South African artist Brett Bailey stirred ghosts of Germany’s colonial past with Exhibit B, recently presented at Berlin’s Foreign Affairs festival. An “installation with human exhibits” in which African people, like so many mannequins in ethnological museums, or “savages” in 19th-century human zoos, stand frozen in moments just after colonial massacres, concentration camps, and, eventually, refugee processing, was widely written about in the media. Spears or passports in hand, an image of mistreatment, staring back at the spectators. Underneath, the list of materials: chair, clothing, paper or “Africans, spectators.” By all accounts a deeply affecting work; however, I am writing about another one. As a part of his ongoing project of confronting the “civilised” European art audience with its own (neo-)colonial crimes, Bailey also presented a nakedly racialised staging of Oscar van Woensel’s MedEia.
MedEia originated as a devised text, first performed in 1998 by Van Woensel, Manja Topper and Kuno Bakker (the two sometimes credited as co-authors), who form the Dutch performance group Dood Paard. The text is a violent translation of the myth into Euro-English, the simplified and cliche-laden English of the non-native speakers- the lingua franca of Eurovision, of Euronews, of Belgian performance or German dance. A language woven out of big thoughts simplified into commonplace pop parlance; long nouns and simple syntax; a part of what Rule and Levine have analysed as the International Art English. Medea’s story is told entirely by the chorus, which occasionally takes on Jason or Medea’s voice, and mourns throughout its powerlessness to intervene into the story they can only narrate. It weaves together song lyrics (over 80 artists are thanked in the postscript), catchphrases, and inanities. It gets ugly. Guess the words with which Medea renounces Jason? “So turn around now/ You’re not welcome anymore.” Enough said.
The enormous familiarity of this banal text, however, gives it great resonance with any but the most uninformed viewer, and echoes the simplicity and matter – of – factness with which Greek myths deal with extreme violence. The effect of the brutalisation of language in MedEdia is, surprisingly, a sense of universal meaningfulness. As Umberto Eco noted (speaking of Casablanca): “When all the archetypes burst in shamelessly, we reach Homeric depths. Two cliches make us laugh. A hundredth cliche move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion. Just as the height of pain may encounter sensual pleasure, and the height of perversion border on mystical energy, so too the height of banality allows us to catch a glimpse of the sublime.“
While hardly a spectacle, Bailey’s MedEdia is positively flamboyant in comparison. Three Women – of – Colour mouth the chorus while swaying their hips soulfully to the live drumming by the excellent Frank Paco. Even the protagonists appear on stage: Creon and Medea as two very embodied black Africans, and a white-skin Jason in leather trousers, like some colonial rock singer. Apollo Ntshoko’s Creon is almost camp as he banishes Medea from Corinth, one step away from telling her to go, girl. The EU flag is waved. These tableaux of actors, this soul-sister chorus with gyrating hips, should repel with their crudeness.
But they don’t. Instead, they join the choir of cliches, paradoxically grounding the text closer to its intent (or one of them): the furious simplification of the world as communicated through the mass media. The overtly racial casting anchors the story to a contemporary reality: a black woman betrays her tribe and follows the white man, only to be received as a savage in a distant land, and discarded with little premeditation. To this story, as banal as universal, the chorus can only sigh, with the popsicle voices of MTV commentators reporting on a famine: “We are sad.” And they continue to swing to the metronomic beat of the drums, strait-jacketed into a rhythm that makes no allowance for spontaneous applause, as if this event needs to proceed orderly; as if this ritual of BS is our seasonal gift to the gods of compassion, part of our contemporary folklore. Which it might well be.
Bailey’s MedEia is a simpler piece than Dood Paard’s, less formally intellectual, and more openly emotional. Its politics are clear, its method user-friendly. But Oscar van Woensel’s text turns out to be surprisingly elastic – and this production is still firmly text -centred. I originally perceived the text as an exemplary artifact from a culture slowly receding into decadence: smart, educated, cynical, nakedly making fun of the second – hand language with which we build our poiesis, but in-jokey in that way of high culture, minimally interested in the real existing world. In Bailey’s hands, the play returns to the world, remembers to reference reality. And suddenly, the impoverished means of our meaning making is no longer a post-modern in-joke, but an ontological disaster.
Two things are revealed in this production. We not only telling ancient narratives in tabloid gossip, we also do not know how to release contemporary stories from the grip of ramshackle myths; from cliché. It is not only our interpretive ability that is harmed. The very protagonists of these stories, clutching their passports and communicating to the world in the English of soap-operas and pop music, retain their own stories in this banal form. The banality is internalised by both the interpretive order, and the individual experience. Brett Bailey’s MedEia communicates this surprisingly complex idea in a way that may be theatrically crass, but is philosophically at the very least moving.