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Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass
Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass
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Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass
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Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass
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Photo by Peter Mochi
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Photo by Peter Mochi

The Value of Physical Presentness: »HERE«

June 6, 2021
Text by Lisa Moravec
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Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass

It is impossible to not move: Maria Hassabi stages a precise »slow choreography«, which prompts us, Lisa Moravec suggests, to reflect on the social and economic value of physical labour.

We are finally here now. One year after the global pandemic began, Maria Hassabi’s performance »HERE« – initially entitled »TIMES« fills the main hall of theSecession in Vienna, as part of Wiener Festwochen. It is one of the performances that was postponed from last year’s programme. Performed for the duration of the art institution’s opening hours, for 38 consecutive days, Hassabi’s performance does not offer a new choreographic approach. It is a site-specific performance that underpins the slowing emerging post-pandemic condition, as it reopens the site in which the economic form of artistic production and cultural consumption take place. »HERE«’s presentness, in the public architectural site of the Secession, invites us to revaluate the significance that physically labouring bodies play in the generation of digital and shareable images. As corporeal encounters predate digital image formations: Without bodies, there is no value.

Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass

The choreographic precision of Hassabi’s work equals a commodified moving meditation. It is performed day after day, as a performance loop. She either performs her two-hour solo, or her performers execute her two-hour-long group choreography. The show operates as a moving time capsule. The abstractly embodied presentness of the performers is staged as physical labour, as dance. Inside the Secession, where once the Art Nouveau of its time performed with their handcrafted art objects, the performers of »HERE« are served on a golden plateau. Within this institutional frame, the performers labour while the ticket holders can idle inside the museum and watch the performers and each other undisturbedly. If the street was once a place for quotidian people watching, the contemporary art museum operates as a golden cage, a societally encoded public space, that provides economic necessities for its performers and societal encounters for its viewers.

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Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass

A section towards the end of Maria Hassabi’s solo – that I get to experience – demonstrates a physical manifestation of resistance against the total subsumption of her physical to cultural capital. She slowly approaches a person, sitting closely to her golden platform on the floor. With her body language, she almost aggressively asks her viewer to shift from his position. He moves, but not much. The reaction does not seem to matter as Hassabi moves on. She leaves the space; her solo is over. That very picture stayed with me. It reminds me of culture’s barbarism that incorporates and uses human bodies, that they are readily offering themselves to perform, like inanimate commodities. It is Hassabi’s delicate approach towards aggression and disinterestedness that makes her work captivating to watch. Her body politic does not, in this sense, seem to be preoccupied with the submissive incorporation into the dressage operations of the art institution, but with finding ways to sustain a somatic feeling for her body.

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Photo by Natascha Unkart / belle & sass

Hassabi’s exhibition of ›slow labour‹, which she has staged since the early 2000s, also demonstrates that it is impossible to not move, like John Cage’s »4’33”« made us hear that something like silence doesn’t exist. Even if we cannot hear or see anything happening, the noise of the heartbeat, the breath streaming in and out, the ribcage expanding and contracting determine the rhythm and the fluidity with which bodies move. Regardless of how invisible each single slice of motion is, a movement is defined through corporeal stillness. For each second, nothing seems to happen or is being heard, for each move that goes down, another one has to go up. One pose flows into the next movement sequence and generates the performance. Ultimately, performance-making is a sensuous craft. It is a concrete, material, and yet abstract form of economic exchange.

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Photo by Peter Mochi

Stavros Gasparatos’s sound installation frames Hassabi’s choreographic work, but also has her voice counting seconds ad infinitum within it. Dressed in the same style, into Victoria Bartlett’s clothes, but in different glowing colours, the abstract labour of the body practitioner turns into a form of concrete labour, a skilled form of exertion, performed as an embodied agential form. For Alice Heyward, one of the five performers in »HERE«, the execution of Hassabi’s extremely skilled movement language and choreography makes her aware of her ›own materiality‹. In this sense, the performers’ material condition operates as a projection site of the entanglement of performing as a body and being watched as a performer. Their slow-motion dance focuses attention onto the perverse implication that physical labour, as artistic performance implies; namely, that of constantly being vulnerable in the very act of physically expressing oneself. Although the performers execute the same choreography, time and again, their choreographed movements are not of a mechanical, but of a strongly embodied agential quality.

Hassabi’s performers actively embody her physically exerting movement language. They speak the specific and sophisticated language that they previously developed with her in rehearsal processes. Some of the performers have been working with Hassabi for several years. »HERE«, like Hassabi’s previous performances, is a dance work, a form of interaction, of practicing, and performing together. Yet, it also gives way to instagrammable images that project a superficial understanding of ‘having been there’ in the same space with the performers. The reduction of a live performance into a digital snapshot image, distributed via social media channels, deconstructs the dance work’s resistant slowness and turns it into an instantly distributed, popular two-dimensional commodity. In contrast to Tino Sehgal’s work, which must not be documented by its viewers, Hassabi plays with the public image production of her work.

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Photo by Peter Mochi

As her artistic and social choreography generates still and slowly moving images, Hassabi’s »slow choreography« reinforces that visual art’s material and performance’s ephemeral character rely on and need one another. The live experience of the physical labour in »HERE« appears always to be within reach. Its distribution as digital images on Instagram, however, underpins the distance that – despite being in the same space – exists between viewers and performers, the digital and the physical world, social encounters and economic values. When does societal presentness begin, and where does it end? And what kind of (surplus) values can a live performance generate? Are we still physically here, or are we already mentally there? Focusing our attention onto Hassabi’s live performance, staged at the Secession, is certainly not going to wash over its aloofness.

HERE is performed by Elena Antoniou, Maria Hassabi, Michael Helland, Alice Heyward, Oisín Monaghan, Robert Steijn.

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PW-Magazine is a bilingual online magazine for contemporary culture.