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Robert Wilson: Dancing In My Mind

We visit the theatre titan’s new work at Akademie der Künste, a touching tribute to his late friend and collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi.

Image for Robert Wilson: Dancing In My Mind

We vist the theatre titan’s new work at Akademie der Künste, a touching tribute to his late friend and collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi. Photo: Byrd Hoffman Watermill Foundation

When artist and choreographer Robert Wilson tried to get back in contact with his long-term dance collaborator Suzushi Hanayagi, he was shocked to discover that she was living in a care home and was suffering from advanced Alzheimers. Wilson quickly flew to her bedside in Osaka, Japan, and sat at her bedside.

Unable to speak and barely able to move, Wilson had no way of knowing if she could hear him talk. After a few hours, as he was about to get up to leave, he made a hand gesture, similar to the ones they used to make in their collaborations in the theatre. To his surprise, she extended her right hand (the only part of her body she could still move) and made a gesture as a response.

This first single act of physical communication was the inspiration behind Dancing In My Mind, Wilson’s moving tribute to Hanayagi, a dancer and choreographer who had perfected the traditional Kabuki-based style of Japanese dance before making the controversial step of combining it with contemporary Western styles. Wilson made this video portrait just a few months before her death in 2010, having returned just a short time after his earlier visit.

The video work is a moving monument to Hanayagi, whose white, painted face and limbs, contorted by the disease and her long career in dance, loom out across the walls of a series of interlinking pitch black spaces. Haunting and sometimes unsettling, the rooms bring into focus the mysterious power of dance and how a life devoted to art can inscribe itself on the physical body.

Wilson, who worked with Hanayaki on more than 15 productions, including The Knee Plays and Madama Butterfly, recounted the story of their friendship and the making of his film to a socially distanced audience of journalists and academics at the Akademie der Kunst a few days before the opening of the large-scale exhibition, Arbeit am Gedächtnis – Transforming Archives. This year marks the 325th anniversary of the founding of Akademie der Kunst, and Wilson’s piece is just one of the show’s 13 commissioned works by contemporary artists such as Miroslaw Balka and Ulrike Draesner.

Many of these new works examine how artists deal with memory in their own artistic practices. This is certainly the case with Candice Breitz’s recently completed “Digest”, which occupies the entire “throne room” of the AKA. Featuring 1001 video cassettes covered in acrylic paint, the installation takes verbs from films that have resonated with the artist in some way, reproducing them in an unnerving yet familiar video shop setting. A reflection on storytelling and the fast pace of societal change, Breitz’s installation raises unanswerable questions about cultural pictorial memory.

As the title of the exhibition suggests, the institution is also focusing on its own role as an archival institution. And many of the exhibits are drawn from the Akademie’s own extensive archive, such as Walter Benjamin’s short text “Ausgraben und Erinnern” (Excavation and Memory), which posits the idea of using memory as a medium for exploring the present. “Language is the medium of that which is experienced, just as the earth is the medium in which ancient cities lie buried,” Benjamin writes.

Memory storage and processing can be a disputed field, alive with inaccuracies and biases but this exhibition is intent on showing how memory and the archives of memory can also be a vital force for artistic creativity. With works displayed in large-format installations as well as in video and sound productions, this is an exhibition that requires time and reflection, so you’ll need a good afternoon. A series of discussions and artist talks are already in full-swing, but the program is dense and there’s still a great deal to see both in person and online in both English and German.

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