Monday, 18 May 2015

Postcard from Berlin 

Kreuzberg/Museum Bergruen/Theatertreffen/Castellucci at the Schaubühne

My train pulled into Berlin Ostbahnhof on May 1: not the most convenient date to arrive in Berlin, as I soon discovered. None of the taxis would take me to Kreuzberg because of the festivities and riots that traditionally take place there on May Day, and when I boarded the U-Bahn it was crammed with partygoers and wannabe-revolutionaries. It took me most of the afternoon to get to my Airbnb apartment, which was ideally situated between Görlitzer Park and the cafés and clubs on the Landwehr Canal. It turned out to be in the thick of the action, with music, dancing and police cars cruising the normally quiet tree-lined street.

Here I met up with a friend from Stuttgart and we joined the crowds. We ended up at a rambling Southern Gothic canal-side bar which was like something out of a Rodriguez/Tarantino movie. There was even a Burlesque Olympics floor-show later that night, after which all the goths and drag queens presumably turned into vampires (we didn’t hang around long enough to find out).

The rest of the weekend was comparatively peaceful. On Saturday my friend took me to visit the Museum Berggruen in Charlottenburg: a lovely light-filled neo-classical building with a wonderful collection of classic modernist works by Picasso, Matisse, Paul Klee and Giacometti. There was a special exhibition juxtaposing paintings and drawings by Klee with mobiles by Alexander Calder. When we activated one by gently blowing on it the museum guards wagged their fingers and shook their heads: ‘Verboten!’ In another room was a small screen showing a charming film from the late 1920s of Calder’s ‘Circus’, which showed the artist playing with his miniature object-theatre like an exuberant child (the museum guards must have been horrified).

I found myself entranced by the innocence and plasticity of Calder and Klee’s imaginations. In room after room of Picassos, on the other hand, I was struck by the artist’s obsessive fixation with women (from one decade, style and indeed woman to the next) as mysterious and ultimately frustrating objects of desire. It was a far cry from the Matisse retrospective I’d seen in Amsterdam at the Stedelijk Museum earlier that week. In his increasingly simplified paintings and cut-outs women had seemed on the contrary to be figures of freedom and joie-de-vivre.

We spent Sunday morning wandering Görlitzer Park past the Turkish families having picnics beneath the chestnut trees with their portable barbecues (and the ubiquitous Africian drug dealers hovering hopefully beneath every other tree). Then we had an afternoon drink by the canal at the deliciously chilled-out Club der Visionäre (recommended by one of my daughters), where I pretended I was in my 20s again (and a hipster at long last). 

Kreuzberg reminded me a little of a Turkish-infused version of the St Kilda I lived in twenty years ago. Before re-unification it was an enclave-within-an-enclave, surrounded on three sides by the Berlin Wall (as was West Berlin itself in relation to the rest of East Germany). In the 70s it became a magnet for the immigrant Turkish community as well as bohemian artists, musicians and punks because of the availability of cheap housing, squats and improvised venues and studios. When the Wall came down, the district suddenly found itself in the centre of the old/new Berlin, just south of the high-culture museum-district of Mitte in the former east. Now the twin scourges of gentrification and backpacker-tourism were visibly well underway. Nevertheless ‘X-Berg’ clearly still saw itself as the centre of the action. In the warm spring weather, locals and visitors wandered the streets drinking beer from bottles or sat at tables outside the endless kebab shops and bars. By the end of the weekend I was feeling very much at home.


After seeing my friend off at Berlin Hauptbahnof, it was time for some serious theatregoing. I’d arrived here just in time for the annual Theatertreffen, a kind of festival-showcase featuring the ten ‘most remarkable’ German-language productions of the past year by companies from all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland (as selected by an artistic ‘jury’), together with a Stückemarkt of playreadings and a raft of workshops, discussion-forums, film-screenings, exhibitions and related events held in venues all over the city, but principally at the all-purpose festival centre known as the Haus der Berliner Festspiele. As such, it seemed like the ideal opportunity to experience a (no doubt partial) overview of what was currently happening in German theatre, as well as a taste of Berlin’s manifold other offerings, cultural and otherwise. (Actually the dates also coincided neatly with a three-week break in the series of voice, text and movement workshops I’d been doing in Orkney with Kristin Linklater. I’ll postpone writing about the whole experience of studying with Kristin in Orkney for a future Postcard.)

Perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, Germany is blessed with a plethora of high-quality, highly attended and heavily funded theatre and dance companies, opera houses, orchestras and other artistic and cultural institutions. In part this can be attributed to the history of the concept of die Kultur (which means both ‘culture’ and ‘civilization’) which was seen at least since the 18th Century as playing an essential role in the formation of the individual and the community – a concept which is entirely absent in Australia except among Aboriginal people, for whom it goes without saying that participating in and having access to your ‘culture’ is vital to the notion of who you are. It’s also a by-product of the political history of Germany, which – at least until the rise to dominance of Prussia in the late 19th Century, and perhaps even not until the totalitarian centralization of the Nazi state in the 20th – was a loose confederation of independent kingdoms, principalities, dukedoms, bishoprics, imperial electorates, city-states and regional territories, each with its own distinct cultural identity.

The result is that cities like Hamburg, Munich, Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden today all have their own signature theatre and ballet companies, opera houses and orchestras. In the case of Berlin, the situation is heightened by its post-War history of partition and reunification, which has effectively bequeathed it the cultural resources of two cities in one, including three major opera houses (the Staatsoper and the Komische Oper in the former east, and the Deutsche Oper in the former west) and at least five major theatre companies (counting the Deutsches Theater, the Berliner Ensemble, the Volksbühne and the Maxim Gorki Theatre in the former east and the Schaubühne in the former west – and not including the substantial Freieszene or independent scene).

All these institutions are funded primarily at a municipal level by the cities themselves; and it’s notable that there are no ‘national’ or even ‘state’ companies, at least not as we know them in Australia. Perhaps that’s because terms like ‘national’ have a particularly ominous historical resonance in Germany. In fact the Germans – and the Berliners in particular – have a relationship with the past which Australians could learn something from. In short: they acknowledge and take responsibility for the fact that shit happened. Indeed, ‘the relationship with the past’ – as thematic content, interpretative process and social function –  is central to German theatre (as it is arguably to Western theatre in general from the Greeks onwards). Hence the continual and radical reinterpretation of classic plays in German theatres as a lense through which to view the present, as well as the preponderance of new plays that deal with recent history.


I headed off to the Festspiele on Sunday night for a reading of a new play called Der Staat (‘The State’) by Bulgarian writer Alexander Maluinoff, which was tantalizingly described in the brochure as having neither a director nor a cast. We sat in a circle in a darkened room, surrounding a tightly-lit table with a stack of envelopes on it, a microphone dangling above and a waste-paper bin nearby. After a few minutes of silence and stillness, the penny dropped and someone in the audience got up, went over to the table, opened the uppermost envelope, took out a sheet of paper and read the contents aloud into the microphone, before discarding the waste-paper into the bin. And so it continued. The ‘letters’ were ‘from’ a young Bulgarian man who – it emerged – had publicly set himself on fire in 2013 in protest against what he simply called ‘the state’. They varied in length and lucidity, successively and simultaneously invoking the writer’s psychological ‘state’, the political ‘state’ against which he was protesting, his impending act of political ‘theatre’ and/or the act of literal theatre in which we were now complicit.

I found the concept fascinating, but was surprised by the audience’s resistance, which took the form of reading letters silently and refusing to share them, throwing them in the bin, walking out, reshuffling the envelopes, or acting out various other ‘clever’, subversive or mocking scenarios. Nevertheless – even in this degraded form – the play had its own ineluctable dramatic tension, as it interrogated ever more urgently the ontology of politics and indeed theatre itself, implicitly asking the question of what it means to stage or enact something, in the flickering light of the letter-writer’s imminent auto-da-fé.

