The independence of objects

Frank Jödicke on Origins by Oleg Soulimenko
© Alfredo Barsuglia
Frank Jödicke on Origins by Oleg Soulimenko

Origins is an exploration by Russian-Austrian choreographer Oleg Soulimenko to get to the bottom of things. On the initially empty and almost completely dark stage, everyday objects develop a life of their own which determines the performers’ actions. Intentionally or unintentionally, the lesson is ultimately an existential one.

Kenneth Patchen considered it preposterous for people to talk about their memories. Our memories are not really ours. Similarly, no one can tell the story of their own life. We more or less repeat expressions we have heard before. Phrases to tell of a life. This becomes particularly obvious with regard to things, because there’s really nothing much to be said about most of them. Certainly, someone may be sentimental or even feel deeply about a pot or a door knob because it is associated with childhood memories, for example. But another person can hardly relate to these memories. With reference to the objects in question, they can only reply: “Yes, well, a door knob.” Or: “A pot, right.” But what kind of feeling are you supposed to have towards a pot?

Seen in this light, people are confronted by a cold and meaningless world entirely devoid of individuality or uniqueness. One pot is just like another. But Patchen’s poetic pursuit aimed precisely at the uniqueness of the special thing. He did not believe, however, that this could be achieved by preaching human individuality, which would in turn bestow things with their individual meaning. That would be nothing but an imaginative attribution, which did not affect the thing in its core. Instead, he wanted to look at it the other way round: the things themselves have their own thoughts and memories. Unfortunately, these are hardly registered by humans. By credulous children with an open heart, on the other hand, they are. The children catch the thoughts of the dented pot with the jagged edge that grandma heaves onto the old stove. They also see the faces in the small ivory knobs of grandma’s kitchen cabinet. Some are scary, most of them funny. The knobs watch for all they’re worth, and so they become diligent chroniclers of the housework. The children feel for the pot when it is put back into the dark cupboard in the laundry room and sometimes has to wait a long time before it’s taken out again. The children can only grasp such thoughts of things if they have already been thought by the objects themselves. Only very few thinkers have shared this somewhat odd worldview. Apart from Patchen, the poet, perhaps Charles Sanders Peirce, and possibly Plato, to some extent. The considerable advantage of this view lies in the fact that it is the only way to conclusively explain why people manage to connect things and thoughts in the first place: precisely because the things themselves think.

Enter the ghosts

The audience are led into a completely empty room and – as if following a distinct impulse – form a circle, their backs close to the walls covered by curtains and their eyes fixed on the empty centre. Suddenly, a single chocolate kiss falls from the ceiling, and the lights go out. Two members of the theatre staff carry black signs mounted on sticks and hold them in front of the illuminated boxes indicating the emergency exits. It is now almost completely dark, and, as a result, the audience falls silent. The first figure appears, stamping loudly. It carries a light which makes it only just visible. But as it is completely covered in a tight-fitting black fabric, its natural human shape is unrecognisable. Its head is that of a faceless black doll. The figure gets busy performing arduous tasks. Soon, a second, grey figure joins the first. It has a broad tube in place of the head, drooping towards the ground, hooked like a much too big tapir snout. This figure is completely covered in fabric as well. A third figure appears, boasting an expansive, fragile headdress, which does not afford a glimpse at the face or facial expressions, either. It isn’t even entirely clear whether there are actually human beings beneath the elaborate costumes. All three figures are ghostly. Their cloaks, evoking many associations, appear to be deliberately ambiguous. Does the grey cloak look like a burka? Maybe a little. Does the black figure seem like a kendō fighter? A bit. Ultimately, the apparitions are so fantastical that they seem to have come straight out of “Spirited Away”.

The three figures are now fiddling with various things, which they have dragged onto the stage in an elaborate manner and with great difficulty. As they appear to see the audience members only to a very limited extent, the spectators have to get out of the way of the cloaked figures doing their chores. The line between intended action and the audience’s reaction becomes blurred. Those present cannot say with certainty what is staged action and what interaction resulting from mere physical necessity. For example, when a figure drags a long garden hose behind itself that twists around objects lying on the floor and gets tangled. So, the three figures are not acting. Instead, in an utterly untheatrical way, they struggle with the objects that act of their own accord. It slowly dawns on the audience that the things that have been dragged in are, in fact, the main actors in the performance. Incessantly fiddling with the objects, the figures arrange them anew and try to piece them together to form larger objects. The “plot” of the piece derives tension from the fact that it’s very difficult for the three figures to complete the tasks they have set themselves, as they seem constantly doomed to fail because of the so-called “cussedness of things”. The three Beckettesque figures endure this with equanimity. They have accepted that the things are the actors, and subject themselves to their demands.

