Thoughts of Suspension Boris Charmatz’s Levée des Conflits and Walter Benjamin’s Angel of HistoryAuthor: Jessie Eggers
Dit artikel is eerder verschenen in: Koolen, H., J. Naafs, R. Naber, L. Wildschut (eds.) (2015), Danswetenschap in Nederland – Deel 8. Vereniging voor Dansonderzoek, pp.101-104.
Choreographer Boris Charmatz, in his performance Levée des Conflits (2010), presents no story or development, no conflicts or confrontations, no drama. Instead, the performance stages an image, a danced image of the passing of movement and time. That is, the performance knows what Hans-Thies Lehmann in Postdramatic Theatre (1999/2006, p.68) calls a ‘scenic dynamic’, a visual dramaturgy (p.93), rather than a dramatic one. With such a visual dramaturgy, Lehmann explains, a ‘theatre of scenography’ develops which requires a specific kind of perception, a reading from its spectators: ‘Scenography, naming a theatre of complex visuality, presents itself to the contemplating gaze like a text, a scenic poem’ (p.94).
In this paper – which forms a part of my Master thesis – I think through this complex visuality, the scenic poem of Levée des Conflits and the kind of perception it invites or requires. Rather than looking at connections to visual arts and cinema (as does Lehmann), however, I take up the literary perspective also offered by Lehmann (in naming it a scenic poem) and make the connection to the Frankfurt School literary genre of the thought-Image (Denkbild). More precisely, the paper compares Levée des Conflits with Walter Benjamin’s famous thought-image on the angel of history to consider what kind of image is at stake, how it works, and what it does.
Movements of Time: The Angel of History
The thought-image (Denkbild), so writes Gerhard Richter in his study of this Frankfurt School writing genre (2007, p.2), ‘can be understood as conceptual engagements with the aesthetic and aesthetic engagements with the conceptual, hovering between philosophical critique and aesthetic production’. Importantly, what thought-images say ‘cannot be thought in isolation from how they say it’ (Ibid. Italics in the original): the precise language, the materiality of the words, is of crucial importance for what the thought-image (re)presents and what it does or produces, both aesthetically and conceptually. That is, the poetry-like prose of thought-images constitutes written imagery that stages and questions both the subject matter and the own form or (re)presentation, thus unfolding the dialectic between image and thought.
One of the most famous thought-images is that of Walter Benjamin on the angel of history, which is one of his theses on the concept of history and reads:
There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. It shows an angel who seems about to move away from something he stares at. His eyes are wide, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how the angel of history must look. His face is turned toward the past. Where a chain of events appears before us, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it at his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise and has got caught in his wings; it is so strong that the angel can no longer close them. This storm drives him irresistibly into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows toward the sky. What we call progress is this storm.(Benjamin, 2008, p.39)
Two elements in this complex written imagery especially stand out: the interrelated questions of time and movement, both of which directly involve the spectator/reader. First, rather than one angel of history, so emphasises Sigrid Weigel in her study Body- and Image- Space (1996, p.52-4), Benjamin’s text actually involves three different angels in a kind of circular movement: the angel in the often overlooked quotation from a poem by Gershom Scholem that precedes the above text[i], the angel of Klee’s painting, and the angel of history.[ii] A crucial sentence in this is the statement that ‘this is how the angel of history must look’, for here the text moves away from being a description (of Klee’s painting), an now instead presents us the creation of a purely imagined angel (Weigel, 1996, p.53).[iii] This new, imagined image, moreover, invites the reader/spectator to take an active part in its temporal and spatial, as well as corporeal/material and imagined movements. Freddie Rokem in Catastrophic Constellations (2008, p.39) writes:
The moment we have accepted that what we see is how the angel of history must look while it is looking at us who in turn are looking at the image, enabling our gazes to meet, the meditative, dialectical mise-en-scene becomes activated from its standstill, showing us the progression of history.
With this thought-image Benjamin thus stages the moment of viewing (Rokem, 2008, p.40) in terms of time and movement. For, while – through the words and in our imagination – we look at the angel, we are invited to see the future, whereas the angel looks back at us as part of the past. ‘We,’ Rokem adds, ‘do not see the catastrophe [of the past] itself, except with an inner contemplative eye’ (2008, p.40).
With this thought-image (the written imagery) then the reader/spectator is invited to and involved in imagining the angel of history and the future, as well as in contemplating the past. With its continuous and complex changes in perspective[iv] Benjamin’s thought-image stages a relentless movement of images of/in thought and time. As such, the text asks of us a contemplative and (self-) reflective perception and reading of images, and an active imagination through engaging in matters of time and movement.
