Marina Abramoviç (b. 1946) and Ulay (b. 1943)
BContinental Videoseries 1983-1986
CITY OF ANGELS, TERRA DELLA DEA MADRE, TERMINAL GARDEN
The three parts of this video work entitled "CONTINENTAL VIDEOSERIES" incorporate elements of earlier works by Ulay/Abramovic: Firstly, they are shot in different locations in the eastern and western world: Bangkok, Sicily and Cambridge, whose ritual and traditional peculiarities are picked out as a central theme. The artists are working with the stylistic device of the "tableau vivant", combining it with speech in a way that creates the impression of ritual acts. The strings of speech cannot be deciphered, only in "Terra della dea madre" snatches of words seem to be Italian or Greek. The language is reminiscent of an ancient epos. With the exception of the "Cambridge" sequence, the singsong of the speaker's voice and the undecipherable text in the remaining parts make the aspect of contents and narrative virtually disappear in favour of a pictorial whole that encompasses the peculiarities of the language system.
"The City of Angels, produced in Bangkok in 1983, shows a number of "stills" one after the other: first an entire tape of people, all lying motionless on their bellies or their backs in the grass, their faces turned away. Slowly and persistently, the camera now pans each detail of their clothes. For instance, a Thai monk with a stick lies there quietly in the grass next to a young man; or women wrapped in colourful clothes, a small boy in traditional dress with bare feet, a man with a head band and another bare to the waist, a woman in a black and white peasant costume with a colourful skirt border. The bodies of the people seem motionless as if asleep. The human sculpture is spread on the grass in a zig-zag shape. First, the body parts of an individual are slowly scanned by the camera's eye as if it were the extended gaze of the viewer on a voyage of discovery. Then the camera gradually zooms out for a wider picture of all the people, and at length fastens on a tortoise near the foot of the woman in the peasant costume, as it slowly moves out of the picture; following its progress, the camera keeps moving away from the subject until it gets a bird's eye view of the entire "tableau vivant". A narrator's defamiliarised voice accompanies the visual happening in a language that seems to have been invented especially for this scene. Occasionally, it falls silent and then starts afresh. It appears as though the images might meet their visual, symbol-coded account with a similarly coded message in the sphere of language.
The same is true for the other pictures, for instance where two young men remain fixed in their poses as fighters in front of the ruins of a temple. Then an Asian family in the countryside returns the gaze of the viewer, and in the next picture, the tortoise moves past a man stretched out in the grass and a squatting woman, with a Khmer temple in the background. Songs provide the background music to these scenes, as is the case with the following two where events are dominated by a woman with a snake and a man with a scimitar. In the last take, a wide-angle shot, we once again see the people lying on the grass, with a blue cloth placed around them in a semi-circle while the tortoise is slowly moving away, and it becomes clear that this is a cyclical pictorial structure with narrative elements and that all the individuals lying there were actually involved in various stills.
"Terra della dea Madre" – On the "Soil of the Mother of God", that is, Sicily, Abramovic/Ulay focus, in 1984, on the excavations of antiquity, and against this backdrop they place young and old men. The camera pans the faces of these inhabitants and over the excavated pieces scattered around the land, alternating here and there with an interior view of an Italian Palazzo where young and old women veiled in black are sitting at a large table or in chairs and on benches. The people taken into focus are motionless and submit to the eye of the camera as it slowly feels its way over objects and details, and folded hands. A group of older men dressed in white shirts is squatting in the shade of the stones, and occasionally, the camera offers a view of the see. The din of voices and cries provides the background sounds for a defamiliarised female voice that appears to relate an epos about this country and its people in a somewhat lamenting tone, as if telling the story of a century-old fate. In the interiors, the tempo of the camera direction is slow. Outdoors, it is faster, but overall it is about picking up a particular pictorial language, an eloquent testimony for Sicilian culture and tradition. The unintelligible tale provides the symbol laden images with an atmospheric colour rather than a narrative of its own, and one can only guess at its epic character.
"Terminal Garden", the part produced in Cambridge 1986, depicts an unreal-surreal, preternatural "landscape" with leaves against a blue background, tubes, plugs and electronic equipment next to the trunks of birches, all appearing as props of an artificial and imaginary reality. This time, one can understand the narrative thanks to an English-speaking commentator. Whilst the camera pans computer, mouse, and flashing equipment, upon which we discover the hands of little girls and boys who seem to be placed in an odd laboratory situation amongst these machines, the narrator is speaking in isolated, terse sentences of an artificial, technological world of play. He tells about twenty-four ways of creating beautiful eyes, and of the lottery promising twice the fun and time for the great taste. Sentences like "you can taste the time we take", "softer with long lasting flavour", "a life of science", or "another reason to choose the 20th century" remind us of our media society, which is characterised by advertising slogans and by its faith in technology. That this is also an allusion to the phenomenon of the global network is conveyed both by the computer equipment and by the children from Asia, Africa and Europe who, are sitting, lying or standing about with a vacant stare. In addition, there is a picture-within-the-picture situation through a monitor which shows an anthology of nature impressions, views of cities, fine arts as well as abstract and computer art as though this film were symbolic for the collective memory of an historical and current development. In another sequence, the monitor shows someone in front of a huge map of the world who makes changes on the map on command, for instance in Haiti which he places elsewhere, colours the map and in doing so, seems to interfere massively, on a symbolic level, in geographical and political developments. In the end, the narrator extols change, and with the conclusion "since boredom and freedom are relative", he points to arbitrariness as an element within today's worldviews that should not be underestimated.
These three parts of "Continental Videoseries" could stand alone, but on the one hand, on a higher level their symbol rich images convey both sides of the western and eastern traditions. And on the other hand they indicate the most recent, and in Ulay/Abramovic's observation certainly critically viewed development of a world united through technology and "know-how" that, in a vision of the future, does not end in a new Garden of Eden, but in a "Terminal Garden" whose terminology owes more to a terminal or to a place controlled by computers.