FRANK en KOEN THEYS are staging WAGNER'S Ring des Nibelungen by video: Lied van mijn land (song of my soil/chant of my country/air of my earth/hymn of my home?). Part one, Het Rijngoud, was completed last summer and the second part, De Walkure, is expected in april '87.
In 1848, RICHARD WAGNER drew the outlines for the theme of his music drama Der Ring des Nibelungen. This work had initially been planned as a single narrative about the adventures of the immaculate hero Siegfried, but in the years that followed, during which WAGNER worked out his ideas, it grew into a grand epic, to be performed on four separate evenings. The principle narrative, Siegfrieds Tod (later on Götterdammerung), was combined with Siegfried and Die Walküre to form a trilogy, to which was added the overture Das Rheingold, which relates what happened before the beginning of the narrative. In this seminal period, many new ideas and influences found their way to the heart of WAGNER'S drama, without compromising the original unity. It is this abundance of themes, motives and narrative strands which explains the tremendous appeal this masterpiece has always had for his fellow-artists, who have taken it as the starting-point for their own works. Der Ring des Nibelungen and WAGNER'S other operas could irreverently be called a liberally filled grab bag, where everyone can take his pick. Tragedy, love, war, death: all the grand themes of life can be found in the operas. After the Second World War interest declined for a while because HITLER'S boundless admiration for WAGNER's music prejudiced the post-war generation against the German composer. More recently, however, interest in WAGNER has been growing steadily. Two german artists who exemplify this interest are: the German painter ANSELM KIEFER with his leaden, burnt out and carbonated landscapes, and filmmaker HANS-jÜRGEN SYBERBERG (filminterpretation of WAGNER's Parsifal).
KOEN en FRANK THEYS, two brothers living in Brussels, have been working for some years on a video production of Der Ring des Nibelungen, of which the first part, Het Rijngoud, has been completed. This video was shown at the exposition "In het hart van de Maalstroom" in the Paleis voor Schone Kunsten in Brussels, and by MEDIAMATIC in Groningen. For Lied van mijn Land (the title of the brothers' version), KOEN en FRANK THEYS have exploited the limited technical facilities at their disposal in an original and effective way. Quite in the spirit of the Leitmotiv technique used by WAGNER in composing his drama the brothers developed pictoral motives for the different characters, situations and events. In WAGNER's music certain instruments and melodies accompany specific characters or situations, and the THEYS brothers have applied the same principle to video language. These pictorial emblems were then combined and mixed. However, this does not make it any easier to follow the anecdotal narrative and its specific meaning. After seeing the video for the first time, I remained in the proverbal dark about many of its aspects.
The THEYS brothers made frequent use of the chroma-key technique, and in this way they were able to generate enough images from their limited basic material to unfold the narrative. On other levels as well, the possibilities of the medium have been creatively exploited, without the technical aspects being given undue emphasis. The Giants, Gods, en Dwarfs, for instance, are played by actors who were given their appropriate size (stretched out, normal, or compressed, respectively), by means of a technical trick. Successive horizontal or vertical sliding of frames suggests large spaces and long distance travelling. Simple but effective. In this way, the THEYS brothers have visualized the complex narrative structure of Das Rheingold in quite an interesting way. WAGNER'S long vocal scores have played them a few tricks here and there; visually the tape is not always attractive, and at times even rather dull. The tape is more interesting from a theoretical point of view. The THEYS brothers have used the narrative as a starting-point for a complex statement about the state of affairs in present-day culture.
As a preliminary to a further review of their interpretation of WAGNER'S drama, it is necessary to consider the overal structure of Das Rheingold. The opening of the story is set on the bottom of the Rhine, where the Rhine-daughters guard the Rhine-gold. Out of night's darkness appears the Dwarf (Nibelung) Alberich, who at once falls in love with the Rhine-daughters and tries to seduce them. Each in turn seems to yield to his advances, only to deceive him afterwards. At dawn the Rhine-gold is glistening and glowing. It catches Alberich's eye, but the Rhine-daughters tell him that the only way for him to take possession of the gold, and forge it into the powerful Ring, is to make a vow to renounce love. Woglinde sings: Nur wer der Minne Macht versagt, nur wer der Liebe Lust verjagt, nur der erzielt sich den Zauber, zum Reif zu zwingen das Gold. Mindful of his recent experiences with the female sex, Alberich is easily persuaded to make the sacrifice. The Ring he will forge from the gold will make him ruler of the world, and he secretly hopes that he can buy the love of women with gold and power. Alberich disappears with the gold to the realm of the Nibelungen deep under the ground. He forges the ring, subjects the dwarf-tribe of the Nibelungen, and forces them to dig up treasures for him deep in the earth.
