Performance

A Thirst for the Conceptual

Natascha Sadr Haghighian, "Villa Watch" (2005), Video and 16 mm film on DVD In collaboration with Judith Hopf.

All I could think about was water. I was late and overdressed; the auditorium was ungodly hot, and I was thirsty. What is more, the Berlin-based artist, Natascha Sadr Haghighian, had, as though anticipating me, deliberately placed an empty water bottle on the seat next to the one I slipped into. As she spoke, she sipped from a smaller bottle.

I was there in the Guggenheim’s auditorium to pay close attention to the cerebral meanderings of Haghighian’s “when night falls in the forest of static choices,” a presentation of her research-based conceptual works all woven into a relational aesthetics experiment. It was going to take a long time.

With a deep dry sigh, I piled my layers next to the dew-drop lined water bottle. Oh, Water Bottle: why do you wink at me?

I was now ready to be absorbed by Natascha’s first story about a video project that played off of Buñuel’s surreal “The Exterminating Angel.” Enlisting multi-perspectival format, “Villa Watch” is about on-lookers, family and friends, and a news van, all keeping vigil outside of a “cultural center” where a group of people who had entered for an event had never exited. The bit ends with a guy on a skateboard attempting to enter and then turning around before he can get in.

I thought of Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit of course. And I thought of me, in this cultural center. And I thought, too, about the wetness of the interior walls of the water bottle.

“Villa Watch” is about choices and how they are circumscribed. It is about society and boundaries and when and why we do or don’t cross them.

I wondered if I could pick up that bottle and put my mouth to it. Just to amplify the point. But, just to amplify the point, I didn’t. Also, who knows where that thing had been?

As though enlisted to further my discomfort, someone in the audience demanded to know about “the water bottle” — and it was then that I learned that the thirst-tease now coyly peeking out from under my pile of layers was actually a participant in Natasha’s presentation.

Audience members (those who had arrived on time) were enlisted to help the artist decide which tales to tell about her various projects. On the stage, a projector image showed various icons that corresponded with the inanimate objects occupying seats scattered throughout the audience. When someone chose an object they wished to hear about, Natasha would go and sit next to it and speak about the project that it, the object, starred in.

The coy water bottle was next. I removed my garments from it and tried to look away as Natasha, sipping from the smaller bottle, explained “De Paso.”

It involved a wirelessly controlled trolly suitcase and a frolicking young PET bottle making love in a gothic cathedral in Barcelona — well, actually, from a non-thirsty POV, the handle of the trolly was propped on the bottle and as the suitcase rolled back and forth, the bottle crunched and snapped.

The performers were miked. So was the entire cathedral that the bag and the bottle were performing in, and speakers were strategically placed (based on careful computer generated algorithms) so that the cathedral echoed with the pleasure cries — er, the sounds— of the water bottle.

Also displayed in the cathedral were information boards showing some of Natasha’s research of Barcelona’s water system, its history and its current use.

According to Natasha, this project spoke to our familiarity with water bottles and our trust of them, and with what goes into distributing and using water and how that all dissipates into our habit of taking the water bottle for granted — seeing it as always having been there.

I wished I could take that Poland Spring bottle for granted right here and now.

I thought of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland“:

“Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water
If there were water we should stop and drink
Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think”

Natasha’s presentation had been billed as “series of conversations provoked by a selection of objects, allowing the focus and pace of the evening to follow the currents of her audience’s attention.” But while the audience continued to choose objects and to hear about Natasha’s endeavors, my own attention closed in on itself.

 I thought about that Beetles song, “Fixing a Hole.”

I did gather this much: Natasha thinks a lot. She’s a very humble sort who dislikes the objectification of people and things alike. Spotlights produce in her, visions of Foucault’s panopticon. Indeed, the Guggenheim’s invite noted that Natasha’s bio was a link to another project she created; Called “bioswop.net,” it is a site that allows one to trade CVs in a “CV market” thus erasing notions of authorship and even self.

She’s also a mad free-associator and the connections she draws, though on the surface seem surreal,  are ultimately traceable. However, for too many of them, you’ll need to pick up a brochure or a newspaper or a flier, all of which she incorporates into the experience: i.e.: lays out for you to pick up.

Although I found “Villa Watch” amusing in an easy spoofy kind of way, and I was moved in my crazed thirst, almost to tears by the wet wonder of “De Paso.” I found that Natascha Sadr Haghighian’s work is mostly comprised of deep musing along with vague, and often dull, visual and audio accompaniment and the indespensible printed object. Some of the printed things, typically, were the best parts of these projects, filled with scientific graphs, arcana and spoofy headlines.

When the presentation was over, I fled to the reception where I found no water, but only wine. I thought of Jesus Christ and what he did to the water. I thought of Kafka’s The Hunger Artist just because of the title. 

I went out into the cool night air and stopped at a roasted peanut truck. There I obtained a curvy little bottle of Poland Spring. I thought of Coleridge’s “Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.”

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This program is part of the Guggenheim’s Elaine Terner Cooper Education Fund: Conversations with Contemporary Artists series.

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