At the end of the performance, I got up and read (again) the haunting final letter (which someone else had previously read out of sequence and then discarded), before pocketing it and walking out. I reproduce the contents of the letter here, without futher comment:

The Performance wants us to stand up. If we do so, the Performance will slowly come to an end. And we will have some time to observe the imaginary flames coming out of the urn. Can we see them? Can we sense the smell? Would we dare make a real fire out of it? What are we afraid of? What are we waiting for? Or do we think that even if we dare, they will still not let us do it? Do what? (PAUSE. TAKE A DEEP BREATH. IT’S OKAY. IT’S OKAY.) We may clap now. Yes, we are asked to start clapping now. Is there anything else we can do?


The following evening I was back at the Festspiele for a performance by the Münchner Kammerspiele of Warum läuft Herr R. Amok? directed by Susanne Kennedy and based on the film by Rainer Maria Fassbinder about a humble officer-worker and family-man who finally ‘runs amok’ in his living-room and slaughters his neighbour, wife and son. It would have been Fassbinder’s 70th birthday this year (he took a lethal cocktail of cocaine and barbiturates in 1982) and he was the Theatertreffen’s ‘Focus’ artist, with multiple stagings, screenings and discussions of his films, as well as a major exhibition at the Martin-Gropius-Bau entitled ‘Fassbinder – Now’. 

In the event, like so many ‘homages’, the play turned out to be an excruciatingly didactic exercise. Five actors wearing full-face silicone masks and hideous 70s retro costumes re-enacted the entire film scene-by-scene on an even more hideous 70s retro set. To make matters worse, they mimed all the action and dialogue to a soundtrack featuring non-actors’ voices and generic sound effects (doors opening and closing, cars passing, drinks being poured, food being eaten, heads being bashed in, etc). It was mesmerizing for the first few scenes (each of which seems to take forever because of the difference between film and theatre-time), but became unendurable over the next two hours and ten minutes (no interval). 

The only interesting variation came when the actors begin randomly swapping characters, which only gradually became apparent because of the masks, costumes and sountrack. Otherwise, it was a spectacular demonstration of the fact that imitation is the worst form of flattery. The sense of social and psychological claustrophobia that was once so fresh and alive in Fassbinder’s films – and unique to their time and place, to him as an artist, and to his mastery of the medium – here became a leaden form of repetition that did nothing more than restate the obvious, without regard for (or in defiance of) the actors, the audience and the medium of theatre itself. Alas, it was a pattern I was going to see repeated over the next ten days.


The following night I ventured beyond the confines of the Theatertreffen to see a new production of Hölderlin’s translation of Oedipus directed by Romeo Castellucci at the Schaubühne. Cult mad-genius poet-translator meets cult avant-garde contemporary-performance director meets cult alternative-cool theatre company: what could possibly go wrong?

In fact the opening twenty minutes were spellbinding: an almost wordless ballet (apart from the odd Latin chant) featuring a silent order of nuns coming and going about their business while shifting furniture, objects and black sliding walls on and off stage, the whole thing softly lit behind a scrim, like a painting by Georges de La Tour. This dumb-show told the story of the illness and death of an old nun, and the discovery by one of her fellow sisters of a hidden copy of Hölderlin’s Oedipus propping up one of the legs of her bed. She then began reading the book aloud, whereupon the scrim flew up and the black walls disappeared, revealing a vast new all-white space (vaguely reminiscent of a Greek temple) in which Sophocles’s tragedy now unfolded, with the nun-reader becoming the leader of the chorus (played by the other nuns) and all the other roles also played by women (except for Tiresias, the man-woman seer). Costumes were now also white, with the main characters dressed to represent Biblical figures: Oedipus as a female Christ, Jocasta as Mary, Kreon as Peter (in his dual capacity as betrayer and successor) and Tiresias as John the Baptist (complete with a wooden cross and a very patient live lamb).

