Orsolya Bálint: Death as self-expression

10 000. Evanjelium pre ruže
10 000. Gospel for Roses, closing scene. From left: Mária Danadová, Lenka Luptáková, Dominika Doniga (front), Jana Oľhová

I watched the heavily text-based performance 10 000. Gospel for Roses at KioSk Festival, in Stanica, Žilina without understanding a word in Slovak. Still I don’t want to use that as an excuse, because by not being focused on the text, I could concentrate more on the four outstanding actresses: Mária Danadová, Dominika Doniga, Lenka Luptáková and Jana Oľhová.I directed my senses on their presence, mimics, tones and costumes, and since the performance was sparse in action, even their tiniest moves gained significance. However, I was still longing for a better understanding, which followed when I re-read the English transcript of the performance and during the open discussion with dramaturge/director/costume designer Maroš Rovňák and two of the actresses. There was one word I’ve indeed learned by hearing it many times, as a constructive (creative?) motif: “smrť”, meaning death.

It was an impressive entree, when Jana Oľhová appeared on stage in a white gown embellished with strong red symbols (a huge drop of blood over her lap and a red cross over her chest, like a bull’s eye), a headband of red roses and black peacock feathers, slightly resembling the eccentric Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland. She had the imposing aura of a monarch, but deeply withheld sadness seeped from her. Impersonating Elizabeth I of England, whose mother, Anne Boleyn was executed two years after giving birth to her, she told a childhood memory of envisioning herself being in the safety of the womb of her deceased mother out of fear from death, because her life was under constant threat. A beautiful and ambivalent metaphor: it condenses the childlike idea of death, the longing for the lost mother and for the safeness she never experienced; the urge growing even stronger than her own fear from dying.

Speaking into one of the microphones on stage, the amplification of her voice became an emphasis of the act of self-expression, like she was speaking out – if she could not tell this to anyone, she will tell it to everyone. We may be compassionate with the child she was, and see her as a brave survivor, and later as a victorious ruler and a generous patron of arts, who contributed to the flourishing of English drama, but Elizabeth I was also responsible for the execution of many, among others her rival, Mary, Queen of Scots.

After her exit, Lenka Luptáková entered the stage, playing an art historian (in black dress and gloves, with red warpaint on her forehead, as if marked by a mysterious force or entity) giving a lecture on Manet’s series of paintings The Execution of Emperor Maximilian.

There is a sophisticated shift each time the protagonist changes; this time from one tragedy-stricken house of monarchs (the Tudors) to another (the Habsburgs), and from a personal metaphorical approach of death to the metaphorical approach of death by art. Death already appears here in the political context as well, since the death of a monarch is never solely personal matter.

Previously, the art historian mentioned Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass and Olympia, two paintings which caused outrage for their naturalism, or frivolity, in the public eye. This became meaningful information later, when we focused more on the inexplicable, or rather double standards of society towards what is deemed scandalous and what remains blissfully ignored – or what is considered private and what is a political/public issue.

The Execution series depicts the very moment, in which the shots were fired by the hit squad, whilst the emperor and his generals are still standing straight, seemingly impassively awaiting their inevitable death. Just like in Elizabeth’s vision of the womb, death only appears here in a metaphorical space created in the spectator’s minds. Since time is frozen by the static nature of the painting, we can linger in this in-between of dimensions of being and not-being, the great mystery of death – the transition into finiteness, or another quality of existence; we don’t know for sure until we experience it for ourselves.

In spite of its surreal, incomprehensible nature, death is in fact an ever-present reality in our minds, but most of the time it is repressed into the unconscious, since “it would be impossible to live in constant conscious awareness of death” (Becker, 1973). But in moments like when we are watching the painting, we become aware of the fact of death, and we begin to wonder about the nature of death. Quite immediately we think about our own death, or the death of our loved ones, since these are the most sensitizing prospects of death, and the subject shifts from general (and trivial) to personal again.

