Stories of the New Old World
I want to talk, just for ten minutes or so, about the presence of myth in Ulla von Brandenburg’s work, specifically about how she uses it in the film Chorspiel, which seems to me to be a very significant piece. But by focussing on the work’s relationship to myth, I want to say at the outset that I’m not under the illusion that this is solely what her work is about. I suppose I’m more using it as a starting point from which we can broaden the discussion, because I’m very interested to hear what other people made of the show.
So I want to start by saying that when I look at von Brandenburg’s work, when I watch Chorspiel or when I look at the objects upstairs, or when I see the shadow of the orange Theatre on the wall out there, I feel that there is a resonance to the work. The works remind me of something or some things that I have seen before. They seem to echo something that I know already. At points there is even, I’d suggest, a kind of ‘uncanniness’ that stems from that. The works are resonant. And so we can ask
‘what are they resonating against?’
‘What is it within us that is vibrating in order to produce that feeling of resonance?’
And we can answer that the sounding board that amplifies these images is related to the images and structures of myth. Of those stories that we contain within ourselves, of which we have heard so many echoes that we can recognise their shapes or outlines even when we can’t fill in their details.
And I think it’s worth just picking out a couple of examples of those moments in the Chorspiel film, partly to make it clear what it is I’m talking about, but also to spell out, I think, that it’s not any one single of these images in particular that TELLS the viewer that this is what the work is ‘about’.
Rather I think that the combined effect of all of these moments – and many others – is to give us this sense of the work’s relationship to a far greater set of stories and images. These moments are what suggests to us as viewers that we are in the presence of a mythic space; where what is happening on the screen has a relationship to far older, archetypal images.
So what are those moments: ok, to give a couple of quick examples:
OK, so throughout the film we have the knot, which from memory both the young woman and the middle aged woman pick and pluck at. And this knotted bundle reminds me of the Gordian knot, and the knots which recur in fairytales that the protagonist must tie or untie, to release them from some entrapment or servitude. And because of the way that it is laced, and it’s relationship to the female characters in the film, it also makes me think of weaving and binding, an activity that occurs in thousands of stories from Penelope weaving and unravelling a never ending tapestry as she waits for the return of Odysseus, to Rumpelstilskin weaving gold out of straw;
The young woman wears a large and obvious ring, which is often foregrounded by the camera and it pans around, and which is also an image that recurs in almost more stories that we can begin to list;
We have the frame of the forest that defines the edges of the theatrical stage on which the characters interact, but which is incredibly evocative especially from Northern European as well as classical mythology and folktale;
We have a box, carried by The Wanderer, which may have a relationship to Pandora’s famous box, but which also made me think of Bluebeard’s casket, or the box that Osiris is tricked into climbing into in Egyptian mythology, or the box or bag in which Death is trapped, in Russian folklore.
As the film opens we see the Elderly Woman reclining on her sofa in a pose that reminds us of sleeping beauty, but also as Moira Jeffrey mentioned in her recent article for the Scotsman, when we see the Elderly Woman’s hood we might also think of a personification of Death.
We also have the Wanderer; the lone individual whose past may be undisclosed, who appears as a catalyst for change, awakening, or realisation in the mythic story.
There are obviously loads more examples, from the text as well as in the imagery of the film, but I want to focus on just one more because it seems to me to be important.
And that’s that I think we have to recognise that the division between self and voice is a very common, and a very powerful mythic motif. The voice itself, and the voice in relation to song, is very important part of the mythic vocabulary.
In many mythic stories we have individuals speaking or singing with disguised voices. We see individuals who lose their voice, or who throw their voice, or who speak after death or who speak or sing from heads that have been severed. We also see individuals who speak or sing through the mouths of others.
This clearly I think has a relationship to the way that von Brandenburg uses displaced or mimed voices in her work. In terms of mythic sensibility or langauge, the voice is an incredibly powerful symbol that is often used to speak about identity – particularly complex, divided, or problematised identities.