The whole thing was brilliantly conceived, beautifully staged, intensely performed – and ultimately left me cold. Deafening sound effects when Tiresias delivered his parting curse only underscored the emotional hollowness of the staging; and things got worse with a long projection sequence (during the offstage suicide of Jocasta and blinding of Oedipus) featuring Castellucci himself being sprayed with a toxic chemical used by police to subdue offenders. This came across as a clumsy piece of self-dramatizing thinly disguised as a vaguely political artistic statement, which only undermined the aesthetic integrity of what had gone before.

Of course such successive coups de théâtre  – or perhaps anti-theatre – are in a sense integral to Castellucci’s work, since he has long declared his commitent to the legacy of Artaud through (among other things) the practice of continually pulling the rug from under the audience’s feet by disrupting the form of what we thought we were watching. This can be enthralling, as in the case of previous Castellucci productions I’ve seen – Genesi: From the Museum of Sleep and On the Concept of the Face, Regarding the Son of God – both which eschewed narrative completely. Here however it came across as nothing less than a self-subverting fear and mistrust in relation to the power of the text to speak to a contemporary audience without sign-posting, visual shorthand or stage-tricks.

This reached its absurd conclusion with the play’s devastating final chorus, which ends with words to the effect of ‘call no man happy until he reaches the end of life without suffering’. Here it was performed by a trio of palpitating post-human Patricia Piccini-like puppets and accompanied by a distorted recording of the text punctuated by farting sounds. The audience giggled, and the actors took their curtain-call with the pained smiles actors always have when they know they’ve been asked to perform the impossible and faithfully done their duty. For my part, I wished the production had remained with the nuns in their convent, and allowed them inhabit and embody Sophocles’s play and Hölderlin’s words. But for a director like Castellucci, it seems, enough is never enough.


Humph's next Postcard from Berlin will be posted next week.

Monday, 4 May 2015

Postcard from London and Glasgow (via Berlin)

It’s six weeks since I left London and headed north. Three days in Glasgow, five weeks in Orkney, then back down to London and across the Channel by rail to Brussels, Amsterdam and finally Berlin – where I’m now sitting in a Kreuzberg café called Bastard just around the corner from my Airbnb (an airy second-floor bedroom in an old apartment block near Görlitzer Park).

There’s a message on the wall nearby that says: ‘The brain is desperate for an available emptiness to house its clutter. Put it here.’ Hm. Perhaps this Postcard will serve the same purpose. 

There’s another piece of street-art right next to the front door of my apartment block featuring an image of Pinocchio smoking a spliff and sporting an enormous phallus. I’m not sure where that fits in, but I’ll put it here too, and get on with my story.

Where to begin? And what to tell? Let me try to clear my head and retrace my steps.

1. Goya to Pollini

After my weekend in Nottingham and Stratford, I spent my last night in my Airbnb apartment in Islington, hugged my tearful Indian host-grandmother goodbye the next morning and deposited my luggage at Euston. I spent my last afternoon in London at a exhibition of Goya’s ‘Witches and Old Women’ album of drawings in the Courtault Gallery at Somerset House, and my last evening at a recital by Maurizo Pollini playing Schumann and Chopin at the Royal Festival Hall.

Goya’s late drawings are deeply personal. By this stage he was completely deaf and had largely withdrawn into his own world. Creating largely for himself, he was possessed by fantastical images, somewhere on a road that stretches from Bosch and Breughel to surrealism and beyond. On the edge of reason and at the outer reaches of humanity, they draw us into a miniature but painstakingly detailed universe of horror, ecstasy and pity that whispers to our fascination with the monstrous in all its forms.