A Frozen Image in Motion
Boris Charmatz’s Levée des Conflits (2010) is a performance without spoken or written language. And yet, I argue, its visuality requires a kind of perception, a reading, similar to that of Benjamin’s thought-image. Levée des Conflits (Suspension of Conflicts) consists of twenty-four dancers and twenty-five movements. Like a choreographic canon the movements travel from dancer to dancer, allowing the spectator to see a movement in all its different states simultaneously. In a continuous cycle – which is emphasised by the dancers’ circular trajectory across the stage – the movements (and with them the dancers) emerge, evolve, and dissolve, again and again.
Here too, then, questions of time and movement are crucial. And as in Benjamin’s thought-image, the spectator is consequently invited to partake in the composition of an image by a (self-) reflective and contemplative (corporeal) perception and active imagination. In an interview with writer and musician Gilles Amalvi (Amalvi, p.4) Charmatz himself puts it as follows: ‘In Suspension of Conflicts, there are no pre-existing images, reproduced in motion; the image appears at the end of the process, it comes out of the whole movement’. I argue that this ‘whole movement’ explicitly involves the spectator as s/he engages in and with the time and movements of the performance. That is, the spectators, from their own corporeal position across the stage, trail the same circle of emerging, evolving, and dissolving as do the movements and the dancers, while shifting from the ‘whole movement’ to the individual fragments and back.
Charmatz in the interview continues with stating that:
the movement is an oscillating one, as one never stops passing by positions, and it is by means of passing again and again that, perhaps, the image can be recorded. Never does what I call [the] ‘subliminal image’ stop. It is a frozen image in motion… (in Amalvi, p.4)
This passing again and again connects both performers and spectators as it invites and implicates spectators to imagine the ‘subliminal’ image, and to consider the dialectic of position (whether temporal or corporeal) and movement. In fact, it is their position of perception outside the circle on stage that set this dialectic in motion. As a spectator you get swept up/included by the continuous wave of simultaneous evolving and dissolving movements/positions, yet on the basis of your own unmoving corporeal position of perception you also have enough time to contemplate/imagine the whole of this wave. Thus, as with Benjamin’s angel of thought, it is the reciprocity of perception (the forth and back between positions/perspectives) that sets the image and consequently thought in motion.
The comparison of Benjamin’s thought-image with Charmatz’s performance emphasises that the visuality of postdramatic theatre, its scenic dynamic does not simply refer to the events on stage. Rather, this visuality emerges for an important part in the interaction between these events and the spectators’ (self-) reflective contemplation and imagining of time and movement. The images staged – either in words or on stage – only come to be, are only set into motion by the direct implication of the spectator’s (body) position, thus establishing an emphasised reciprocity between perceiving and staging which moves thinking.
This article is based on:
Performances of Thought: Postdramatic Theatre and the Thought-Image RMA Thesis, Performance Studies, Utrecht University, 2014
[i] Benjamin’s quotation of Gruss vom Angelus by Gershom Scholem reads: ‘Mein Flügel is zum Schwung bereit,/ ich kehrte gern zurück,/ denn blieb ich auch lebendige Zeit, ich hätte wenig Glück (My wing is ready for flight,/ I would like to turn back./ If I stayed timeless time,/ I would have little luck).’ Quoted in Weigel (1996, p.53).
[ii] These three different angels are joined in a circular movement as the reader/spectator is left to contemplate their interrelations and connections moving from one to the other and back.
[iii] It is important to emphasise that all imagery in this thought-image is written (one could look up Klee’s painting, but no reproduction is offered next to the text). In a sense, thus, all three images of angels involved in the text are imaginary. Yet, the angel that emerges with the statement that ‘this is how the angel of history must look’ is a new creation, not yet existing but becoming through the interaction between words and reader/spectator.
[iv] These changes in perspective involve those between the different angels, between perceiving and thinking/imagining, between words and image/imagery/imaginations, and between different temporal and corporeal positions.
- Amalvi, G. Interview with Boris Charmatz. [Online]. [Accessed 14th March 2014]. Available from the World Wide Web
- Lehmann, H.-Th.(1999/2006). Postdramatic Theatre. Trans. Karen Jürs-Munby. London, New York: Routledge
- Richter, G. (2007). Thought-Images: Frankfurt School Writers’ Reflections from Damaged Life. Stanford: Stanford University Press
- Rokem, F. (2008). ‘Catastrophic Constellations: Picasso’s Guernica and Klee’s Angelus Novus’. International Journal of Arts and Technology 1:1, pp.34-42
- Weigel, S. (1996). Body- and Image-Space: Re-reading Walter Benjamin. Trans. G. Paul, R. McNicholl, J. Gaines. London, New York: Routledge
- Levée des Conflits – Boris Charmatz – 2010 (Performance)