Axel Andersson on Monument

It happened in the end of the winter, or the beginning of the spring. The year was 2019. Locality was a much-debated concept and nationalism was on the rise. Sweden had effectively closed its borders to the world of suffering in an attempt to hold on to a feeling of safety. The problem was that it had no working container to put that or any other feeling in. Few could agree on what the nation was that they were encouraged to feel nationalistic about. At the same time it was dawning on the Swedish population that the real and present danger was maybe of the kind that closed borders do not protect one from. One of the nation’s teenagers, Greta Thunberg, had become a globally renowned Jeanne d’Arc of a climate crisis that recognised no frontiers. The young were beginning to turn on the old. But they still had to live together, overlap. It was a confusing time.

The Swedish choreographer Gunilla Heilborn had by this time been active for almost twenty years on the nation’s cultural scene. Now she was staging a performance called “Monument” at the TUR theatre in a southern suburb of Stockholm. It was a statement to be in a suburb at this time, as place was important. When TUR was formed as a free left-wing avant-garde group in 1970 the emphasis was on being radical, everywhere and everyhow. The acronym stands for “Theatre Without Reactionaries”. Some of the dramatic devices used by Heilborn in her practice would probably have been seen as reactionary in the 1970s – in particular the liberal use of irony and understated humour (rather than the slapstick of anarchism). But the times had changed. A lingering question was if they had changed to the extent that even the humour of Heilborn had a different meaning in 2019 from the one she seemed to assume. It is a question hard to answer. On the one hand Heilborn shared more with the comic scene of the 1990s and its cool intimacy, than with the peculiar path that irony had moved in the 2010s. The task of irony remained, in any case, the same. It was to define an in-group. To make an audience. And this was undoubtedly one of the key reasons why people frequented institutions like TUR in this era. The times were confusing, and it made sense to be confused together.

As it happened, Heilborn would in “Monument” analyse the question of how history is remembered and celebrated. It was done through a performance lecture in the shape of a guided tour conducted by a fictive “Centre for monument research”. The two guides, Lorenz Kabas and Kristiina Viiala, were tasked with introducing the audience to various questions concerned with memorialization. Many of the instances related to how a nation defines itself. In this there was quite a lot of time devoted to a re-staging of a fictive play of Aristophanes about the building of the Parthenon (said to have been re-constructed from fragments). This was perhaps the more a-typical part of the performance, not least because it featured a 13-person choir indicating a surprising amount of funding for this kind of production. The audience was perhaps only double the size of the choir. No, what surprised the visitors was the sustained engagement with the classical part. Sweden was not, and had never been, a country interested in the Hellenic to any greater extent. This was decidedly un-Swedish, and a cosmopolitan statement in itself.

It is perhaps less necessary to discuss in detail the use of the lobby as a performance space (for half of the time) and the subsequent move into a black box rigged with an installation-like use of arte-povera props. The same goes for the notion of the talking dancer or audience participation. All of these were de rigueur at the time and can be found in many other productions of the period. The subject matter was gripping, but also seemed to slip out of the performance at the same speed it was introduced. The problem lay in the comic elements that seemed to undercut the very idea of “research” that was being suggested. In the end the content could also be read as a mockery of the notion of artistic research that had been debated intensely in the first part of the 2010s when artists started studying for PhDs in order to get more time to work on the art outside of other, rivalling, institutional and economic systems. This is perhaps a somewhat too cynical interpretation, but there was little production of anything else in terms of cognitive content in Heilborn’s “Monument”. And the result became a re-affirmation of the rejection of one-sidedly nationalistic or otherwise paternalistic notions of monument creation. And an underlining of a certain contentment that the self-identified radicals did not need monuments (as opposed to those who thought differently). Monuments could be mocked, although with a certain grace and wit. The performance was a “Monument” in name only. It had no wish to become a real one. Or maybe it was a clever attempt to re-define what a real monument was by suggesting it could only be made real when it had a meaning for others. But it gave its audience few attempts to reject the one or the other, or whatever model it was proposing. This was perhaps unfortunate as much of its analysis of monuments centred on how they were divisive. 

Heilborn skilfully brought to the fore some aesthetic considerations that would become rather important in the coming years. These were subtle and easy to miss. They were intimately linked with the score of the choreography that was, like the rest, understated on the surface. Heilborn engaged carefully with the somatic figuration of the guide and it was evident that it was maybe this material that had been given the most sustained analysis of them all. On the surface it looked like yet another instantiation of the use of everyday movements: mundane and trivial. But the performers enacted with precision the un-natural and un-spontaneous patterns of the guides. These figures, much more important then – before the end of tourism, moved with their feet in an unusually parallel fashion, carefully, and that often kept their hands behind their backs when they did not speak. When speaking, they did so with animated yet semi-choreographed body language that underlined the pedagogic nature of the enunciations. The particular nature of the guide is that it is a figure that can be frozen in any moment and still look like a guide. Few other professions manage this, apart from those performed in uniforms. Usually humanity breaks through in the form of a certain unpredictability. 

Heilborn’s “Monument” can be seen as a homage to the disappearing profession of the guide, or even a “Monument” of the same in the nature of a memorialisation. Interestingly this was done in a manner where speaking, props and concept were less important that corporeal movement. But it was also a testament to the neo-baroque of the early twenty-first century that the performance could only show itself in disguise.