Somerset House is one of my favourite places in London. Housed in a magnificent complex of neo-classical buildings situated between The Strand and the Embankment, the Courtault Gallery itself – with its winding stairways, intimate rooms and fine permanent collection – is slightly off the tourist track and somehow manages to make you feel like you’re visiting an eccentric uncle and viewing his private heirlooms.  Here I spent a peaceful couple of hours in the company of Goya and his monsters, along with the small but superb selection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings on show from the permanent collection. Finally I wandered out onto the Embankment and past the stream of evening traffic across Waterloo Bridge to the splendid brutalism of The Southbank Centre.

I had my doubts about going to Pollini that night. Back in the early 80s when I was a student and came down to London from Hogwarts regularly to hear him play, he was in his prime as a virtuoso celebrated (and sometimes denigrated) for his relentless objectivity, fearsome technique and fearless championing of modern and contemporary composers (Bartok, Stravinksy, Schönberg, Webern, Boulez, Nono) alongside thrillingly unsentimental interpretations of Chopin, Schumann, Schubert and the late sonatas of Beethoven. Now however I’d be seeing a man in his late 70s who’d recently been ill and would surely be diminished at least in terms of sheer physical prowess.

In the event, I needn’t have worried. A stooped old man in tails tottered across the stage, nodded a few perfunctory bows, sat down and without further ado launched into Schumann’s gentle Arabesque followed by an uncompromising voyage through the rocky straits of the Kreisleriana. The technique may not have been what it was, at least in Schumann’s more manic passages, but the penetrating intelligence and sense of architectural command more than made up for any occasional imperfections. After interval came Chopin’s 24 Preludes. Pollini totally owns these works (the pellucid clarity of his 70s recording for DG remains unsurpassed for me); but tonight was if anything even more revealing, without sacrificing the eagle-eyed overview of each piece in relation to the whole. After a shattering final Prelude, he tottered back on for three encores: an equally impassioned ‘Revolutionary’ Etude (the aged eagle spreading his wings and perhaps reminding us of his former activities playing concerts with Abbado for workers in factories), a tender Nocturne and finally the dramatic 3rd Scherzo. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

Still humming with revolutionary fervour, I made my way back to Euston, collected my luggage and boarded the Caledonian sleeper for Glasgow. Securing an archmair in the dining car (which felt more like a well-upholstered and well-serviced hotel lobby), I ordered my first miniature bottle of Highland Park and settled back to watch the lights of nameless English towns slide past and vanish into the night.

2. Buzzcut Live Art Festival

Next morning I woke up at Glasgow Central, where a different world awaited me – or rather, a series of different worlds, one opening onto another like Glaswegian-Chinese boxes. I was here for three days, staying at another Airbnb apartment in a classic old terrace in the city’s West End near Hillhead Tube Station, and attending Buzzcut, a live art festival co-curated by Nick Anderson and Rosana Cade (with whom I did a workshop at Live Art Camp in Melbourne last November). The festival is housed at the Pearce Institute, a community centre in Govan, which is itself a severely run-down working-class district just south of the Clyde. Rosana and Nick have made the event as inclusive as possible, given its limited funding and resources. Participating artists aren’t paid, but are provided with free board and lodging (mostly in people’s houses); there’s good, cheap, locally sourced and prepared food (including delicious street-curries and wraps) available onsite in the Macleod Hall; and audiences can attend the rolling sequence of performances in multiple spaces throughout the Institute (and at a few off-site venues) every afternoon and evening for free, or by donation (on the basis of ‘pay what you can afford’). The idea is to generate a spirit of collaboration and community between visiting and local artists and the broader local population; the result feels like a non-stop five-day open-house party. I was only there for three of those days, which in the event was enough for me, as I barely left the building (apart from the odd off-site excursion) except to go home on the Tube every night to get some sleep, have breakfast the next morning and then head back for another afternoon and evening of continuous live art.