When a voice ‘comes apart’ from its owner in the way that von Brandenburg shows us, I think that as well as a formal relationship to ideas of theatre and of the Greek chorus, we are also invited to think about images of ventriloquism, especially when we remember that often in myth, the presence of song or singing is a way to indicate truth, or inevitability within the story.
So we have lots of examples of images that resonate with a larger and perhaps infinitely long history of storytelling. But what immediately becomes clear is that von Brandenburg does not give us a single linear narrative that joins them all up. We are not being retold an existing myth, however much we may feel that we recognise, or half recognise, some of the images that she suggests. We’re not expected to decode those images and come up with an autonomous or underlying narrative.
Instead, what happens is that we are left with a strong sense of timelessness, and also of archetype.
Von Brandenburg says some very interesting things about this in an interview that she gave here actually. She’s talking about the title of the exhibition, which is of course Neue Alte Welt (New Old World); and she says that
'in the end it’s just ‘World’, because new and old together is like yes and no, plus and minus: there’s zero.”
She says: “It’s new but at the same time I can’t invent, I think, really something completely new because everything in the same time is also old. I think all the stories that we are told today, they always refer to somehow an original and archetypal story.
So that means that there’s nothing new.'
And this is really important I think, as a way to understand what von Brandenburg is doing with her work. I feel that she’s drawing a very powerful parallel between the processes of art-making, and the processes of myth-making. That in both cases, each time we make something new, each time we tell a new story, we are also telling a story that is older then we can ever know. When we make art, when we create something that has never existed before in the world, we are also part of a pattern of behaviour that reaches back into prehistory – it is an ancient and infinitely repeated thing. And I think that this is where the new / old thing comes from. The new voice and the old soul. Or the old voice and the new vocabulary. Or something like that.
It returns us as well to the idea of the archetype, and it reminds us that the figures and the images that von Brandenburg shows us are in a sense indivisible from the archetypes that resonate behind them. We cannot see this young man in his tweedy jacket and his mournful expression without him also being The Wanderer, who is not an individual at all, but a history of all Wanderers in all stories.
And in all of this, I think I’ve tried to talk about this quality of the Universal that I think myth has the capacity to give us – to shift us away from specific references into a language of echoes and archetypal resonances. But of course there is another history of myth’s presence in contemporary culture, which comes from this same root, but which is slightly differently positioned. And that is the history of psychoanalysis, which is interesting because it blends the universal, the archetypal; with the intensely personal and intimate realm of our own thoughts, our own subconscious. And it was in relation to this that I was really interested to hear von Brandenburg talk again in this interview about how she wrote the text for the song that appears in Chorspiel. She says.
'I wrote the text as automatic writing. I wrote it at once and I don’t think really a lot. It would be different if I would write it the next day, for example.
The situation and the time where you write it, that counts, and that’s the influence for the work, also.'
This is very significant I think, and for me it takes the work beyond being a ‘comment on’ myth, or a deconstruction of mythic imagery. By working in this automatic, intuitive way, I feel that von Brandenburg is able to tap into this resonance and make something new out of these ancient relationships. She’s able to release them in order to reach something fresher, but also more personal, and more intimate, and more complex.
In this way it does make me think a lot about psychoanalytic ideas of free association, and also perhaps significantly about Freud’s writing on dreamwork. One phrase Freud uses when he’s talking about he process of recounting dreams, comes back to me, and it feels as though it might be quite a useful phrase to think about as we try to reconcile the elements of von Brandenburg’s practice. Talking about the difficulty of understanding a dream in which different elements, emotions, or characters seem perhaps to contradict one another, or to be perhaps difficult to make clear sense of, in his 1920 book Dream Psychology, Freud writes that
‘The dream never utters the alternative “either/or” but accepts both as having equal rights in the same connection. When either/or is used in the reproduction of dreams, it is […] to be replaced by “and”’
- meaning that when a dream scenario presents us with several options, we do not have to between either one or other of them as being incorrect: we can accept the simultaneous presence of both, or all possibilities presented.
I think that that is a useful note on which to end this portion of my contribution, and to offer the space to all of us to continue to find more ands in the work, and not to be constrained by a precondition of either/or in the range of possibilities that von Brandenburg’s work presents.