This is the delicate thread leading us to the next scene (besides that the virtual space of the plot is still in Mexico, the story being continued in Ciudad Juárez, the city named after Benito Juárez, who was reinstated as president after Maximilian’s death). Maja Danadová played a Mexican mother (also in black and with red paint on her forehead, which seemed rather like a curse, not like blood over her head), who’s daughter was abducted and murdered. I wished I understood her detailed reminiscence of her daughter’s disappearance – on the other hand, being a mother, I was grateful that I didn’t have to face the horrific details, as I could tell from the intense attention and almost paralyzed-by-dread postures of other audience members. Amplifying her voice with the microphone symbolised in her case not solely her desire to be heard, but it was also a warning to us that she should be listened to.

After her exit, the art historian appeared again to talk about the next Execution painting, which was a sobering change, like a Brechtian V-Effekt, and we shifted from the personal and factual experience of death back to theoretical and abstract again. Not entirely though, because she showed us the historical photograph of the execution, where the abstraction is reality itself – a mind-spinning thought.

The fourth woman, an American journalist investigating the femicides (sexually motivated murders of women and young girls) in Ciudad Juárez, played by Jana Oľhová, told us about the disappearance of her colleague – hauntingly resembling the story of the missing daughter – and the inexplicable ignorance of the murders by authorities and the police.

Almost directly reflecting on this “collective repression of the awareness of death”, the art historian came back again, to tell us, how badly it was received by the public, that Manet painted the “raw truth” of the execution, not some artistic illusion – that would have been comfortable enough for the audiences.

As if Manet had already foreseen this, as a conscious irony, in one of the paintings he also painted an audience, entertained by watching the execution. This is not the first reference to the entertaining “qualities” of death; it recurs in the femicides as well as in the paintings of bullfights (both are pleasure-motivated murders) by Goya, an inspirational master of Manet. But we can also recall many similar occurrences, from the ancient gladiator fights to recent horror flicks and reality shows about dying people. Why are we entertained by death? Is this our safe place to look at death, or is this indeed the fear from it, repressed by a hypocritical ignorance and cynicism?

This is the attitude the mother of the murdered daughter is also confronted with, when she comes back to continue her story. Odd as it is, even though we all have to face death once, we have a huge deficit of empathy – not to mention Schadenfreude – when it goes to death or the loss of others. We may be affected or even shaken by it if it is a personal matter, but the more political it becomes, the guilt is disseminated and responsibility evaporates.

The art historian also lost her father and later her mother, and while she shares this intimately personal information about herself (returning again to the personal sphere), we may grasp the universal presence of loss in our lives. The loss of parents, children, hundreds of young women missed by their families – as the returning journalist continues with her story –, who didn’t even have the chance to start to live.

The three women appear together in the closing scene, joined by a fourth woman – a dead bride, a ghost, or a memento mori played by Dominika Doniga. In Victorian times, post-mortem photographs were not regarded as gruesome. There is beauty, intimacy and a loving quality in these photographs which may seem shocking to us now, because of our conflicted relationship to death: repression grows ever stronger, we don’t want to talk about death, we don’t even want to be around it, so we exiled the dying into hospitals and hospice homes. On the other hand, we sensationalize and minimize death in the news, in movies, TV shows or video games.

Until this point, death has been only present in the performance on the metaphorical level, in the form of visions and absence, but with a dead person being actually present, there is an intriguing turn into metonymical. The dead bride starts to sing, but her beautiful voice turns into woes and screams, resulting in a discomforting cacophony. What if all the dead could raise their voices and haunt us with their tragedies?

While she sings, the three women recite a text, like a Rosary. This form of Catholic prayer (accompanied by counting the rosary beads) is often prescribed by priests as a penance after confession, to encourage contemplation about our sins. However, the text they are reciting (with sticks in their hands instead of a rosary) is not religious: “We flew through space like dual persons. But you said – you are the one who is not and I am the one who is. I give you your death, this is my expression of myself.”

If we take this as a literal reference to the act of killing – whether it is motivated by politics, money or pure pleasure –, murder is an essential part of human nature, but whoever takes the freedom to kill, places him/herself over the other human (the dual spirit), to decide over their right for life. But as the text puts it, this is not simply the wish to act like a god (like a creator), but ultimately a way of self-expression – like creating art.

Orsolya Bálint – KÖM by L1 Association On The Road
KioSK 2015 New Slovakian Theatre and Dance Festival, Stanica Žilina – Záriečie, 23-26.07.2015