Ah, live art! Dear Reader, bear with me on this. We’re talking everything from awkward five-minute one-on-one mutual meditation sessions while seated in chairs facing opposite each other; to an endearingly guided tour of personal belongings displayed in a tent as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’; to an ongoing installation-collection of recyclable waste generated during the festival and carefully washed and sorted on the floor; to an extended lyrical public confession about personal and artistic failure in a vacant lot outside the Institute, before digging a hole in the ground in which the body of a cello was then ritually smashed and burned, and its ashes summarily dumped in the Clyde. More elaborate works included a visual essay-performance about post-war UK architecture and the invasion of public by private space, with projected archival and home-made footage accompanied by an industrial soundtrack and spoken commentary by the two artists, who had the text fed to them through mp3 players and repeated it mechanically through microphones while standing motionless against the projection wall at the back of the stage; and a vigorous session of luridly-coloured paint-gargling-and-spitting on various items of furniture in a courtyard, including a wardrobe which was then violently demolished and a mattress and bed which were finally doused in petrol and set on fire (staining, smashing and burning things seemed to be something of a leitmotif in the live art world).

I spent some time alone in a darkened room watching a topless man digitally scanning his torso in various contorted positions, and then digitally cropping and projecting close-up images of his skin, body-hair and blemishes on the wall, while a luminous message projected onto his back proclaimed:

Dreams that feel like nightmares when I wake
This body has been an inverted shell
Skin inside, tight against the heart
And miles away from a touch 

In other words, there was a surfeit of self: self-absorption, self-exposure, self-dramatization, self-recording, self-entrapment, and what I felt was a generalized and symptomatic confusion between art and life. Perhaps that’s the point of ‘live art’ – as opposed to all that presumably ‘dead art’ out there that works and deals with something other than the artists themselves as subject and medium. Nevertheless I couldn’t help feeling that the ‘self’ here being endlessly exposed and recorded was a fundamentally narcissistic and ultimately empty one. Certainly it was a far cry from the self-portraits of Dürer or Rembrandt, or even the monologues of William Yang, which in their different ways present the self as an objective subject or even a mirror held up to the world, rather than a subjective object or narcissistic ego endlessly reflecting back on itself in imaginary frustration.

My personal favourites in fact were two works that didn’t seem quite so hermetically sealed in the physical and psychical skin of the isolated individual. The first, Blood on the Streets, was a late-night off-site performance-lecture in a barber’s shop in Partick about the history of bloodletting as a medical practice. It was jointly delivered by a cheerful and winsome young artist (Jamie Lewis Hadley) and his equally cheerful and winsome young GP-assistant (Belinda McFenty), who then proceeded (after some nerve-wracking minutes of difficulty finding the right vein) to drain him of a bag of blood, while he sat in the barber’s chair smiling and talking with his eyes averted to avoid fainting. Here it was something about the juxtaposition of setting and subject-matter in conjunction with the artist’s body, reflective discourse and implicit consciousness-of-self as a social construct (there was no explicit mention of HIV, but Hadley has spoken in interviews about the fact that as a gay man he’s not allowed to donate blood) which transcended the limits of narcissism and gave the work real content. On a visceral level, it was also genuinely confronting; in fact almost impossible to watch – and at the same time impossible not to watch, with my eyes only partially averted.