Singing and dancing objects

The dragged-in objects are, without exception, commonplace. The figure with the snout has brought cushions shrink-wrapped in the kind of vacuum packs that are designed to make life easier for housewives and househusbands by compressing the clothes put inside them, which makes them easy to stow. The grey figure lets air flow into the pack with a hiss, and the cushions spread out in their familiar shapes all by themselves. Whenever the objects stir of their own accord, the figures pause to watch them change. Other kitchen utensils, such as a large biscuit jar, make an appearance. To this, items from a hardware store are added: hoses, cables, PVC pipes and the blade of a circular saw. The three figures have a lot of work to do. One of them seems to have a preference for all things round, arranging its collection of plates, bowls and air filters in a circle on the floor. Then it tries with skill to spin the objects, which they do for a certain amount of time, depending on the material, making their characteristic sounds. In fact, it’s the objects that are now dancing on the stage, creating music from their sounds.

Meanwhile, a woman has joined the figures. She is dressed in black, but in a conventional manner. And her face isn’t covered. She hid among the audience earlier, and spoke an improvised text every now and then. Now, she too is dragging a heavy bundle behind her. She empties the bag to reveal sound equipment: a mixing console, cables, effects units. She begins to plug everything in with as much of a bustle as the three figures. The technology of the equipment dictates her actions. While the characters lose themselves in making absurd object assemblages, in the process of which they light something here and there, mix liquids or make plates vibrate, the woman has to plug everything in “correctly” for it to work. She succeeds at last, and creates loops of only just recorded sounds. There is absolutely no doubt anymore: the objects have a voice, and they make music together. One of the figures has also supplied itself with electricity by means of a long cable, and many of its objects are starting to move, powered by electric motors. The magic of remote action as presented up to this point, which was achieved by the figure pulling at cables, hoses and wires, is further enhanced by the autonomy of the electric motors. A small toy train drives across the stage and disappears where it feels like it – behind one of the curtains. The musician plays a slow Black Sabbath cover, and this is a very atmospheric moment in the performance.

Ultimate failure

So it seems that things have a will of their own, otherwise they would be easier to cope with, and they would not pester the three figures the way they do. Owing to the fact that Oleg Soulimenko places the focus of his performance on the actions of the objects themselves, they are allowed to reveal something about themselves. In their natural and familiar environment, where things mingle with things, they remain invisible. They also vanish in the vicinity of humans because we are used to seeing things as tools and recipients of orders. That’s why Soulimenko’s second “operation” was important. First, the stage had to be darkened and completely emptied of things, and then, in a second step, the human beings had to vanish as human beings and appear as nothing but cloaked figures. This allowed the things that were dragged to the fore to come into view, naked and definite, and to prove their idiosyncratic presence, demonstrating that they are not subject to their creators and eponyms. No, it is, in fact, the other way round: it’s the people who have been turned by the things into recipients of their objectual messages. Kenneth Patchen probably would have liked this reversal, which does away with the prejudice that objects have nothing to tell.

But nobody should assume that the objects mean the humans well. That would be kitsch. The three figures are put to a lot of trouble by them. At the end of the performance, they try to hang a wild, tangled ball attached with lights under the ceiling of the stage on a rope. They work together to achieve this goal, failing in the end. The large object, which should be hanging in the middle of the room like a central star, remains, lying on the floor in a lumpy bundle. One feels with the characters by now, and there is a touch of tragedy about their failure. Due to the special experimental setup of the performance, it’s difficult to judge whether this failure was planned or just happened. The existential lesson is the same. Things are strict rulers. Leaving the hall, the audience members pass one last, wildly buzzing object. The engine of what used to be a beard trimmer (?) makes a plastic rod and two wooden balls vibrate. Like an idiosyncratically wobbling insect, the object lies there, apparently thinking its own thoughts.


Frank Jödicke is a writer and journalist. He writes for various Austrian and international magazines and media portals, e.g. Telepolis, Der Augustin, DAVID, untergrundblättle and MALMOE. He currently serves as editor-in-chief of skug, a magazine for music culture, and is involved with BAM – Alliance for Alternative Media.


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