by Jincy IypeOct 12, 2019
They say that nothing is original anymore and that everything has been done before. While this statement might hold some truth, the process of creation never stops. People continue to find exciting and authentic ways of making. One philosophy, which encourages an interdisciplinary practice in order to create new experiences, is encapsulated elegantly by the German word ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’. The term was popularised by Wilhelm Richard Wagner, a 19th century German composer and theatre director, known well amongst opera-lovers. At its essence, ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ translates loosely to ‘a total work of art’. Wagner sought to revive opera from the state it was in and revive the art form back to the art it was meant to be. Here, ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ implied the integration of music and drama in opera performance. This endeavour led Wagner to make use of light, set design, costume, music and acting into one immersive audiovisual experience.
Today, in the 21st century, the philosophy of aesthetics continues to find its place in performance. In 2018, opera director Monique Wagemakers decided to adopt ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ in her approach to the rendition of the oldest opera still performed to this day - L’Orfeo (1607) by Claudio Monteverdi. This directorial decision led to Wagemakers and her choreographer Nanine Linning collaborating with Studio Drift’s Lonneke Gordijn to re-think the way in which this opera would be experienced. Gordijn says, “As it was my first time working for an opera production, everything was new for me, so I had to adapt quickly to this new setting and learn how to incorporate my practice into it. It was really a challenging project, but in the end, it was extremely rewarding to see EGO performing on stage along the singers and dancers, and to witness the audience appreciation of it. It was a delight to be introduced to this new world and I feel inspired to explore in more depth how we can bring and audience through an emotional journey with artworks outside of the theatre or gallery space.”
Studio Drift was founded by Lonneke Gordijn and Ralph Nauta in 2007. Today, they are over 60 people strong, each from a range of creative backgrounds enabling them to develop experiential installations, sculptures and performances. While they are based in The Netherlands, their work has been showcased all over the world in places like Pace Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum, Biennale di Venezia and more.
L’Orfeo is a timeless tale from Greek mythology, which tells the story of Orpheus and his journey to Hades in a vain attempt to bring his dead bride Eurydice back to life. The story talks of love, life, struggle and strife and it’s the layered narrative which has inspired painters, musicians, writers and other artists over the years. In Wagemaker’s version, she incorporates a contemporary installation created by Studio Drift, which is a block made entirely of 16km of hair thin nylon thread. In the performance, the installation is indicative of Orpheus’s innermost thoughts and performs as an entity of its own. The dynamic sculptural piece offers an entirely new point of view as Gordijn explains, “Usually the audience walks around the work of art, now the public sits still. A complete different way of interaction”.
The installation, aptly titled Ego, is powered by eight motors on the corners of the block. The installation can appear extremely rigid or fluid, a reference to human behaviour. The artwork was designed to be able to transform in a flexible manner in order to portray a range of emotions. The premiere of the show took place on January 25, 2020, and was performed at a number of venues through February.
This creatively directed opera brings to light the concept of ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ as a practice relevant not only in opera but in other creative fields as well. While there might be little scope to create something entirely new, ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ encourages the artist to shift perspective, add an unexpected element and break the rules of traditional art experiences.