ESSEN, Germany — Of Europe’s summertime arts festivals, the Ruhrtriennale is the most political.
The five-week event, which lights up disused industrial spaces in the Ruhr Valley, Germany’s former rust belt, has an interdisciplinary program as unique as its setting. After last year’s festival, which focused on “the Global South,” this summer’s program deals with Europe’s loss of status and influence on the world stage.
“European democracy is, and always has been, a racist construct based on power and privilege,” the event’s program book tells us. With an agenda that takes aim at much of Western culture, the current edition could well be titled “Fear and Loathing in Europe.”
Fear of the other and fear for the fate of a multicultural Europe are central to “After Recent Days. A Late Night,” a collage of text and music that the director Christopher Marthaler has fashioned into an urgent appeal.
Staged in the Auditorium Maximum, the circular main lecture hall of the Ruhr University, in the city of Bochum, the production fuses incendiary political speeches with the works of Jewish composers who were banned, exiled and murdered by the Nazis. Eleven actors and six musicians perform from one half of the vast auditorium, with its tiered seating, while the audience watches from across the hall.
The place and time are a world parliament in 2145, marking 200 years since the liberation of Europe’s concentration camps. In this vision of the future, the European Union has fallen apart and the German Empire has been restored, but its leading politicians have hybrid German-Chinese names. None of the background is laid out neatly, but the delegates’ speeches hint at renewed attacks against Jews, Muslims and Roma. “European racism,” we learn, has been added to Unesco’s Lists of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
Despite its dystopian framing device, the show remains contemporary and relevant, as intolerant discourse alternates with the haunting musical selections, which include pieces by Pavel Haas and Viktor Ullmann, both of whom continued to compose music in the Theresienstadt concentration camp and were murdered in Auschwitz.
The monologues quote from an anti-Semitic early 20th-century mayor of Vienna and a more recent Austrian politician who called a black journalist “a Negro” in 2007 (so as not to bow to political correctness, she said). Other speeches reproduce the worlds of a 2002 article in defense of colonialism in Africa by Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, and the bluntly intolerant rhetoric of Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary, who is widely seen as dismantling democracy there.
Shifting between the poignant musical performances and unsavory political texts, Mr. Marthaler achieves arresting and shape-shifting theatrical effects; depending on the particular scene, the show might resemble a concert, a lecture or even performance art, with the actors zigzagging around the hall. But the result feels surprisingly coherent.
The director injects doses of musical and dramatic humor to keep things from getting too grim. During a jumbled political melee between xenophobes from the present and the past, a delegate is ordered to return to her own time period; a pianist bangs out Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy,” singing along with frantic glee that borders on panic; and the auditorium’s pipe organ is briefly employed to unexpectedly earsplitting effect. Although the show drags toward the end, it succeeds in mapping contemporary anxieties in an artistically individual way, without becoming polemical.
“After Recent Days” felt appropriate as a response to the climate of fear that is all too real in Europe, where right-ring and nativist groups are increasingly in power, and the decision of the Ruhrtrienniale’s artistic director, Stefanie Carp, to open the festival with this piece felt like a statement of purpose.
The purpose became less clear, however, the following evening with the world premiere of “All the Good,” in indulgent romp by the Belgian artist Jan Lauwers and his artists’ collective, Needcompany.
Onstage inside a cavernous former factory in the city of Gladbeck, Mr. Lauwers assembles a chaotic recreation of his home in a suburb of Brussels, a working and living space that he modestly calls “a haven for radical beauty.”
At the start of the performance, Mr. Lauwers introduces us to the cast of characters, including his wife and children, an array of international performance artists — including a former Israeli soldier turned professional dancer — and the actor Benoît Gob, who plays the director in what follows, as Mr. Lauwers watches from the sidelines.
“The family is all together,” Mr. Lauwers announces, leaving the cast to perform a series of scenes from artistic life that plays like a freaked-out version of “La Bohème.” While the director played by Mr. Gob attempts to assemble an installation with hundreds of multicolored vases made by a Palestinian glass blower, the other members of the multilingual collective embark on their own series of artistic and sexual explorations.
Art about art has seldom seemed more banal in its eagerness to provoke. A couple who venerate the 17th-century painter Artemisia Gentileschi brutally re-enact the artist’s rape, and one of them cuts herself on broken glass and limps around the stage in agony. But her character’s masochism is nothing compared with Mr. Lauwers’s mix of self-deprecation, self-aggrandizement and self-loathing.
At one point, the director subjects us to some pages of a novel in progress, “The Solitude of Killing,” which is described to the audience as “a shameful pamphlet by a courageous man” and begins with the ponderous line “The day beauty died was an unremarkable day.” A later quote finds the director admitting, “I hate the hero of my own life.”
Aside from this, we also get pompous disquisitions on the painters Courbet, Goya and van der Weyden. In one of these monologues, the director reveals to us that art is the result of “phenomenal mistakes.” Well, this must be one of them.
The script is largely aphoristic, with the performers intoning such nuggets of wisdom as “The archivist always becomes the oppressor”; “Art is unable to shock. Only the world can do that”; “The image is as guilty as the creator”; and “Wretchedness is the basis of all art.”
And then there are the scenes of pornographic shock, including one where the director’s 25-year-old daughter, Romy Louise Lauwers, playing a somewhat younger version of herself, films the inside of her vagina with her Israeli boyfriend’s spy camera. She shows her father a film still and proudly calls it “the image that contains all images.”
A little while afterward, Ms. Lauwers and her mother (Needcompany’s co-founder, Grace Ellen Barkey) film themselves tying a string around the penis of the boyfriend, Elik Niv. As the daughter films Mr. Niv’s naked body in close-up, another character renders the judgment “Bruegel with a touch of Jewish.”
Mr. Lauwers wants us to think of him as “woke,” and the program book claims that the show examines the director’s “own legitimacy as a white, privileged artist in an intercultural context.” After its world premiere in Gladbeck, “All the Good” is set to travel widely. In the coming year, audiences in Switzerland, Italy, Belgium, France, Spain, Croatia and Poland will be able to discover just how shallow an investigation it is.
With its generous government subsidies and its daring and experimental tendencies, the Ruhrtriennale has the potential to be a uniquely adventurous festival. But by selecting “All the Good” as one of its headlining acts, it has undercut its claim to being artistically and politically relevant.
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