Critical Tourism. On Lynne Marsh’s video installation Stadium – first cut
Everyone living in Berlin has faced this situation before: friends are visiting from abroad, which calls for a fully-fledged tour of the city’s historical sights. Despite the damage done by WWII bombings and the drastic change in ideological orientation, Berlin is charged, if not burdened, with history. Besides the Stalinallee, the Reichstag, Checkpoint Charlie, Unter den Linden and the Scheunenviertel [Berlin’s former Jewish quarters] with its synagogue, the remains of Nazi architecture are bound to be part of your sightseeing programme. Looking down from the Fernsehturm, you will find yourself dishing up the story of Hitler’s plans for Germania and pointing out the Reich Ministry of Aviation, Tempelhof airfield, the Italian and Japanese embassies in the Tiergarten park and, last but not least, the Olympic Stadium designed by Werner March and built from 1934 to 1936 for the purpose of the infamous 1936 Olympics. Long before moving from London to Berlin on a grant, and though she had never been shown around town, Canadian artist Lynne Marsh knew that this particular building was going to be the focus of her next work.
In earlier works such as Volcano (2006) and Ballroom (2004), Marsh had followed up on her interest for “contained worlds”, as she calls them, referring to enclosed bodies articulated around an inner kernel. In the case of the Olympic Stadium the building’s history and form provided a starting point for an intricate analysis of the modern idea of “mass” (Kracauer), the fascist conception of “crowds and power” (Canetti) and the depths of contemporary (computer-based) techniques of replication and multiplication in the virtual worlds of the World Wide Web, computer games or the Hollywood film industry.
Based on a 3D model of the refurbished stadium by Gerkan, Marg and Partner architects, which features the distinctive appended circular roof, Stadium – first cut approaches the building from above, following the rim of the roof for a while before pitching sideways and plunging into one of the tunnels leading straight inside the centre of the stadium.
This is where the second stage of the video sets off. It focuses on the endless rows of identical seats in the huge spectator area, which holds nearly 75,000 people. On location, Marsh used a so-called “jib arm”, a camera crane that allowed her to recreate the movements of the 3D camera she had used in filming the model of the stadium appearing in the first part of the video. Through her topographical framing of the real architecture – the predominantly grey, silver and black spectator area – she further manages to create the illusion of a virtual space, merging the two distinct reality levels (virtual and actual). Marsh adopts a first-person perspective for the close-ups when the camera rides past the rows of chairs and she takes a bird’s eye view on the enormous seating blocks. The inter-cutting of these two perspectives causes the eye of the camera and the eye of the spectator to coincide. This vantage point conveys a strong sense of the building’s hierarchical structuring, which had been designed with the aim of “organizing” crowds. In architecture for crowds, according to Canetti, the loss of individuality is experienced as a relief, a “discharge” of sorts. Yet to be surrounded by an undifferentiated mass of sameness enhances the fear of otherness, and for this reason the “urge to destruction” is what characterizes best affect-driven crowds (Canetti).
In the third stage of Stadium – first cut a figure sporting urban wear – white track-suit trousers and a white long-sleeved shirt with kangaroo pouch pockets –, its head covered by the hood, detaches itself from that background. At first the clothes’ monochrome uniformity fills the image, and so for a while we are left guessing the person’s gender. Then she slowly starts striding over the seats, almost as if she were staging a revolt against the oppressive functionality of the architectural surroundings, initiating a choreography underlined by the continuous minimalist electronic soundtrack. The fading techniques Marsh uses in several sequences to multiply the figure in the image is a common feature in her films as can be seen, for instance, in her recent work in progress titled Yeti, where a horde of hybrid man-beast creatures in white coats trudge through a lonely snow-covered landscape. Following the protagonist’s interaction with the architecture, the fore- and backgrounds of the image literally collapse as the figure is collaged onto the background with the help of greenbox technique. Set against the backdrop of the spectator area as recorded by the moving camera, the figure then launches into a hip-hop dance routine which is at odds with the architectural structuring of the stadium as well – of any stadium, that is, where the action is usually confined to the centre pitch.
According to the artist, Stadium – first cut is the first work in which she collaborated with a performer and does not appear herself. While this allows her to retain control over the camera work, it also helps de-individualize the figure acting in the video, which has so to speak no proper, subjective intention or drive. The choreography reaches its peak when the camera, after resting on the rim of a single seat, hurls itself upwards and shows a bird’s eye view of the surrounding lines of seats with the figure (itself filmed from atop in the greenbox) thrusting her arms around her body in rotating, increasingly mechanical motions as opposed to the expressive and gestual body language of the previous movements. Through another series of fadings, the camera starts rotating before it once again focuses on a single seat, races down towards it and sharply backs up again. This is where the looped video ends.
Marsh describes her interest in the Olympic Stadium as similar to that of a tourist, choosing not to dwell on the functional purpose of the building in the context of German Nazi history. Her work is nonetheless a deft comment on these historical circumstances, as it inscribes the stadium in a meaningful context of aesthetic, social and political issues by freeing it from the shroud of historic facts and details, and dealing with it in the present tense – a present it observes with a critical eye.