s Tanz für Käthe Kollwitz for the camera. The result is a kind of study on collective movement that, with its highly evocative moments, its minimal aesthetic, and moments of abstraction, seems to mirror Hoyer’s own dance style, which expressionist dance pioneer Mary Wigman once described as “ice cold but compelling.” The bodies of the dancers twist, bend, lean forward, touch, hug, sustain each other, or pose still for minutes. The only sound accompanying the works is something similar to the rustling of leaves, sounds made by breathing, moving, stretching, clashing, and rubbing against each other’s bodies. As we are told by the press release, the backdrop and the costumes were inspired by a pattern designed by women working at PAUSA, a textile factory run by a Jewish family who took part in the anti-fascist resistance. In dialogue with the main piece, three additional looped videos played on smaller screens show the dancers’ individual bodies and gestures: the expressionless face of one of the dancers propped up on the tip of a finger; a woman leaning, as if to rest her head, on someone’s stretched hand; and again, a hand opening and closing in a fist—the same fist known as symbol of European anti-fascist resistance. The individual video “portraits” seem to break the centrality of the collective choreography performed in film, powerfully articulating in space the tension that always seem to arise between individual stories and collective politics, multiplicity, and the desire to become one.
Black wooden boards—onto which the artist has carved abstract forms vaguely reminiscent of shapes to be found in Käthe Kollwitz’s woodcuts—are laid out on the floor. This work seems to symbolically “anchor” the work to “the ground,” downed by the practices of these two women, Kollwitz and Hoyer, in order to build on the legacy of their practices and political activism.
In her reconstruction of Hoyer’s piece, the artist puts Hoyer’s work to the test and subjects the choreography to scrutiny. The inherent pain in the contorted poses the dancers assume touches a contemporary nerve, in that it speaks clearly of the torturous existences rendered precarious by their social and economy conditions. At the same time, the residual innocence of the modernist’s attempt to formulate a universal language for representing human condition seems difficult to embrace today. In this sense, the work seems to measure the distance that separates us from the untainted optimism of the humanist mind as much as it creates a proximity to a historical artistic language of struggle. If anything, Not a Pillar Not a Pile (Tanz für Dore Hoyer) suggests a longing for a “universal” that is understood in terms of a choreography, and not an essence—a form that is humanity practiced collectively.
at SpazioA, Pistoia
until 31 March 2018