Brechtian Journeys: Yvonne Rainer's Film as Counterpublic Art

By Glahn, Philip | Art Journal, Summer 2009 | Go to article overview

Brechtian Journeys: Yvonne Rainer's Film as Counterpublic Art


Glahn, Philip, Art Journal


The experience of watching Yvonne Rainer's two-hour film Journeys from Berlin/ 1971 (1980) is best described as highly challenging. Combining a wide array of cinematic techniques (shots of exhausting duration, reverse motion bordering on the slapstick, investigative pans across still lifes, asynchronous picture and sound, the layering of visual, audio, and written narrative and storytelling), Journeys addresses suicide as a personal and social phenomenon, the role of women in politics, terrorism as a response to monopolies of power, and psychoanalysis as part of a culture that relies on the repetition of individual and social experience as a mechanism of appeasement and stability, to name just a few themes. By means of its strategies of distanciation no less than its complex and topical content, the film opens a participatory space for the critical assessment and discussion of political and aesthetic conduct in the late 1970s.

Rainer's practice had always been informed by historical avant-garde production, particularly the work and writings of the German playwright Bertolt Brecht, die founder of epic theater. Her 1960s dance performances and early films relied on Brechtian strategies of anti-illusionism and "estrangement" - jolting the complacent spectator into a self-conscious state of perception: improvisation and repetition, disjunctive action and score, the projection of texts and images, jump cuts and slow motion, long takes and direct camera address. But whereas Brecht aimed to separate performer from representation and to place both within a political context, Rainer set out to establish an authentic, almost corporeal intersubjectivity, an ontological affirmation of private experience. From the very beginning, her work in dance and performance sought to create an experiential reality that would do away with theatrical artificiality and the illusion of psychosocial coherence. The physical, psychological, and humanist assertion of the subject's presence was part of the artistic Zeitgeist, Minimalist sculpture being the prime example. According to the dance historian Sally Banes, "The phenomenological exhortation 'Zu den Sachen!' ('To the Things!') was echoed in the manifestos by artists in every field." '

In 1966, in what has been called the "theoretical groundwork" of her dance and performance pieces, Rainer mimicked a famous chart drawn up by Brecht wherein the playwright juxtaposes the conventions of "dramatic theater" with the innovations of his "epic theater."2 Rainer's "A Quasi Survey of Some 'Minimalist' Tendencies in the Quantitatively Minimal Dance Activity Midst the Plediora, or an Analysis of Trio A" presents a list of traditional dance characteristics to "eliminate or minimize,'' contrasted with those to substitute for them: "character" for "neutral performance," "performance" for "task or tasklike activity," and "development and climax" for an "equality of parts." Rainer explains, "My Trio A dealt with the 'seeing' difficulty by dint of its continual and unremitting revelation of gestural detail."5 But Brecht's definition of gesture, or Gestus, included an ideological dimension: the framework on which the meaning of a gesture is based. The Gestus defines communication as a sociopolitical act, and the participants as sociopolitical entities.4 To Brecht, revolutionary art reveals the ordinary not as ordinary but as extraordinary - the factual, the normal, the nonartificial as determined and historically contingent, just like the commercial products of capitalist culture. Rainer's stripping away of artifice and illusionism, on the other hand, was an effort to achieve pure "embodiment," unmediated "presentness" as an affirmation of subjectivity.5

It has become commonplace for art historians and critics to invoke Brecht with regard to Rainer's work, especially her films.6 Yet the histories of art and film (and on occasion the artist herself) have usually reduced these strategies to a repertoire of formalist tools. …

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