I have always been deeply and unaccountably moved while watching the Catalan castell being performed. My family and I witnessed a castell event last Sunday in the town of Roses, and I filmed two of them. The one I show here is a group from the town of Castelló.
To summarise: the castell (castle) is a traditional Catalan festival performance. Many towns and villages have their own club de castellers, which meet and rehearse around the year. The groundwork is done by a large group of castellers, mostly men, who will from the base, the pinya, upon which the whole structure is erected. The pinya needs to be solid and dependable if construction is to continue. Sometimes the second layer of castellers take a while finding their feet on the shoulders of the base component. Once they are ready, a signal is given, and the band begins to pay the toc de castell music, brassy and rousing. The upper layers need to rise as quickly as possible so as not to put excessive strain on the lower members, who bear most of the weight of the construction. Once the smallest casteller – usually a child of around six years of age – has reached the top, he or she raises four fingers towards the sky (symbolising the stripes of blood in the Catalan flag) and descends the other side of the castle, followed by her companions. The dismantling of the castle must also take place rapidly, and it is at this point that an accident is most likely to happen, as a casteller loses his or her footing, causing a colleague to lose balance. If there is a fall, there is the safety net of the pinya to prevent injury: the community protects its own. Very occasionally these accidents can be serious. In 2006 a young casteller fell to his death in a castell in Mataró. Prior to that there had been no fatalities for 23 years. However Health and Safety now requires the children on the upper layers to wear helmets.
The whole performance is an exercise in trust, in balance, and in togetherness. It also requires courage, especially from the children who form the uppermost layers of the castell. It moves me, I suppose, because it reflects the ability of small communities to depend on one another in a symbolic way, and to act out this solidarity as a piece of living theatre. This seems to be something so-called ‘minority cultures’ do well, but these cultural artefacts are dying out, and will one day disappear, or else will become objectified or Disneyfied, and become yet another quaint cultural product to be marketed and profited from. For the moment though, the castell holds a special place as an emblem of resistance, of identity, and of community.
Continuing my readings of Alastair Reid, while travelling in Chile, I find the following: “The fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it. The ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness; and since reality is shifting and changing, our fictions must constantly be revised.”
‘Fictions’ here has the broadest meaning possible, and should not be confined to those things that are written down and sold in the Fiction Section. Fictions, following Borges, are anything – a story, an explanation, a plan, a theory, a dogma – that gives a certain shape to reality. A piece of theatre, for example.
Arriving in Santiago from the south of Chile yesterday evening, I was invited by friends to attend a performance of Exhibit B, showing as part of the Santiago a Mil theatre festival. Exhibit B is a theatre installation that replicates the grotesque phenomenon of the human zoo during the 19th Century, in which Africans were put on display like circus freaks “for the titillation of European and American audiences under the guise of ‘ethnological enlightenment.’” The show created something of an outrage when performed at the Edinburgh Festival last year. There were complaints that the actors were being to subjected to a similar form of exploitation as the people whose lives they were reproducing, and its run at the Barbican in London was cancelled, on the grounds – according to the sociologist and activist Kehinde Andrews, writing in The Guardian – “that it reinforces, rather than challenges the racism it stands as a commentary on.”
Holding the performance in the baroque and excessive setting of the nineteenth century Cousiño Palace in central Santiago was a stroke of genius. The Cousiño Goyenechea family owned coal and silver mines, as well as the Cousiño-Macul Vineyards. The nouveau riche glitz of the palace set off by classical music, provided a sinister but peculiarly fitting locale.
The experience of Exhibit B was painful, as I expected it to be, and my emotions as I walked slowly round the exhibits were complex, and included a degree of shame in experiencing discomfort of any kind, given the extremes of discomfort, abuse and torture suffered by the subjects whose pained existences were being recreated by the actors. I was confused, as I was doubtless meant to be: should I make eye contact with the exhibits, for instance? Would I not be replicating the white man’s gaze that the performance so vehemently questions? The actors weren’t avoiding my gaze, that was for sure, and even on occasion followed my passage across the space in front of them, especially the replica of the man adopted by some Austrian prince in the 18th century who, when he died, had been skinned and stuffed (and blanched) and put out on display for visitors to admire.
