Angie Hiesl and her Performance Installations

This article was first published in ESSE Art Magazine, Montreal/Canada (french translation).

Working as an intermedial artist is a state of mind. Because it makes it more difficult for the art world to understand, to categorize, to consume your work. Thus, working this way is always an attitude towards the art world, which has made up strict disciplines and branches in which the single artist can arrive easier.

But this is only the surface, because an authentic intermedial method today means not only to use different media (sculpture, drawings, texts, photographs ecc.) and to put them together in one installation, no, contemporary intermedial art happens between the classical disciplines, so that you really can’t say to which it might belong, maybe not even which categories constitute this new work without name.

One of the most important German intermedial artists in this sense is Angie Hiesl, born in 1954 in Southern Germany, now living in Cologne. The branches that she serves (or better that she works in between) are dance, theatre, performance and visual arts. Actually it is none of this, but it has to do with all these issues. For example her latest piece ”TWINS - how do I know I am me …” (2001) in cooporation with Roland Kaiser: it is a profound meditation about the strange phenomenon of nature to create two apparently identic (human) beings. Angie Hiesl looked for about 12 twins of all ages who participated in the production. It took place during a theatre festival in Cologne, so in this case the audience came from the theatre world, no links to the art scene. The setting was the interior of a Rhine bridge, full of building materials, but there were also some pre-installed fields of action.

First there is a curtain of water, the people can’t enter the scene, but behind this liquid wall a first couple of twins appears and does something, nothing special, walking around, sitting, moving things.

After 10 minutes, when the audience’s irritation rises, the water curtain dissappears suddenly, one can get into the big space where several twin performers are acting now. Those are normal people, two musicians, two dancers, but most of them have no professional relationship to arts.
Angie Hiesl developped this piece together with them, she had a ”master plan”, but it was important for her to work it out with them. They could bring in their ideas and they were not forced to do everything what Angie would have liked them to do.

So what happens? The musicians, two guys round 45, are pushing a piano through the hall and are playing cards. Others sit on chairs which are fixed on the wall three meters high - a reminiscence to an older Hiesl-piece. Two girls put off their clothes and a diapositive is projected on their skin, showing twins from a concentration camp, almost starved, a rather horrifying scene that refers to the barbaric ”twin researches” of the National Socialists, especially Joseph Mengele. Two old sisters, typical for the Carnival-loving city of Cologne, are dancing valses all the time, singing, simply having fun.
The next couple straightens up, two others are standing in a little pool of water, knotting their hair together, undressing their bodies, producing suggestive, ballet-like pictures in the room.

Here you feel evidently that all the actions that you see, have not only an artistic meaning, but that they also reveal the individual relationship of these twin dualities as well. You feel that you are witness of a hidden communication of these strongly connected brothers and sisters. It is interesting by the way that there are no mixed couples, only male or female twins (because they were all uniovular twins).

The piece is running for more than one hour, the whole place is the stage, space theatre. The audience is allowed to walk around everywhere on its own decision, it is free to chose those actions which they want to watch, free to chose special perspectives or point of views to perceive special reflections, to create individual pictures. Besides, the spectators are certainly part of the show, they are supernumeraries (whether they want or not) who complete the construction.

And again the question, what we have seen: it is not a real performance, because Angie Hiesl does not act on stage herself, but only made the director. It is no theatre as well because there is no stage situation - and what the ”actors” are doing seems to be much more performance (=being themselves) than acting, playing a role, nobody talks, there is no artistic dance.
Hiesl is calling her work herself: ”Performance Installation”, probably this is a very precise description of what she does. The performative part is important, but the dominant one is installation, is meaning and impact of the rooms where these works take place. And if there’s any constant factor in Hiesl’s work, then this, that it always happens at very impressive or very strange places. She says herself: ”For me, it was always a room what gave the limits. There were influences from different sides, but it was always the space, which gave them a target.” Her main interest lies in arranging material for a special, to set material and content into a relationship. Moreon, she treats these spaces like material as well, like ”objets trouvées”, she intervents with her dramaturgy. And she alienates the found situation by using images and actions, which come from other contexts: montage as a formal principle, that arises the surrealistic atmosphere of a dream.

That’s why Angie Hiesl is coming along in the performance context, although she has a theatrical background (she had contacts to the Living Theatre and Lee Strasberg, to Jerzy Grotowski and his body theatre). But nevertheless, she was not interested in playing figures, in slipping into caracters, she stays herself. If she works with other performers, like in the ”TWINS”-piece, they should stay and behave as they are and as they always do, too. This guarantees a strong link to reality and therefore a Hiesl-piece also creates an extended communication context.

The production which made the first big success in her career, was called ”The rose is red and ecc.” It was a collaboration with some free-jazz-musicians and took part in an old ”Jugendstil”-bath in Cologne. Hiesl and the musicians were acting, entirely dressed, in and under the water. They were on chairs and tables on the ground, moving, swimming, floating, creating poetic pictures. That seems sometimes surrealistic, but because of the common objects and situations it refers back to everyday life.

Water as a material and a metaphor has a central meaning in Hiesl’s work: in ”Farewell and arrival” (1989) she swims in a plexiglas container in the central station, all the daily travelers are her audience. The content of the piece is being under water: how does it change the optics, how the dancing movements? What are the limits, how long can you stay below and perform without breathing? Water is elementary, Thales of Milet said: ”The principle of all things is water. All comes from the water and all goes back to it.” It means birth, being in/under water reminds us of our first (unknown) experiences. But it simply changes the normal perception, too: by light refraction and reflection all things seem different, what we see, is unclear and doubtful. I think, this might be the interesting aspect for Angie Hiesl.