In the meantime, the Gods wake up in their heavenly realm, where the Giant brothers Fasolt and Fafner have just built a beautiful castle for them (WALHALLA).In reward the supreme God Wotan has promised them Freya, the goddess of eternal youth and love. The Giants make a point of collecting their reward, in spite of repeated entreaties, especially from Fricka, Freya's sister and wife of Wotan. In the nick of time the sly and crafty fire-god Loge appears on the scene with the story about the gold amassed by the Nibelungen, and in the end the Giants are persuaded to accept this enormous treasure instead of the beautiful Freya. Loge and Wotan leave for the underworld where Alberich plays the tyrant in a reign of terror. By means of a cunning stratagem they succeed in tricking him out of the Ring and his brand new magic helmet which allows him to be invisible and change shape. Furious about their treachery, Alberich curses the Ring: Wie durch Fluch es mir geriet, verflucht sei dieser Ring! ... Jeder giere nach seinem Gut, doch keiner geniesse mit Nutzen sein! ohne Wucher hut' ihn sein Herr, doch den Würger zieh' er ihm zu! ... so lang er lebt, sterb er lechzend dahin, des Ringes Herr als der Ringes Knecht: bis in meiner Hand den geraubten wieder ich halte!, and when he is set free, he vows to win back the Ring for himself.
Then the Giants bring back Freya, and claim their treasure. Fasolt pretends to be so depressed by the loss of the beautiful hostage, that she must be covered with gold before he can forget her. The treasure is piled upon her, but parts of her body (her eyes and her glistening hair) are still visible. Much to his regret, in the end Wotan must add the Helmet and the Ring -which he naturally intended to keep for himself- to the pile of gold to fulfill the conditions for her release. In this way the Ring changes hands again, and at this moment, Alberich's curse becomes operative: in a quarrel about the division of the treasure, Fafner kills his brother, and flies with the gold and the Ring. The day, which began so gloriously, draws to an end, and the Gods retire to their castle to reflect on the situation. While they cross the Rainbow-bridge, deep down below them the Rhine-daughters bemoan their loss. End of Das Rheingold.
Obviously a rich narrative like this can be interpreted and developed in many ways. I will not venture to name all the possibililies, instead I want to bring up a single imponant element: the theme of the increasing corruption of beauty and purity, which in the form of the gold, and later on the Ring, are abused in the power game. Essentially a reflection of the ancient theme of the struggle between good and evil, purity and corruption. Here lies the connection with the interpretation of the THEYS brothers. In their turn they relate this theme to a kind of culture criticism that is rather in vogue these days: the idea that it is no longer possible to create original images and ways of expression. The crisis of the postmodern era, the disbelief in a progress in the visual arts. (I will restrict myself to this example, although it is not the only interesting theoretical aspect of the tape.)
The Theys brothers' Rijngoud opens with a noise-picture in a round frame. Video-noise is here to be interpreted as the simplest and purest of images. The unspoilt, archetypical image, with all its creative possibilities still present. This amorphous (noise-) image symbolises the Rhine-gold. When Alberich takes possession of it, the image assumes a square shape, clearly an echo of the frame of the video-monitor. Then Alberich turns the noise-picture upside-down; the picture turns to grey. He seems to be activating the picture, switching on the possibility to form pictures, imitate or copy them. The Ring created in this way allows him to reproduce reality (a theme we shall meet again in Der Ring des Nibelungen and gives him power over the world (another time-honoured theme). This is clearly expressed in a scene in the underworld, where the events in this world are presented by nine images, placed on top of each other like monitors, which are controlled by Alberich. Above we see the realm of Gods, in the middle the Rhine-daughters and the Giants with their hostages, and at the bottom the terror-stricken world of the Nibelungen. This is clearly a negation of the power of the imagination, because Alberich does not use the power of the Ring to create original images; he is only reproducing already existing images.