My confusion – and the residual sense of shame which I had no power to resist – was exacerbated by a string of questions to which I had no answers. I think the most powerful message to come from this important work is that the objectification and exploitation of society’s others – and our continuing projection of otherness onto immigrants and asylum seekers – continues and will continue. We cannot change the past, but we can at least help shape the future. That is why I cannot support the position taken by the protesters who forced the closure of the Barbican show. A discussion between one of the black performers, Stella Odunlami, and Kehane Andrews (who was active in getting the show shut down, despite never having seen it) provides valuable arguments on both sides. Essentially though, I feel that censorship cannot be justified simply because a work of art chooses a difficult subject and questions reality in a way that some might find offensive.
By the criteria presented at the start of this post, that the fictions we make are ways of ordering and dominating the disorders of reality, even though they in no way change it, and that the ‘truth’ of a fiction is less important than its effectiveness, I can only say that in the case of Exhibit B, its effectiveness was not in doubt. It was both effective and a deeply moving testament to human cruelty and human suffering. As the performer Stella Odunlami writes in response to Kehane Andrews : “my fellow performers and I chose to be part of a production that exposed racism then and now. We have had to defend our decision to exercise our freedom of creativity to those who call us puppets. It is not your job to decide what is or isn’t good for me; I am capable of doing so for myself.” Brett Bailey’s own defence of the work can be found here.
At the very end, when we were standing around in the courtyard about to leave, I caught sight of the actors smoking and chatting by the side entrance of the palace. I was relieved that the company included the taxidermically conserved dead man whose gaze I had failed to meet. It was as if, with the actors out of role, no longer being the people they represented in fiction, their humanity had been restored to them, and with theirs, my own.
How wonderful the little connections that pile up in the day to day. Blanco has long had an interest in the German expressionist painters of the early twentieth century, and was interested to learn, while reading about them the other day that Caspar David Friedrich, the great Romantic painter of lonely figures cast against majestic landscapes, was resurrected by the expressionists after falling into obscurity during the latter part of his life (when he was deemed ‘half-mad’) and after his death in 1840. (Friedrich was also taken up by the Nazis, as embodying the concept of heroic individualism, but he can hardly be blamed for that, and would, in any case – had he lived in the 1930s and 40s –have been incarcerated by them as a madman.)
Samuel Beckett had a great love for the visual arts, and – largely as a consequence of a love affair – during the 1920s and 1930s made several trips to Germany, followed by a longer trip in 1936-7, in which his diaries detail extensive visits to art galleries.
It is interesting therefore, to learn that the author of Waiting for Godot, considered by many to exemplify the most profoundly pessimistic vision of humanity in Western literature, and the absurd insignificance of mankind, should have identified a work by Caspar David Friedrich as the inspiration for his play. According to his biographer, James Knowlson (whose work is based on extensive interviews with Beckett himself) the writer told his friend, theatre critic Ruby Cohn, while looking at the 1824 painting Mann und Frau den Mond betrachend (Man and Woman observing the Moon) in Berlin: “this was the source of Waiting for Godot, you know.
However things are rarely as simple as they appear. Beckett, it seems, might have been confusing two paintings, according to Knowlson, because “at other times he drew attention of friends to Zwei Männer betrachten den Mond (Two men contemplating the Moon) from 1819.” As you can see, the two pictures are not wildly different (and there are various versions of both, it seems).
The point is, the image of the two tramps, Estragon and Valdimir gazing out over an alien landscape, makes a lot of sense in relation to these paintings.
But there is more.
Caspar David Friedrich is regarded as representing the apogee of the Romantic movement in the visual arts, setting down images of the Byronic hero, manfully facing down the forces of nature, the unknown, the abyss. Romanticism is precisely this: it arose at a period when the idea of God was being translated into the idea of nature. Poets set out on hikes into nature (Wordsworth and Coleridge tramping through Wales and the Lake District, Byron in the Alps writing Manfred . . . and with Shelley in Italy). Posh chaps didn’t walk in the countryside until then – no one did except the peasant farmer and the humble shepherd – and suddenly ‘Nature’ was opened up as this vast, wild, unexplored terrain (which in turn informs an understanding of the Romantic Imagination).
According to the art critic Robert Hughes, in an article on Friedrich,
‘If there is one word for the mood of Friedrich’s pictures it is “longing”: the desire, never satisfied, to escape from the secular conditions of life into union with a distant nature, to be absorbed in it, to become one with the Great Other, whether that other is a mountain crag, an ancient but enduring tree, the calm of a horizontal sea, or the stillness of a cloud.’
How does this lead back to Beckett? Is Waiting for Godot, in essence, a play about longing? Longing for union with the godhead, with a distant nature, absorption with the Great Other, as conceived by a Romantic painter such as Friedrich?
Blanco can’t say, in fact is rather bowled over by all this and in need of a lie down. Any comments welcome.