In ”Rhine... Rhine... Rhine... Red” (1990), a large-scaled production for singers, musicians, performers, a lot of different actions take place: people are suspended from the huge bridge or they are climbing on the wall or they cross the river floating, put on scene with a big light show - a little bit like a Bob-Wilson-piece in the urban reality.

In ”Kachelhaut/ Tile Skin", realized in different German towns (Essen, Dortmund, Munich, Cologne) she relativizes the functionality of urban situations: a pedestrian underpass, an industrial washing room or a subway station, putting big parts of them completely under water, combined with a natural lawn. The ugly tiles, together with the neon light, create an entirely new (installation) context - they show their skin (how the title of the piece says explicitely). A magic alienation effect for the people who are going to or coming from work with the subway, especially when, for three hours a day, Hiesl and her collaborators, mostly the performer Roland Kaiser and the trumpet-player and performer Gerno Bogumil, are performing, hanging down from the ceiling, moving, playing music.

The idea of ”floating” - next to ”water” - is Hiesl’s other big issue, heigth vs. depth. Her most prominent work, realized several times in different French and Brazilian festivals, in Fribourg/Switzerland, Amsterdam and many German towns (coming soon in Gent/ Belgium and in Bogotà/Columbia) is ”X-times Man Chair”. The idea is very simple: normal people, about 10 - 20 women and men between 63 and 87 (sometimes younger), are sitting on chairs at house walls high above the urban traffic. They show private proceedings (eating, reading, cleaning their shoes ecc.), whatever they want. A strong picture, that causes a little shift of the normal perception, because everyday life goes on, this piece is not an obvious part of the art context, it is an artistic implantation in city’s life. The human body becomes an installation object and material, but he can become subject during the performance, because everybody is free in his expressions.

Again it is a montage principle generating the alienation effect: the chairs are not in the houses (with people sitting on them), but outside. This, which is normally hidden, is exposed now, privacy is public. This is almost a propagandistic thought, which probably produces the tension of the piece.
Hiesl is often working with ideas of reflection, symmetries - in the ”TWIN”-piece there was used a wall between those two (apparently identic) persons - as a fictious symmetrical axis in order to mirror this couple. Here, the wall of the house has the same function, it mirrors its (potential) interior.
The height in which the participants are placed corresponds to the unconventional impact of this exhibition case, it makes it obvious and stresses it. But it is not an exhibition per se, it keeps the balance between authenticity and ”mise en scène”. It is not an aim anymore to abolish the difference between art and everyday life, as the historical avantgarde intended to do, but to produce friction surfaces that don’t deny the distance between both.
The communicative aspect of ”X-times Man Chair” was minimalized in the following part of this series: ”1... 1... 1... 1... Man Chair”, that was realized in the Art Museum Bonn in 1996. White chairs were fixed at white walls, during the performance times these seats were occupied by actors who executed a strict choreography of sounds and body movements. So this piece gained a more theatrical nimbus again, it seemed like a ”tableau vivant” or a living installation, which is quite neutral according to the neutrality of the white museum cube.

Among all these unusual productions there is one which is still off the beaten track: ”Optional Exercise - André Breton meets a balance beam and...” The title refers to the famous Lautréamont sentence about the encounter of an umbrella and a sewing-machine which was seen not only by Breton as the first definition of artistic montage.

In this piece Hiesl combines two disciplines which are strictly seperated, art and sports. Many artists despise the world of sports as inferior, only a few have treated it in their works, which is curious, because sports become more and more important in the capitalistic world. As a big image market, as big business as well, it should interest artists who want to throw a critical view on the society’s developments.

Besides this, there are also parallels between arts and sports, the latter realizes a certain esthetics, too (and not only in gymnastics or ice skating). It exists a general esthetics of successful acting in sports, if a human body optimizes movements and conditions so much, that the most effective performance is possible, such an acting (for example of a basketball or soccer player) is experienced from the fans as ”beautiful”, too. By the way, it might not be by accident that the English word ”performance” is used for the art displine as well as for sports.

So Angie Hiesl did not only illustrate or reveal aspects of the sport world, but she realized a true encounter between art and sports, an encounter of their proper esthetics - and a physical collaboration between artist and sportsmen. The piece took place in a gym and next to Hiesl, some musicians and performers two gymnasts (national champions) participated. Gymnastic activities and acrobatics were confronted with dance, classical singing and live art, there is one picture that shows the gymnast on the balance beam and Angie under it, producing the same figure, reflection again: now the balance beam is the symmetrical axis.

We find two different results of this description, first of all: Hiesl’s interdisciplinary work is really hard to categorize, it has a hybrid structure, sometimes it is more on the visual art side, sometimes on the theatre or performance side. The term that Hiesl found for it, performance-installation, documentates the ambivalent caracter quite well. It allows her to switch from one field to another never forgetting the experiences she made in the last one. Thus, these intermedial artefacts (intermedialities) create their own cosmos, a network of forms, pictures and symbols. Therefore Hiesl’s works are strongly connected with each other how different they might be, if you only regard the surface.

And this is the second result: although it is difficult to name these activities, there are also some continuities: under the formal perspective it is the principle of montage, which was the main discovery of historical avantgarde and probably their most important instrument to create intermedial artworks.
It is the principle of reflection, that puts surrealistic and everyday world into a floating ambivalence. And it is a formal practise as well, that abolishes the distance between performers and spectators.
In substance we found recurrent elements like ”water” and ”suspending”/”floating”.

Using these principles, those of form and those of content, in different contexts, interweaving and connecting them in different ways, creates a multitude of artistic possibilities between the conventional branches.
Maybe this is only true for Angie Hiesl’s work. But maybe one could find similar net structures in the works (intermedialities) of other interdisciplinary artists, too.

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