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In his 1918 Dada manifesto, Tristan Tzara, one of the founding fathers of the movement, wrote: “It was necessary in the era of the [First] World War, to ask about the sense and utility and general use value of art, in a world that will shed blood tomorrow.” Dada artists accordingly worked from the premise that there was no sense in trying to make sense in a world gone mad. The movement, which took on various forms in multiple cities — including Paris, Berlin, Hannover, and New York — was ostensibly birthed in the Cabaret Voltaire in Zurich, which hosted raucous evenings of bizarre performances, a keystone of which were the readings of sound poems.
This year’s Performa Biennial in New York, which kicked off November 1, celebrates 101 years of Dada, and seeks to show (somewhat antithetically to the Dada project itself) “the essential role of art in society.” In a commissioned work for the South African Pavilion Without Walls, William Kentridge reimagines one Dada classic, the sound poem Ursonate by Kurt Schwitters, a Hannover-based artist and publisher of the Dada magazine Merz. Schwitters created the Ursonate suite of sound poems between 1922 and 1932, and dedicated one issue of his magazine in 1925 to a vinyl record of the text. Kentridge incanted the poetry for just under an hour in the gorgeous Harlem Parish on Sunday night, as the audience sat demurely in their seats. But the performance, which will be staged for the last time at Performa tonight, was also appropriately riotous, culminating in cacophonous song as Kentridge was joined by a soprano singer (Ariadne Greif), French horn player (Michael Atkinson), and percussionist (Shane Shanahan) on stage.
Schwitters wrote that “listening to the sonata is better than reading it” (hence the record), and Kentridge makes sure to do justice to that intention. He imbues the vaguely Germanic phonemes and word parts with a dynamic reading, and, early on, when the viewer is most at risk of losing their footing and falling into total incomprehension, he uses his body, moving away from the podium at which he stands for most of the performance, and lunging himself forward repeatedly, as if to physically force some sense into the text. Behind him — as one comes to expect from Kentridge — a montage of images flashes at high speed, which maps especially well onto the cut-up, fragmented aesthetic of the Dada artists. As Kentridge moves across the stage, so too does an animated version of himself walk in an endless loop on screen, climbing at intervals over a footstool. Other drawn creatures also march (and draw laughs from the audience): a horse, a soldier with a wooden leg, and a puffed-up general, round as a full balloon threatened to be popped by the spiked Pickelhaube helmet atop his head.
As the reading of the Ursonate progresses, the projected images slowly begin to give sense to the sounds that Kentridge is making. Word bits from the text, like fö and bö, flash in repetition, and then give way to “real” words presumably of the performer’s own writing, pithy phrasings like, “There are no good solutions.” (In that line I hear another echo of Tzara, who wrote: “the world is crazy […] all secrets revelations have no importance it isn’t good or bad.”)
I became so transfixed by the fragmented images incessantly flashing, overlaid onto pages from encyclopedias and other book forms, that for many minutes I would forget to turn my gaze to Kentridge, gesticulating at his podium, so that he became a disembodied voice at stage right. The images move from isolated abstractions and geometric shapes to take on something of a narrative — specifically that of the very real history of Apartheid in South Africa, evoked concretely, for instance, with the flashing of a date (1976, the year of the Soweto uprising) and a name (Desmond Tutu). Nevertheless, the speed of the images invite free association and I was left with vague impressions to do with the unspeakably sad — war and death and killing — inter-spliced with words that bring comfort — the offer of poetry and sleep and warm milk to “those who should know better.” At one point the word “S/laughter” appears writ large, a concise Dada manifesto in and of itself. As the Czech Dada practitioner Karel Teige wrote with regards to the necessary, recuperative power of laughter: “in a world which laughs, who cares if it laughs itself to tears?”
The Dada artists worked in response to the incomprehensible devastation of the First World War, and it is all too apt today that the Performa Biennial 17 turns again to their history, in the context of the devastating daily nonsense that parades itself across our own screens. Towards the end of Kentridge’s Ursonate, projected words explode into puffs of charcoal, a perfect rendering of our purportedly post-truth moment.
William Kentridge will be performing Ursonate at the Harlem Parish (258 West 118th Street, Harlem, Manhattan) on Monday, November 6, 7pm.