TQW Magazin
Pieternel Vermoortel on On Stage by Maria Hassabi

An emotional rollercoaster


An emotional rollercoaster

A silhouette slowly moving – or rather gliding – towards the front of the stage area in the dark, to the sound of wind blowing. This is how Maria Hassabi makes her entrance in On Stage. Stillness in the center, it seems, as if there were no movement at all. As if we could distinguish individual picture frames. So slow that they actually seem perfectly still.

Capturing figures, constructing them, and then letting them go in what feels like a second. Her body moves from one position to another with a slowness that tenses every muscle – tormented in the act of sculpting the next form. An emotional narrative unfolds through the temporality and collaborative labor with which Maria and the audience inhabit this process. The limitations and tensions of the human body reveal the fragility, labor and pain of this staging.

The slowness is clearly not only a contrast to the fast-moving image to which we become accustomed, but also a search for understanding and inhabiting positions. What pose to take? What position to occupy when surrounded by real-time wars and their extensions into social media? It may be easy to judge positions, but it is much harder to inhabit a position and understand its implications. The slowing down of sometimes grand gestures allows us to focus and look more attentively, while simultaneously evoking a visual and emotional rollercoaster.

It is no surprise, then, when Maria mentions that On Stage references John Cassavetes’ Opening Night. In this haunting portrait of the acting life, the whole world is a stage, and all the men and women are in a constant state of crisis. The actress herself shows immense difficulties in relating to the character that she is supposed to portray but is also in danger of losing herself on stage. For the performance, Maria wears a denim labor outfit – clearly referring to her body of work – this time with cloud prints on it. They are perhaps a loose connection to the formation and nomenclature of clouds. Clouds were the last natural phenomena to be classified through images in the rise of science at the beginning of the last century. Are our poses as elusive as the clouds – there for a moment to be grasped, only to disappear again? What is the effect of the modern project, of the singular images to which we are reduced?

We pay close attention to the effort that goes into the process of creation, into the complexity of getting to the moment when we recognize or physically understand a formation. And yes, it is spectacle! But not the kind we know best. It is the spectacle of the fear of losing that perfect image. A whispering voice, speaking an indistinguishable foreign language, portrays an inner force and drive. It guides us through Pietas, Western stills, patriarchal figures, cosmopolitan dandies, classical sculptures and cinematic images.


Pieternel Vermoortel is Senior Curator with a focus on visual arts at Steirischer Herbst. She previously headed the Belgian cultural institution Netwerk Aalst and is co-founder of the London-based collective and art space FormContent.