Waiting in line at the North Melbourne Meat Market, I spot the corpse. A humanoid shape lies wrapped in black plastic bags. The sound of clocks (or are they shovels?) emanate from it. A program essay by Ben Byrne tells us it is the body of art. He quotes Ingmar Bergman (The Snakeskin, 1965) who claims that art is basically unimportant, deprived of its traditional social value. Like a snakeskin full of ants, art is convulsed with the efforts of millions of individual artists. Each artist, including Bergman himself, is elbowing the others “in selfish fellowship,” in pursuit of their own insatiable curiosity. To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bergman’s film Persona, Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras, and Erkki Veltheim have crawled inside the film’s 79-minute skin.
The four artists sit facing each other beneath red digital clocks counting down the opera’s duration. Pateras works his Revox B77: a machine with a loop of tape and multiple heads that can be manipulated live to produce a stunning array of sounds. Veltheim nurses his violin, which he processes through a laptop running MaxMSP. Natasha Anderson festoons her Paetzold contrabass recorder with an array of sensors and microphones. Sabina Maselli commands an arsenal of projectors and spotlights, including reels of custom-shot 16mm film.
Once inside the film’s skin, the collaborators throw out its organs of character and plot. The artists instead motivate its mise-en-scène. Maselli’s deeply-textured footage of hands, faces, and landscapes mirror Bergman’s own sumptuous images. The close-miked sounds of violin, recorder, and water echo the conspicuous detail of 1960s foley. Spoken text references monologues in the film, notably Alma’s story of a foursome on a beach. And so the ideas cycle: hands—faces—landscapes—text, interspersed with solo episodes for each performer, until the time runs out.
After the third extended shot of intertwined hands, I wondered whether the artists were labouring under a category mistake. Texture and materiality were the bread and butter of contemporary arts throughout the 1980s and 1990s, but the structures of plot and character are surely now considered as much part of the artistic “surface” than image and sound. Thanks to the fashion of basing new music on old films, there are counterexamples. For instance, Alex Garsden’s Messages to Erice I & II, which uses the familial relationships of the characters in Víctor Erice’s 1973 film El Spíritu del Colmena to structure the algorithmic relationships of four amplified tam-tams.
By throwing out plot and character, the creators of Another Other struggle to address the original film’s themes of identity, motherhood, art, and being. The film’s iconic shot of Elisabet and Alma’s juxtaposed faces is critical of traditional gender roles precisely because the characters struggle with those roles. The repeated superimposition of the artists’ faces in Another Other is less critical than narcissistic.
While stating that art’s traditional social function is dead, Bergman’s essay affirms the personal significance of art, a belief that is reflected in Elisabet’s first scene in Persona. Elisabet is an actress who stops speaking because she harbours a burning will to live authentically and shake off the role of motherhood. She laughs at a radio soap but seems affected by a piece of music. In Another Other no such distinction is made between inauthentic and personally authentic art. Veltheim plays the Chaconne from J.S. Bach’s violin Partita no. 2 while the artists’ faces are shown through a day-time soap vaseline lens. I will accept that universally authentic art is impossible, but I struggled to find even an affirmation of personally authentic art in Another Other. Unsure of the artists’ belief in their own work, I failed to commit as an audience member.
After fifty minutes I even started believing that art was dead. Thanks to the clocks high above the stage I could regret every minute left. The saddest thing was that I respect the work of each artist in their own right. But four good artists in a box does not an opera make. At the end of Another Other the artists imagine a different ending to the film. The doctor says that Elisabet’s silence was just another role that she sloughed off in the end, not a real existential crisis. She was perhaps also depressed and infantile. The doctor concludes “But perhaps you have to be infantile to be an artist in an age such as this.” I laughed. It made me particularly glad I trusted them with an hour and a half of my life.
Chamber Made Opera
18 February 2016
Natasha Anderson, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras, Erkki Veltheim.