Sandra D'Urso

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Temporary Title 2015: The emergence of the human through acts of speech.

 Describing an image from a 13th Century Hebrew Bible held in the Ambrosian Library in Milan, contemporary Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben says, ‘In the centre are the seven heavens, the moon, the sun, and the stars, and in the corners, standing out from the blue background, are the four eschatological animals: the cock, the eagle, the ox, and the lion’ (Agamben 2004, 1). He continues, ‘The last page (136r) is divided into halves. The upper half represents the three primeval animals: the bird Ziz (in the form of a winged griffin), the ox Behemoth, and the great fish Leviathan, immersed in the sea and coiled upon itself’ (Agamben 2004, 1). The image recalls the ‘feast of the righteous’ where the interspecies or not- quite- human or not- quite-animal figures stand at a long table laden with food. Agamben seems to suggest that the feast of the righteous performatively realises the event of the beginning of the end of human history, perhaps an uncoiling of the fleshy temporality suggested in the primeval body of the fishy Leviathan. Of course the Leviathan remerges in Hobbes as the symbol of an incorporated humanity, or rather an entity that absorbs the bodies of the many and constitutes them into one, great political body.

The ‘conclusion of human history’, as Agamben calls it, is shown to be celebrated as a grand banquet with musicians present. The banquet services a collection of half human half animal figures that feast on the meat of the Leviathan and Behemoth. By consuming these symbolic meats the figures are liberated from structures of human embodiment, space and time. Agamben notes that at the conclusion of human history the feast is conducted for the first time without observation of the laws that govern the eating of food. Agamben seems to return to a motif of the in-human/non-human; the image of the righteous feast expresses the idea of ‘life’ outside the bounds of human history, speech and law. It is a motif I projected onto the dramaturgy of Xavier Le Roy and Scarlett Yu’s latest collaboration in Sydney, Temporary Title 2015.

I first read Agamben’s The Open in 2007 when my eldest child was four years old and in the same year my father passed away from a long illness. The image and its bizarre claim to the end of “the human” or winding down of human time left an impression on me, perhaps further compounded by the confronting death of my father who, while in hospital, felt he had returned to the forced labour camp where he was imprisoned in Vienna during WW2. I wasn’t at all sure that I understood the book when I first read it in 2007 and perhaps I still don’t. Temporary Title 2015 brought me back to this image of an animal faced humanity that so puzzled Agamben the opening passages of The Open: Man and Animal.

...beneath the crowns, the miniaturist has represented the righteous not with human faces, but with unmistakably animal heads...Why are representatives of concluded humanity depicted with animal heads? (Agamben 2004, 2)

Temporary Title and the cyclic dramaturgy of human to animal.

In the middle of the room was a mound of bodies. It was difficult to discern one limb from another. The mound of bodies was like a tangle of snakes or spit fires coiled together. Limbs writhed and torsos strained. The image was also a beginning of life image, molecular or cell-like. There was a sense of the internal structure of the body, the lining of a stomach or foetal collection of cells multiplying and gathering. The mound slowly split in two separate parts, a cell dividing at the beginning of ‘life’. Their legs and arms of the bodies appeared to be growing out of the ground and waving, swaying in the wind. A body then breaks away from the amorphous and sightless mound. A moment of individuation as a person emerges from the fleshy coil, they crawl, their posture is cat like and they sit with a thump next to two public participants behind me. The individuated body speaks, she asks, ‘May I ask you a question? The women are a bit surprised; they answer ‘Yes’. ‘How do you feel about ageing?’ My attention oscillates, moving in and out of this conversation and toward the dispersing bodies in the centre. The conversation behind me has the sense of being both curated and performed and yet at times very natural or pedestrian, an accounting of quotidian concerns. Another woman to the left of me is asked the same question, ‘how do you feel about ageing?’ she answers that she’d had a child and that her body had changed. ‘I used to be a performer too but I stopped performing after I had a baby. My body has changed...’ I continue to watch the other naked bodies. The nudity is important it seems, as it suggests some originary state. They are naked and we are clothed, this stops feeling like an imbalance of power but begins to open up another sensation, another vista or horizon. The summer light pouring in through the windows and high concrete walls with the soft, dampening, acoustics of carpet underneath us gives an impression of nudity as endless horizon. I feel my awareness stretching beyond the immediate scene.

The bodies are structured as animal like and they prowl around the space. More of the performers break away from the sightless group (sightless because they’re eyes were not at first detectable and when they were they seemed slightly closed). These performers asked the public questions too, different ones. Suddenly there are naked people emerging from the unitary mass on the floor, all individuated in the act of speech. A cacophony of speech reaches a critical mass. The noise and conversation overwhelms the initial choreography. Le Roy later describes this movement as the oscillation between subjectivity and objectivity.

Arriving at speech determines the human, we are told. What is it to speak? It determines the condition through which we might appear as human to the other, but why and might this change? Where speech is censured, buried, disappeared or not recognised there is a devaluing of the human. Speech is a political event just as it determines our place in the amorphous and yet intimately calculable mass called society. Where there is no speech, there is pure body, there is animal; that is another story we are told. Speech is like a form of ‘drag’, it clothes and disguises the body as “human”. At least, this is how I read the choreography. I was deep in conversation with a performer, Michael, when I noticed the choreography had changed again. The bodies were dropping to the ground more frequently, like lions after a strenuous kill. They panted and dropped. Some of the animals began to decompose, their legs and arms folding in like a machine running down. The end of the body, the end of time. My thoughts inevitably turn to the philosophical and political treatises of the 20th century. Here I am thinking of Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the human condition, with its spaces of appearance and fetish for the world forming activities of speech and action. My thoughts turn to Foucault’s appraisal of Greek tragedy and acts of speech, such as parrhésia; parrhésia representing a compromised kind of speech, risky and liable and not necessarily “free speech”. This ‘line of flight’ is perhaps left alone here, however I’d like to take it up again elsewhere, as Temporary Title offers an opportunity for a close reading of choreography and dramaturgy, which I feel speaks to the philosophical appraisal of what it is to emerge as “human” and why this emergence coincides with a speaking subjectivity.

I return to the exhibition today...

Works Sited:
Agamben, Giorgio. The Open: Man and Animal. Stanford University Press, 2004.

-Sandra D'Urso, visitor open rehearsal