November 25, 2015

Human Madness. "The Sunflower House" by Dan Thy Nguyen and Irakiis Panaglotopoulos at the Queer Art Audio Festival, Berlin

Dan Thy Nguyen discussing his The Sunflower House.

There's only one thing I could complain about at Echos + Netze - Das Trans’tonale Hörfest, a queer art audio festival in Künstlerhaus Bethanien / Kreuzberg. They shouldn't have taken real grass for the visitors to sit upon. What about good old fake plastic? I was so deep into listening that I didn't notice my behind getting wet. Overall, however, the atmosphere was cosy at the trans-tonal festival, with comfortable chairs to lounge in, platforms to stretch out upon, and even a nice piece of chocolate cake, and a hot cup of tea or coffee. A perfect way to hear audio plays. Wolfgang Müller had invited me over. He was showing his Séance, which he created for our 2012 exhibition Gesture Sign art. Deaf Culture / Hearing Culture. Séance is a rather unusual play in the audio play genre: there's no sound but instead a visual gestural performance, one that is performed by Simone Lönne in DGS (German Sign Language). It talks about the passenger pigeon, once the most abundant bird in North America (or even in the world), which was hunted to extinction at the beginning of the 20th century. The last species died in the Cincinnati zoo on September 1, 1914. In the video Lönne gestures the passenger pigeon in its many variations and rhythms. To me, on this particular Sunday, it looked like a philosophic treatise on humankind: "Wandern: durchziehen, migrieren, bewegen, den Wohnort wechseln, gehen."


Séance at Echos + Netze. Photo: Wolfgang Müller

I had arrived late and found Wolfgang Müller together with a bunch of people in the act of listening in highest concentration. Das Sonnenblumenhaus (The Sunflower House) by Dan Thy Nguyen and Irakiis Panaglotopoulos was nearing its end. A talk with Nguyen followed and it took me a while to get what was being talked about. A pogrom in Rostock-Lichtenhagen, 1992. I do automatically associate Rostock with neo-nazis, but had never thought about how this image came about. Rostock-Lichtenhagen is a discursive weapon for leftists, Nguyen explained, but one with very little content. Later, on Wikipedia, I read that this 1992 riot is considered to be the worst mob attack against migrants in post-war Germany. Right-wing extremists attacked a refugee shelter and a residential home of Vietnamese contract workers while about 3000 onlookers were standing by and applauding. What Wikipedia didn't say is that the police did next to nothing and even withdrew during the mob attack, letting the extremists throw their Molotov cocktails and burn the house. Nobody was killed in the end, one of the reasons why this pogrom has been largely ignored. 

Nguyen himself came upon the topic in 2012 by googling on “human madness”. It didn’t take long for Rostock-Lichtenhagen to show up. This is how Nguyen set out to tell the story of the Vietnamese contract workers, and both the audio play and theatre piece Das Sonnenblumenhaus are based on interviews with time witnesses. Finding those, so he told us, was not an easy job - many of them are deported, or they mistrust media, or fear that exposure might lead to being attacked once more. Getting funding as such was troublesome for Nguyen - his project being considered to be a “multi-cultural” project, and not a “high culture” one. In a perverse way, he admitted, the year 2015 had brought his play to a broader attention, Pegida and new riots being a “lucky” coincidence for Das Sonnenblumenhaus. In 2015, Nguyen has been getting requests at least every two weeks. Yet, even now it seems to be impossible for the theatre piece to be performed in the theatre itself. "What happens in German theatre," Nguyen says, "is still very much, at least on the decision level, a playground of white, heterosexual men." Museums are more interested in the work, and so are schools.


Das Sonnenblumenhaus' strength is, however, not just based on “borrowed importance”. After Nguyen's talk I got the chance to listen to the full audio play. Das Sonnenblumenhaus doesn't start and end in 1992 but traces the pogrom back to a long pre-history in the GDR and forth to the long-lasting consequences. Doing so, a few myths get destroyed: the idea that anti-fa's can't be racist, the assumption that the white left helped the migrants out (in the story they rather disappoint by getting drunk) or that 1992 was only a one-time catastrophe. The pogrom has been systematically relativised, Nguyen told us. The fact, for instance, that the refugee shelter housed 1500 refugees instead of the allowed number of 300, has been labeled as "mismanagement" in the papers. 


Das Sonnenblumenhaus knows also how to transform its material into a good artistic form. The voices in the audio play are not those of the interviewed time-witnesses. Nor do the actors mimic an accent. Yet, the team of actors studied intensively the intonation, the slight pauses, and the little smirks, discussing the reasons for those and the way to include them in the play. In the play itself there is even a moment when the actors reveal themselves as being actors playing the vietnamese contract workers. "It seems to be an art work that acts as if it is a feature," so Wolfgang Müller noticed, "and a feature that acts as if it is an art work." Nguyen himself has high hopes for Das Sonnenblumenhaus, wishing it may "inspire reflection so that we're not imprisoned in a history of forgetting that keeps repeating itself." 


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