By Elena Setzer
“Some People want to run things, other things want to run. If they ask you, tell them we were
Bewildering things seem to have taken place within Paul Maheke’s installation Dans l’éther, là, ou l’eau (2018), the activation of which served as a prelude to the 6th Rennes Biennial, running from September 29th through December 2nd. Cocooned by an spherical drone sound, you could find yourself in a bizarre interior, composed of deflated aquariums equipped with soaked strands of hair, marbles and moist clumps of soil on the ground; curtains that have nothing to veil but bear traces of mold and several light bulbs arranged within flat orbital metal objects in front of a campy airbrush mural depicting an extraterrestrial world. Are we witnessing a cosmic constellation or rather entering the sloppy household of a New Age veteran?
“I took everything and made it my own”, states one performer, a member of an occult triad which seems to embody both the essential elements of life and performativity, while installing herself within this slippery composition. Here (dans l’éther) the dramatic, ringing speech of a static performer, themselves entangled with one of the curtains to such extent it becomes a toga, prophecies her own return in a circular argument: “I am because I was and because I was before and because I will be and will be again.” Echo is an oracle is an echo is an oracle.
There (l’à), in front of the backdrop of the violet Jupiter landscape, a body measures a square through taping and exaggerated walking, until the hips start to swing out in a well-known manner, evoking iconic movement patterns of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous World Tour (1992). A ghostly amalgamation of old masters of performance and pop culture. Between (l’eau) dance and theater, body and voice, the third performer floats with her wavy gestures, accompanying the proud interpretation of Michelle Gurevich’s ballade Party Girl. Intonation and body language become indivisible.
Maheke, who often performs on stage himself, remains in the unlit spots, makes space for the female performers, whose individual languages become visible with and through their multi-layered appropriations. Paying homage to activist poet Audre Lorde, the interplay creates a renewal of her timid Echo, which is marked by a “timbre of voice / that comes from not being heard” (Audre Lorde, Echos, 1978). This ‘three dimensional’ Echo is different: she grabs back, uses her unique adaptability and makes everything her own through spectral layering. Maheke’s domestic microcosm, which restrains itself from making every symbol legible, operates within the glitch of the untranslatable title: À Cris Ouverts opens up a semantic and emotive range through phonetic proximity along the chain of trauma, crisis, survival and ephemeral renewal.
The 54 artists brought together in Rennes, explore and stimulate grey zones of dissonance, confrontation and clash, which withstand being captured by current logics of rule. Following Jack Halberstam’s rethinking of “wildness as a critical space, term [and practice]”, curators Céline Knopp and Etienne Bernard resigned from thematic chapters or sections. Moreover, the ten venues across the city seem to be loosely grouped like an archipelago, lapped by a shared, fluid, ecosystem. A similar rhizomatic microstructure might be found in Julien Creuzet’s fragile, skeletal sonic installation at Halle de la Courrouze, a former arsenal. It recalls the formation and survival techniques of mangroves trees, which populate harsh environments like unstable, salty coastal areas and estuaries while functioning as habitats for various animal species at the same time. Here, it is the rhythmical creole chanting of Creuzet which seems to fill the gaps between the metaphysical twigs and provide the breeding ground for a conglomeration of found material, engraved flip charts and multiple screens, picturing a dissociating couple.
Spoken language as adaptable and transformative weapon, and the sea as mythological and political imagery seem to be one of the connective phenomena of this biennial. Most distinctly, this interconnection is explored by Madison Bycroft’s scenographic video installation, with its overflowing stage designs and aquamorphic sculptures, spread out over two venues – one of it located outside of Rennes, at the coast of the English Channel.
In her video work Jolly Roger & Friends(2018), the open sea as a stateless transit zone and basin for fugitives serves as the political backdrop for a fictionalized love story between the female pirates Anne Bony and Mary Read. Underwater and under cover of the legend pirate flag Jolly Roger – “the banner that bans the ban” – the masked female outlaws secretly converge through an erratic language game. Ann and Mary, these tricksters with their flexible tongues, hijack one signifiant after the other and unify through consonances of faux amis, becoming Ann Mary or Mary Ann. The self-referential system becomes a sanctuary for the secret lovers within a phallocentric environment. Meanwhile, their comic counterpart, two illiterate art dealers with stiff golden neck braces, are stuck in the loop of their hedged contracts around Jeff, Robert, Richard, Jasper. Bycroft stretches, twists and sprinkles language until it becomes an elastic mollusk, or something resembling Senga Nengudi’s flexible sculptures filled with sand and water.
Sensual piracy is also key to Julie Béna’s newly developed video installation Who wants to be my Horse? (2018). Presented within a cage-like metal cabin with dark curtains (yes, curtains again), the work evokes a peepshow and turns it into a theatrical stand up stage.
Again, it is the carnivalesque performance of storytelling itself (not the narration through representative imagery) that shapes and chains different portraits of a sex-positive movement: A sleek lady in a sink tells salacious jokes, a mistress teaches carefully about good and bad lashes, and the actual pornstar Madison Young confesses ‘why she never made it as a comedian’.
Cheap pastries and tea in plastic cups are what lure the visitor into Oreet Ashreys video installation Revisiting Genesis (2016–ongoing), located in a clinical setting between therapy facility and quarantine site. Intermingling popular TV hospital series with Black Mirror dystopia, the twelve-part video work unfolds a dark story of necropolitics, interwoven with (female) failure caused by a system of globalized privatization. At the center are the mysterious symptoms and the aspired healing of the resigned artist Genesis, who is in a state of progressive dissolution. While Genesis nimbly escapes into a semiotic black hole, her friends try to reanimate her through the newest technological therapy – a slideshow, recapping ‘highlights’ of the individual life. “Death is optional” says the slogan of another company, selling programmed gadgets, which send happy selfies to bereaved loved ones. The experience of death as total contingency, as the “wild spirit of the unknown and the disorderly” is abolished through the infinity of relegating imagery.
In her recap of this year’s major biennials, such as Manifesta in Palermo or the 10th Berlin Biennial, Susanne von Falkenhausen bemoans the ubiquitous post-autonomy of current large-scale exhibitions. Art, she states, is merely treated as service provider for political concerns, therefore an almost universal legibility the condition. However, the 6th Rennes Biennial keeps the promise of being somehow unresolvable, of promising nothing but an anthology of wild tales interweaving the flotsam of current floods. Just as Ashrey’s futuristic genesis leads back to Maheke’s primordial cosmology, or Bycroft’s mollusc fauna could be resident within Creuzet’s Caribbean ecosystem, the works spin their yarn around each other through a similar poetical vocabulary and twisted grammar, which is often informed by performative, theatrical and ritualistic strategies. In a time of ubiquitous populism, such self-supporting networks seem to form a slippery statement.
Elena Setzer is a writer based in Zurich, Switzerland.