Another scene, where the Goddes Freya is covered with the treasure of the Nibelungen, remains rather mysterious in my interpretation. Freya is caught in a grey frame within the picture-frame. While at the bottom of the picture the Gods hand over the treasure to the Giants, the frame is filled, by fits and starts, with the noise-picture, the Leitmotiv of the treasure. In the video-noise, another image of Freya can be discerned, only this reproduction (produced by the Ring) is naked. Behind the naked Freya, we can still see the original (dressed) Freya moving about; two realities superimposed on each other. When the treasure has been given to the Giants, Freya (dressed) steps out of the frame into Wotan's arms. She is free again. The Giants, in the meantime, are caressing the television-image of the naked Freya, and quarrel (about what? Freya, or the treasure? are these one and the same?). Then Fafner kills his brother Fasolt. A complex symbolic image; eroticism and the power of reproduction seem to be intertwined, emphasizing the natural similarities between sex/lust and reproduction/creation/art.
Another important theme is the contrast between nature and culture. Yet nowhere is it's meaning clearly defined, an objection that goes for other themes of the tape as well. Quite a lot of interesting openings are presented, but no real 'goals' are scored. On the other hand, this openness invites the audience to reflect on the philosophy behind the tape; there is food for thought. The theme of the endless repetition of images, and the loss of originality is most clearly expressed in the scene in which Alberich curses the Ring. All at once we are confronted with an marked break in style, in the form of a sequence that was obviously lifted from another video. While in the foreground, Alberich curses the Ring, behind him we see pictures of a kind of mediaeval tower, on top of which stands a solitary figure, with his wings outspread. Next follows a close-up of a menacing commander-like character wearing reflecting sunglasses, who is apparently standing at the foot of the tower and ordering the solitary figure to jump/fly. In spite of his wings, the latter is doomed to be crushed by his fall. This fatal event is repeated several times, and again and again the winged character is forced to try and conquer the law of gravity.
This scene was done by means of a loop; the sequence of images is always the same and the audience know from the outset that the winged person will die. In a context of reproduction and repetition, this scene can be interpreted in more than one way. It is not only an attempt to bring new life and significance to an image (which already existed in another context); this regeneration process is also repeated many times. In this way, the reproduction process attacks itself, and questions its own function. This idea is given additional force by the contents of the image -which, refering to the tragic myths of Icarus and Sisyphus-, expresses a growing feeling of futility and impotence. A possible interpretation would be that Alberich's curse curbs the power of the Ring to create images, confining it to endless, and therefore fruitless, repetition. No invention, no innovation, from now on only more of the same. Imitatio!
The impossibility of creating new images is a negative and pessimistic notion, which carries in it the seeds of paradox: for how is it possible to state, on the one hand that progress has stopped dead, and on the other hand, to continue to produce works of art, even prestigious ones such as a video-version of Der Ring des Nibelungen (talking about reproduction). Is it really true that new images cannot be created anymore, or is this, generally speaking, only a clever excuse for a kind of regressive lust for copying, and a lack of imagination? When I consider the kaleidoscopic image of present-day art, I am not -quite honestly- struck by a feeling of stagnation, emptiness, and despair. On the contrary, I feel that an enormous range of new possibilities has been created after the compulsive urge of the avant-garde for innovation has died down. New ground, which -it must be said- as yet only a handful of artists have begun to open up and cultivate. The others are traumatized, waiting to see what will happen, or still plowing the same, too familiar, soil. They do not (yet?) grow new crops, and instead analyse the fertile ground to death.
This is where I see the danger of excessive 'self-thematization', by which I mean an art that is only concerned with itself and its own crises. The seventies have provided ample illustration of the (often) distressing results - be it in another context. There is nothing wrong with taking a pause every now and then to analyse the situation, on the contrary. All the same we must take care not to get stuck in a kind of complacent self-pity, and above all, we must not forget how to keep moving. One of my criticisms on Het Rijngoud concerns the fact that it partly falls into this trap of 'self-thematization'; another one is that the tremendous range of dramatic possibilities and openings of the original opera has not been developed sufficiently. The quality of the acting, for instance seems to have received little attention.
On the other hand we must not forget that Het Rijngoud is only the first part of the Nibelungen-cycle. The synopsis of the other parts explains that the old culture of the Gods will be taken over by the new culture of the anarchist heroes Siegmund and Siegfried. For a new culture, a new video-language is needed. Perhaps we ought to see this first part as an exploration of new ground.
Gerard Lakke (translation: Fokke Sluiter) – MEDIAMATIC