What if the contemporary equivalent of the opera house is the night club? This is the question posed by a major new exhibition at the Bâtiment d’art contemporain in Geneva. Produced in association with the city’s Electron festival of electronic music (itself already a broad platform, featuring acts ranging from Ms. Dynamite to Eliane Radigue), the exhibition ties some of the various threads linking the opera with other media, from cabaret, television, video, modernism, to electronic music itself. Curator Denis Pernet was inspired by the profusion of contemporary gallery work which seemed to be taking inspiration from the baroque era over the last few years to bring these young artists together with avant-gardists working in and around the opera house in the latter half of the last century.
So, walking up the stairs to the main floor of the exhibition space, we find alongside each other, German photographer Candida Höfer’s vast (some two or three square metres), glossy interior shots of La Scala and Lisbon’s Teatre Nacional de São Carlos, interspersed with Robert Wilson’s sketches (of roughly equal size) for Cuban composer Tania Léon’s opera, The Scourge of Hyacinths. Despite their similarly monumental sizes, the contrast could scarcely be greater: against the charcoal drabness of Wilson’s modernist monochromes, the gleaming lights and rich colours of Höfer’s images remind us that these theatres were built for a time when the house lights were kept up and a night out there was almost less about seeing than being seen.
A like juxtaposition is contained within a performance by Christodoulos Panayiotou. In 2009, Panayiotou invited an audience to one of Europe’s oldest opera houses, Bayreuth’s early eighteenth century Markgräfliches Opernhaus, only to leave them waiting, for an hour, before an empty stage and the black backdrop familiar from modern minimalist theatre. Panayiotou staged thus not just the highly elaborate interior architecture of Giuseppe Galli Bibiena but simultaneously the quasi-Beckettian absence that has been one of the pre-occupations of work by this Cypriot-born artist for several years now. Entitled The End, the performance’s own absence is here marked by an installation consisting of the flyer for the original event and the black curtain itself, folded upon the gallery floor.
Giuseppe Galli Bibiena’s uncle, Francesco Bibiena, another famous architect of opera houses, is referenced in an ink drawing “in the style of” by Pablo Bronstein. Bronstein also exhibits a short film Walker which sees a classically trained dancer executing the gestures of Italian Renaissance sprezzatura which have codified the movement of women’s bodies in opera and ballet alike. Soundtracked by an aria by Purcell, the high dignity of the performance is somewhat undercut by the dancer’s dress, resembling somewhat that of an 80s footballer’s wife, and the work’s sharing gallery space with Donatella Bernardi’s Pole, such that from a certain angle Bronstein’s ‘walker’ seems to be dancing around Bernardi’s ‘pole’.
Such duplicity of meaning, however, is germane to the very idea of sprezzatura. As originally defined by Castiglione, in his Book of the Courtier, the term referred to a certain aloofness or ironic distance, a mask to be inserted between the self and the world. So it perhaps all the more appropriate that alongside Pole and Walker, we find Robert Ashley’s TV opera, Perfect Lives, with its arch traversal of supermarket, bank, backyard and bar. Ashley’s seminal work is one of several works for TV exhibited on small video monitors across the space of the gallery, alongside Peter Sellars’s stagings of Brecht and Weill’s last collaboration, The Seven Deadly Sins, as well as his controversial 1990 transposition of Handel’s Giulio Cesare to the Persian gulf.
The baroque opera house, the exhibition programme reminds us, was once a place of nocturnal pleasures; of game playing, flirting, posing, and people watching – every bit as much as the 80s club scene explored in the films of Nelson Sullivan (also exhibited here). It was a place whose regime of visibility brought far more to the light than just the latest prima donna. So if music has always been peculiarly resistant to the gallery, here the opera proves – almost paradoxically – perfectly suited.
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