Die Faust unter der Sonne

By Helmut Ploebst

January 10, 2020

The belief that an event is so far away, just because, for example, 105 years lie between “then” and today, has pitfalls. During the first three decades of the 20th century, the course was set for everything we understand by contemporary art today. When Kasimir Malewitsch painted his black square in 1915, which was to become one of the icons of modernism as a black square, the artistic coup on which the motif was based was already two years ago: The “futuristic opera” victory over the sun by Alexei Krutschonych, Welimir Chlebnikow, Michail Matjuschin and Malewitsch, who had applied his very first black square to the stage curtain.

When you visit Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe’s new piece Carré Noir, it makes sense to think about victory over the sun, although the artist herself expressly refers only to the 1915 painting. The Russian avant-garde opera in the St. Petersburg Lunatheater already had an immersive character, as did the performance installation Carré Noir in the studio of the Vienna Brut Theater. Here, too, the comparison shows that the innovative power of the first avant-garde, including that in Russia, is still unsurpassed. Two world wars, Stalinism, Fascism and National Socialism failed to wipe out their influence. However, it took decades – since 1945 and 1989 – to slowly learn to assess the importance of this avant-garde.

The weaknesses of the Enlightenment

The process is far from over, but it is worth the journey, especially now, at the possible beginning of the next dark age. Tambwe’s work proves to be an excellent indicator of how exciting it can be to try to determine where we are on this path today. Unlike the First Avant-Garde, contemporary art at the beginning of the 2020s does not appear to be revolutionary, radical or innovative. Rather, it is an artistic and navigational instrument contaminated by self-censorship and commerce in that western society, which, in the midst of the upheavals of a technical and economic revolution, is taking a closer look at the weak points of its historical enlightenment. The West no longer sets the standard for this alone.

Now it is not the leap forward that is important, but the penetration into the depths of those cultural entanglements that have shaped history in modern times. Tambwe also suggests this in Carré Noir, as does the fact that contemporary societies have developed complexities that they have to accept if they do not want to fail again – as in the 20th century – because of their own achievements. In the foyer of the Brut Studio, Tambwe, who was born in the Congolese capital Kinshasa, begins to form a sculpture out of a pale gray plastic tube as a performer with a blonde wig and blue overalls and transparent high heels.

All the shipwrecked on board

It is a replica of the principle of composition of Théodore Géricault’s painting Le Radeau de La Méduse (1818/19): two – actually three – pyramids, within which a shipwreck drama is reflected. The performer is caught up in this sculpture. Later she will invite her audience to step on a floor projection of the Géricault painting and thus onto the raft of the Medusa and to the shipwrecked. If you do not know the picture or the tragic story behind it, you may be overlooked the reference to the many refugees whose boats are now sinking in the Mediterranean, 200 years later.

And anyone who does not know Malevich’s Black Square will hardly get to grips with his suggestion as a white-light projection in the theater room. Anyone who does not read the text that runs over a screen in the foyer misses the context of this work. Carré Noir represents a sophisticated reference structure that eludes quick and superficial reception. The piece demands attention and education, but leaves no time for relaxed contemplation. Tambwe appears with Eric Abrogoua, who only appears in a white-orange fur, from which he finally peels off and subsequently recalls a character from Géricault’s picture: the African sailor waving a ship on the raft, the whole appears small on the horizon.

“Our light is in us”

Towards the end of the performance, Abrogoua, who mimics the passions of someone who feels strange, also wears high heels. The motif of queerness threads itself into the action and imposes itself on the gaze as a familiar stereotype of the present. Another detail: Tambwe dips the hair of her blonde wig in water, lets this water drip onto the white stage floor in the audience (drip painting) and then hurls water with violent head movements onto a “canvas” made of transparent paper (action painting). These two performative motifs show images that are intended to disappear as soon as the water has dried: the supposedly remaining is ultimately ephemeral.

This corresponds to that part of the text on the screen in the foyer which explains that, due to chemical processes in the color material used by Géricault, Le Radeau de La Méduse will have disappeared. Only a black area remains. The last sentence in the opera Victory over the Sun reads: “The world will pass, but we are without / end.” Before that it says: “We are dark in the face.” Both correlate with the events in Carré Noir. Above all with a third claim from victory over the sun: “Our light is in us.” The true greatness of Carré Noir lies less in his dramaturgy than in the claim inscribed in this work to play with the erratic projections of our perception, that could have been generated from Malevich’s banishment of the representational representation from the picture.

In 1913 the artist opposed the sun, which symbolized the tsarist regime, with the black square: as a sign of nothing. This is still an excellent way to work today: Elisabeth Bakambamba Tambwe turns her back on the audience, bends and sticks her brown fist through a sphincter that she has worked into her pants. After all, this is a metaphor that after 105 years is in no way inferior to that of Malevich’s Nothing.