Time and again in the Ruhr area one encounters signs of the past that give reality historical depth and perspective. And so it is good that the largest art and theater festival in the region, the Ruhrtriennale, does not take place in fine cultural temples, but in places where sweat and dirt once covered the bodies of “working people”. “If you don’t know the Ruhr area, you don’t really know Germany,” says Barbara Frey, who has been the director of the Ruhrtriennale since this year and who, as a Swiss woman, has not had the “Revier” on her radar for a long time. Now she is sitting in the blower hall of the iron and steel works in Duisburg-Meiderich, one of those places full of turbines, boilers and rods into which modern theater technology was operated.
Appearance of the British pianist Ian Pace: with his massive stature and glasses, he looks more like an office worker than the hypervirtuoso and specialist in new music, as he is admired in England. Pace has taken on the monumental piano cycle “The History of Photography in Sound” by Michael Finnissy. But first of all he floods the audience with backgrounds to the seven-hour work. A bizarre idea: Pace mixes up technical terms, quotes theses by Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes, digs into Finnissy’s predilection for quotes from older music to North American spirituals and African folk music. When your head is already buzzing, there is a break and you can refresh yourself at the beer stand in front of the hall.
What seemed confusing and theoretically overloaded in words, then comes on the keys to great expeditions to the limits of what is audible and feasible. Between 1997 and 2001 Michael Finnissy created a resounding giant novel in eleven parts, the titles already shining deeply into the composer’s biography: “My parents thought the war was something” or “Capitalist Realism” or “Seventeen immortal homosexual poets”. Quotes from historical music seldom pop up directly, but rather as alienated photographs that the composer throws on top of one another, runs or fades to see how we react to them today. That is why “The History of Photography in Sound” is a meditative, occasionally angry, always highly virtuoso improvisation about what once was and what seems different today. And in the best tradition of the metalworkers who once kept the steel business going here, Ian Pace plowed his way through Finnissy’s mountain range with incredible energy and concentration.
The director opens a shop window to Switzerland
After the 2020 edition of the festival planned by Stefanie Carp fell victim to the pandemic (and, rumor has it, also to a lack of political will), her successor slightly reduced the program in her first season. The former Zurich drama director Barbara Frey has also been opening a showcase for Switzerland since the beginning of the festival, certainly not just for pragmatic reasons: the writer Lukas Bärfuss moderates discussions, Frey himself was represented with two theater productions right from the start, and Swiss ensembles populate a music theater Project by the composer and drummer Michael Wertmüller from Thun. He navigates between improvised and new music, between theater, opera, poetry and radio play. He is not familiar with stylistic blinkers, and his openness to new forms of theater seems to be just as great as his address book with artist friends.
Some of them can be found in the power center of the Duisburg Landscape Park, a monstrously high room, on the area of which the MSV Duisburg could play football. “Steamboat Switzerland” stands for rhythmic jazz, the Israeli garage band “Jealous” for post-punk, the rapper Catnapp for darkly rebellious “Grime”, and the Asasello Quartet is a string quartet trained in new music. Their appearances are switched on and off according to Wertmüller’s score, like in a revue, an interplay does not really exist.
The focus is not on the meaning, but on the spectacle
There is no action either, but there are words. Sung by the three fantastic singers Caroline Melzer, Sarah Pagin and Christina Daletska, spoken by the castle actress Sylvie Rohrer, a “conférencière” with a red fringe hairstyle, red shoes and a red dress, which she sometimes turns expressively around her body. Why she does that, one would have to ask the director Anika Rutkofsky, she translated into a stage play what is ultimately just a mind game. Wertmüller’s show is based on a book with the enigmatic title “D · I · E · abstract reality”, a rather artificial ping-pong between charcoal drawings by the artist Albert Oehlen and chunks of words by the writer Rainald Goetz. Goetz’s “few words” conjure up everyday objects (bald head, tea strainer, ham, hangover) with a slightly voyeuristic eroticism, but without the urge to explain the world.
So you don’t necessarily have to see a story about women’s search for identity and emancipation in Wertmüller’s setting, as is suggested in Duisburg. But anyway, the focus is not on the meaning, but on the propensity for the spectacle. When Oehlen’s swirling drawings are projected into a large circle along with music, drama, text and dance, the overwhelming demand turns into a pleasurable realization that art can also simply be colorful and entertaining. A lavishly endowed festival like the Ruhrtriennale should be there for that too.