The second and for me outstanding work was 4D Cinema by London-based Japanese artist Mamoru Iriguchi. Mamoru is a disarmingly modest and even clumsy stage performer, and the first half of this show was a charmingly gentle DIY multimedia drag-act, in which he ‘channelled’ Marlene Dietrich by putting on high-heeled shoes and a huge home-made box-screen over his head, on which black and white footage and photos of Dietrich, her world and her films were projected, while Mamoru’s own face remained visible through a hole in the centre of the box. This pantomime was accompanied by a hilariously deadpan account of ‘her’ life, in which biographical and thematic elements – Berlin, Hollywood, cinema, cabaret, World War II, performing for the troops, the live shows in Vegas, touring, addiction, falling off the stage, the apartment in Paris – seemed familiar yet strangely inverted, so that she was born in Paris, had her stage career before her film career, and died in Berlin. The formal and indeed ontological ‘reveal’ came in the second half of the show, when Mamoru replayed live video and audio footage of the first half of the show backwards (including the sound of his own voice, and – even more disturbingly – our own laughter), with live performance and video components now re-integrated within a single frame, complete with subtitles retelling the story of Marlene’s life, but this time ‘correctly’ in reverse. The effect was at once one of logical and psychological reparation (at last everything made sense) and profound loss (as her history became that of the last century, including the rupture between live performance and film, the real and the virtual, presence and absence, life and death, all tellingly demarcated by the catastrophe of World War Two. The result was an unexpectedly profound meditation on the paradoxes of time in the context of performance and its recording. It was also the most sophisticated use of multimedia I can remember seeing onstage. ‘Live art’ indeed!

3. Sharmanka Kinetic Theatre

By Friday, however, I’d seen enough live art (especially of the confessional kind) to last me a lifetime. I decided to wag the afternoon and head into central Glasgow to see the city’s best-kept theatrical secret and arguably most exotic hybrid art-form: the Russian ‘kinetic theatre’ housed in the Trongate 103 Art Centre that goes under the name of Sharmanka. It's Russian slang for ‘barrel organ’, and the joint work of Russian sculptor Eduard Bersudsky, director Tatyana Jakovskya and her son Sergey Jakovsky, who designs the lighting and sound.

How to do justice to this unique and extraordinary body of work? In brief, Bersudsky began making mechanical sculptures of carved and painted wood, scrap metal, discarded wheels, cogs, levers, pulleys and improvised electrical circuits during the Kruschev ‘thaw’ of the 50s and 60s in the former Soviet Union. The wooden figures themselves owe something to the German Expressionist sculptor Barlach, and before him the tradition of folk and religious (especially Gothic and Romanesque) sculpture, with its angels and devils, saints and sinners, sacred animals and imaginary beasts. Bersudsky’s work however consists of ensembles featuring multiple figures derived from literature, folklore, history, politics and his own wild imagination; and instead of being religious (at least in any traditional sense), their spirit is one of rebellious and profane fantasy, with that peculiarly Russian and perhaps also Eastern and Central European Jewish flavour I associate with Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Kafka and Bulgakov (especially the latter’s great novel The Master and Margarita, which is the explicit subject of one of the sculptures).

The works are displayed around the walls of a large room upstairs at Trongate, and include some earlier kinetic sculptures made in the Soviet Union under difficult and sometimes clandestine conditons together with more recent works made since Eduard and Tatyana emigrated to Scotland in the 90s. At designated performance times each day – I was the sole audience-member on that Friday afternoon, which made the experience even more bizarre – the lights go out and then one by one the ‘kinemats’ (as they’re also called) are illuminated and begin to move, each accompanied by its own carefully chosen musical soundtrack. It’s a deeply moving, darkly humorous and at times disturbingly macabre procession of human folly, hope, depravity and yearning, and when it ended fifty mintutes later I was spellbound. Like Goya, Bersudsky is an artist whose vision embraces even the most appalling atrocities and preposterous extremes of his era and his species, and yet seems to say: this is what we are, this is what we are capable of, so laugh at us, and weep for us, because you, too, are one of us, a mannequin of desire, endlessly animated by the cogs and wheels of biology and history. 


Early the following day, I was on the train again, being borne away by another set of mechanical cogs and wheels: leaving Glasgow and heading further north to Inverness (via Perth, as it happens), where I’d be connecting with a smaller train through the Highlands to Thurso, before finally catching the ferry to Orkney. There I’d be spending the next five weeks on a much bigger and more inner adventure: doing a series of workshops on voice, movement and Shakespeare with the formidable Kristin Linklater.

But that’s a subject for another Postcard.


Postcards from Orkney, Brussels, Amsterdam and Berlin will be posted over the next few weeks.