Light-Show white, white, white – Robert Wilson’s ‘Via Crucis’ in Weimar

Weimar seems to me to be exhausted by its own history. No doubt the impression is subjective. Travelling tires me. The grey skies and occasional rain give everything an Autumnal, muted aspect. I make a pilgrimage to Van der Velde’s building, where the Weimar Bauhaus had its home (bottom picture). It is nearly evening and the place is quiet, closed, deserted.

I am there to see Robert Wilson’s Via Crucis, taking place on the other side of town.

My German is a little rudimentary, but I understand the phrase ‘Klassischen Flop’ (Michael Plote). That is too harsh. It is an interesting, and revealing experience, never less than intriguing.

The evening begins outside the student designed pavilion, Epiphaneia (Carina Dudda und Michael Protschky – see top picture, below), a temporary building of illuminated containers. A brilliant junk-sculpture to act as entry point and gallery.

A long, verbal explanation is given to the suited Weimar audience, under their cloud of blue umbrellas. As far as I can understand it, an introduction to the project. Robert Wilson has been working as a guest lecturer at the Bauhaus-Universitat in Weimar in 2011 through 2012. The first part of the evening will comprise 16 ‘stations’ created by the students and alumni from Wilson’s previous summer programmes at the Watermill center, Long Island. We will then proceed into the vast Viehauktionshalle, where Wilson has created a light installation, with Liszt’s music , recorded in 3-D sound and provided through a collaboration with the Hochschule fur Musik.

The student work will be bright, loud and confined, we are told. It is. It begins with a siren that attacks our ears, followed by crashing music, after which apparent silence. As we enter, we realise that the noise has been replaced by a sweetly singing choir. Then the siren sears our brains again and the sound loops. This is more post-punk than post-Bauhaus, a space ankle deep in crumpled newspaper, pasted Biblical texts and rough, black graffiti . I see a ‘blue angel’, or blue rider-less horse of torn polythene. I see a mouth framed as in Beckett’s Not I, but with bleeding tongue and automated voice. I see an angelic figure sitting above us, back turned and black plait dangling, a celestial Rapunzel with gothic tendencies. I see a naked woman descend a ladder. I see others frozen, holding tools like weapons – brushes, tape. In the centre, a deep, dark, tomb-like space. I never see what it contains. These are just some of the ‘Stations’ –  I presume stations of the cross. Heaven meets Hell here.

Before there is time to exhaust this space, we are hurried down a dark tunnel into the Viehauktionshalle. A gravel field, studded with grey stools. We take our seats as a congregation of lost souls, in a Beckett landscape.

In the 21st century it is so entirely possible to create spectacular lighting effects that at first there is surprise that Wilson does not overwhelm us, make us gasp with awe, immerse us in shafts of light. But I come to appreciate the relative austerity of the geometric shapes and patterns. Wilson uses screens and gauzes to double the walls, creating an illusion of uncertainty and depth, duplicating the images and blurring the boundaries. For all that, there is a certain flatness to the display, which keeps to the four sides on the whole, and hides, rather than reveals architectural feature.

I am also confused about the mix of approaches, however much I appreciate them in themselves. Is this abstraction? The bright Rothko rectangles seem to say so. Is it symbolism? A projected image of a white deer slowly dies, its eyes flickering. A dying, animal Christ. Is it a light architecture? The doubled walls. The Viehauktionshalle as cathedral? A sublime sequence in which the wooden rafters are washed with blue. Strictly  technological? An array of bulbs, round or tubular, yellow or white. Concerned with the natural world? Patterns that suggest thorns, branches, sunsets or nuclear explosions… and the deer. Moths are illuminated briefly, drawn to the light, poignant co-habitants of the space.

This layered fragmentation starts to remind me of Wilson’s other work, which both insists on synthesis and makes us experience it as discrete elements, as if perception were slowed down deliberately, through a range of methods, of which temporal slowness is only one. Yet I am largely unmoved. Only the wooden ceiling and the moths, the reality of the hall itself, lit by the work, reach me in the darkness.

Let’s not dwell on the ending, when a kind of global, kind of cruciform thing provides an anti-climactic display of mechanical revolution: the church’s answer to a glitter-ball and a bit less fun.

And the music without performers present feels somewhat sterile, even though it immerses us. I begin to realise how important the human element is in Wilson’s work.

Are we that element? I do find myself dancing at one point, turning my stool in time with the rhythms of music and light. A man smiles at me. I do not think this is the point.

The very elegance of the effects destroys their impact. I think of the roughness of Moholy-Nagy’s flickering Lichtspiel Schwarz-Weiss-Grau. But here, one is aware of light-bulbs in walls. It’s not that one sees the artifice, but that it is banal. There is no ‘grain’ to the voice of this production.

I saw this show in the shadow of the Weimar Bauhaus and the artists’ experiments  with light-play and light as architecture. They would have been a better audience for this than we were. Oskar Schlemmer posited a theatre that might transcend the human element: ‘Man, the animated being, would be banned from view in this mechanistic organism. He would stand as the “perfect engineer” at the central switchboard, from where he would direct this feast for the eyes’ (cited in Forgacs 1991:125). On the other hand, in his actual stage work, and in other statements, Schlemmer presented a more ambiguous relationship between man and machine. Meanwhile, despite seemingly moving further away from the individual human being in the theatre, Moholy-Nagy wondered how one might move theatre away from literature to liberate the other elements and yet still incorporate ‘processes of human movement and thought‘ (Moholy-Nagy 1927, my italics).

This particular Wilson production tends to suggest that in this instance, it was Moholy who had it right. Wilson’s theatre work revisits, completes and transcends the theatre of the Bauhaus, not because he has the technology of the 21st century at his disposal, but because he includes ‘human movement and thought’ in his architectural vision.

At least, he usually does.