Imagination, Transformation and Memory
This summer, the Czech capital was once again host to a multifaceted survey of contemporary trends and topics in art and technology for the stage. The 2019 Prague Quadrennial of Performance, Design and Space featured exhibits from 79 countries with and by over 800 artists, plus 600 performances, workshops, and talks. From 6 to 16 June, thousands of visitors flocked to Prague’s exhibition grounds in the impressive Prumyslovy Palac building and the surrounding pavilions and park, as well as the many performance sites throughout the city.
Theatre in all its shapes and forms thrives on the dynamic and energy in the performative space and in-between spaces as well as the ideas and passion of the people who generate those spaces. Precisely this fact was brought vividly to life in a plethora of ways at this year’s edition of the Prague Quadrennial. Before even entering the Prumyslovy Palac, built for a world’s fair in the late 19th century, visitors were invited to reflect on the concept of the performative space: A red line on the stone floor of the front courtyard ran towards the centre of the exhibition building – pointing the way and marking a boundary at the same time. This line was variously crossed, built over, ignored, or used as a guideline by the different performers.
Pushing and crossing boundaries – including one’s own personal limits – was a theme of many contributions on the plaza making up the Quadrennial’s “Formations” programme. A group of young artists from Estonia had brought along an old brick collection from Narwa, a town on the border between the EU and Russia, and asked the question: “What can we make out of 1000 bricks?” Anyone could join in, and people set about building enclosures and snaking lines. With this long-term performance revolving around wall-building, they seek to examine the dynamics of architectural, social and philosophical concepts. Meanwhile, Finnish artist Teo Paaer and his team added a political dimension to the plaza with their “Singing Walls”, a barrier of white marble blocks along the red line. Here, too, the public was invited to participate and co-shape their “We Build Walls / We Tear Walls” project.
The immaterial nature of performance design
Performance design (or extended stage design) invents “permeable boundaries” – boundaries which both creators and audiences can cross. Going by the principle that performance design can take place anywhere, from theatres to public spaces, in the middle of lakes or just between people and their bodies, the Prague Quadrennial aims to extend its radius with every edition. “It is up to us to dream,” says Markéta Fantová, set designer and artistic director of the PQ19, “to choose an approach, to borrow from other disciplines, from technology, painting, sculpture, architecture or an environment consisting exclusively of sound or light. There are no other boundaries than self-imposed ones and we are only limited by our fears.”
This concept was certainly fruitful for the “Formations” programme. With its 39 artists and artist collectives from 32 countries it not only provided a lively introduction to the exhibition but also drew visitors’ attention to the focus of this year’s PQ: the performance festival. This is where the event’s Site-Specific Performances came in, curated by Sophie Jump, a UK designer who places communication at the centre of her own work. The performances combined drama, dance, and performance art with concepts of storytelling, costume and sound at various places across the exhibition grounds and even in a metro station and some streets in Prague.
The national and regional exhibits also featured performances, spontaneous events, and digital shows, as usual presented in the right wing of the Prumyslovy Palac and in Pavilion B. They competed for various prizes, as did the students participating in the exhibition in the left pavilion, where there was also plenty of performance activity. Installations were inhabited by loud, rhythmic, subtle or silent presentations, which filled the halls like a scenographic landscape and enchanted the public. The 31-year-old Danish stage designer Julian Juhlin, for example, used his own body as an installation, portraying it as “Virgin”, a pure, magical creature. Lying – in the flesh – like Snow White in a revolving display case, crowned with rays of light, he turned the taboo of late virginity on its head, a concept he developed in 2017 and which charmed the curators of PQ19.
The public here was not supposed to sit back and watch. “Shared experience leads to creativity” was a guiding motto – and guaranteed a high level of entertainment. Visitors were encouraged to climb up or crawl into things, such as an Australian jungle tent highlighting the plight of abused children. Kneeling and peering through rock holes, we saw miniature museums (Slovakia); sweeping through curtains we imagined the painter Vermeer (students, France); lying in a small round temple on a giant musical clock, we were reminded of Richard Wagner’s “Time becomes space” (Latvia). We could become insects by wearing VR headsets in a hexagonal cell (Bulgaria) and immerse ourselves in rough theatre spectacles. The magical illusions created by analogue mechanical means in the installation by the late and sorely missed Bert Neumann, in comparison, seemed to come from another time and place entirely.
Handicraft, mirrors and infinite deserts
Hungary’s entry in Pavilion B was a major crowd-puller. Visitors could stand on small round pedestals under a room-size mirror-dice on stilts. As they looked up, apparently transfixed, bystanders could only see their legs and bodies. They appeared to emerge, headless, from beneath the cube. People waited their turn to step up and see the mystery inside for themselves. What you saw there was yourself and the others’ heads in the collective solitude of an apparently infinite desert landscape. The work, titled “Infinite Dune”, fused arts, design and personal experience and won a prestigious Golden Triga for one of the best national exhibits.
Virtual littering and flooding
Both VR, Virtual Reality, and AR, Augmented Reality, were used more intensively than ever at PQ10. Taiwan proved the leader in this field, demonstrating a chillingly convincing application of it that stood out among the various exhibits. Charming Taiwanese hostesses offered visitors an app to download on to their mobile devices to allow them to literally become immersed in the “Island Invisible”. Using a virtual extension device on the app, the area around this sandy island, which was covered with litter, could be flooded, and the surrounding area, including all the people in the hall, placed under water. The fun gained a bitter aftertaste when a visitor in a hat disappeared below the sea, along with the Spanish wooden-slat construction next to her, and all the exhibits sank beneath the dirty brown water, full of litter and sludge. The scenario changed in response to the users’ movements, creating a highly realistic and macabre experience of environmental disaster.
One more attraction remains to be mentioned: the “Fragments” exhibition in the lapidarium of the national museum. Here, the historical statues, cult objects and gravestones were interspersed with models of stage sets, props, costumes, drawings and designs – the things that remain after a show or a production. They were accented in the gloom by dramatic lighting that made the pin-covered costumes by Mexican designers Maria and Tolita Figueroa, for instance, resemble cactuses rather than wearable items of clothing.
Outside on the plaza, meanwhile, participants had built a new temporary sculpture: a pyramid of staggered bails of straw. Without further ado, visitors started sitting on it; one couple was reclining under a parasol. It was a refreshing and lively quadrennial, thanks not least to the vivacity and enthusiasm of the many young participants. PQ19 made one thing clear: Not only technological achievements ensure progress in theatre, but also the energy of the people who experiment with it and the world of the stage.