Shortly before Christmas in 1967, the poet Paul Celan travelled to Berlin to read at the city’s Academy of the Arts. A friend loaned him a book about the 1919 murder of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in which Celan read a court testimony that described the violent way in which ‘Liebknecht was shot full of holes like a sieve’. On 20 December, Celan walked down Berlin’s Budapester Straße and noted the cruel irreverence with which the house where Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered had been renovated as a luxury hotel called the Eden. Celan’s trip resulted in a poem I cherish that uses the language of violence to redeem the violence of language: it rhymes Eden (Eden) with Jeden (everyone) and tells of ‘the man’ that ‘became a sieve’.
For Dara Friedman’s ‘Dichter’ (Poets, 2017), the artist issued an open call to performers asking them to recite a poem that they find meaningful. Having selected 16 individuals, the German-born, Miami-based artist then filmed them, one by one, against a pink backdrop, as they sought to embody rather than recite their poems, an adaption of the innovative Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski’s technique of speaking through the entire body. Friedman presented the resulting 16mm films as a multi-part installation: voices shouting, simultaneously, at times incomprehensibly, in German, or lulling us sweetly with words alone. Some faces sprout up from different corners of the room; others are stacked in multiple windows within a single screen. If it sounds like the cacophony we often experience these days as part of our socially-mediated lives, in which a plurality of voices and faces flicker from one to the next, then consider how deftly Friedman has mobilized the alienation and earnestness of poetry to capture this.
Some performers chose familiar poems from the likes of Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Rainer Maria Rilke. Others opted for dramatic monologues with a highly sentimental first-person narrative, their performances coming close to the self-expression in the verse. One poem, well-known in Germany but unfamiliar abroad, attributed here to Christian Morgenstern, is titled ‘Dunkel war’s, der Mond schien helle’ (It was dark, the moon shone brightly, 1898). The Jabberwocky-like poem contains a series of paradoxes, such as ‘sitting people standing in a room’.
Poetry is a paradoxical art: it attempts to resuscitate language and thus redeem experience in a manner that is at once personal and shared. It resonates today due to our difficulty to parse individual expression from collective solipsism. How do we, like Celan, distinguish the violence done to and by language – the decline of speech and its rejuvenation? Such questions are central to Friedman’s piece, which constitutes a paradoxical moment of collective self-expression.
Friedman’s usage of poetry, German literary history, self-expression and preciousness, is not always legible. There are some holes in the presentation – the decision to use mostly German-language poetry, for instance, limits accessibility. Yet ‘Dichter’ is legitimated due to the way it captures today’s synthesis of signal and noise, poetry and detritus, volubility and distance, individualism and history. We struggle to parse what is valuable from what is not. (In another room stands a vitrine filled with 16 unique rings made by Friedman, which seem to represent the talismanic aspects of poems.) On one screen, we see a performer reciting a poem entitled ‘I Love You So’ (1928), by the German artist and writer Joachim Ringelnatz, who showed artworks at the Academy of the Arts before his practice was denounced as degenerate by the Nazis. The poem ends with a sweet antinomy: ‘The main thing about a sieve / is its holes. / I love you so’.
Main image: Dara Friedman, Dichter, 2017, four-channel video projection,16mm film transferred to HD video. Courtesy: the artist and Supportico Lopez, Berlin