Safety Curtain

May the Safety Curtain be unfinished? On Performance and Latency

In 1954, Francis Bacon spent a long time at a hotel in Oxfordshire, England. While staying there Bacon painted the “Man in Blue” series consisting of seven deep-blue canvases. An eccentric guest who Bacon met at the hotel-bar served as a model. In “Man in Blue 1”, now part of the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam, Bacon created a room, with the man seated. The face of the man appears to be erased. The curtains have something of a trellis about them.

“Love is the Devil: Study for a Portrait of Francis Bacon” is a 1998 film directed by John Maybury. It concentrates on Bacon’s strained relationship with another eccentric. The film was screened during my directorship at the Museum Boijmans in 1999 at the Rotterdam Film Festival. I had managed to convince our curators to present the painting “live” on stage at the Rotterdam Theatre on the occasion of the screening. Just before the speeches and introductions the famous art work was brought forward on a painting-easel. It stayed there until the actual screening of the film began.

I dare say we were immediately inspired by the “Safety Curtain” project initiated by museum in progress in 1998. After all, our Viennese colleagues had called the project “an exhibition series transforming the fire barrier between stage and auditorium into a temporary exhibition space”. During our tenure we closely followed the many activities of museum in progress in Vienna, as we claimed the Museum Boijmans as a true museum in progress. We wanted to extend the museum into places hitherto unoccupied by exhibition and collection activities.

Besides, the juxtaposition of the “Man in Blue 1”, a painting in flesh and blood by Bacon, with a film about the life of the same painter was an interesting one: the immobility of the painting versus the time of the moving image. The same divergence is at work in Vienna with the “Safety Curtain” series. The structure of music and opera, just like the movies, is based on the passage of time: the time of and on stage or “time becomes space” (Parsifal). In the context of the “liveliness” of a theatre or a stage the immobility of a painting (just like most sets) may feel rather awkward. Yet this is an interesting “strangeness”: What we experience is the tension between “performance” and “latency”, or, from my point of view, things that are not taking place or that are taking place in a different way than expected.

But before we take a deeper look at this aspect, which I believe is at the very heart of the Vienna project, we should address the “time-space” feature of the theatre-curtain as such. The tradition that performances are punctuated by the rise and fall of a sheet of cloth goes back to ancient times. In more recent times sometimes actors appear or actions take place even before the beginning of the very play – in front of the curtain. Presumably, the main reason for these pre-textual prologues, which blur the starting point of the play, is a greater sense of realism. A sense that the performance is joining a story that has begun some time before. The strategy is risky because in the audience it often creates a sense of unease: are we “in” or are they “out”? In modern plays the safety curtain is also sometimes used to form such a double bind, mostly in order to create a transition which is different or “other” from pre-play to play. The same is true for the “Safety Curtain” series at the Vienna State Opera – each work of art is present throughout an entire season, thus the “pre-scene” of the same work is accompanying the audiences of different productions.

Yet this leads us to the “latency” or the productive ambiguity of these “outside” images or “exhibited artworks” – an ambiguity in particular with regard to the productions taking place, the combinations of music and texts. “The outside, if only by a long and unfamiliar detour, is formally an aspect of the inside”, writes Georg Simmel in his essay on “Individuality and Social Forms”. Anselm Haverkamp’s many remarks and texts about the “latency period” are exploring these uncanny, blurring time experiences as well. In the context of the Vienna project his definition of “latency” works especially well. Haverkamp understands latency as a permanent meaningful reconfiguration of an operating “figure in deconstruction”. Consequently, he defines culture as “dealing with the other lurking in what is one’s own”. The art works exhibited on the Vienna opera’s safety curtain by such outstanding artists as Tacita Dean, Richard Hamilton, David Hockney, Maria Lassnig, Cy Twombly or Kara Walker, to name only a few, can indeed be read in the same way. They are to be read anew every single time. Their “ambiguity” resides then, to quote Haverkamp’s predecessor and great role model, the philosopher Hans Blumenberg in “their indefiniteness together with its purported infinity“. Or in Haverkamp’s own words, in his essay “Die Zweideutigkeit der Kunst” (The Ambiguity of Art): “What looms, hangs or otherwise insists is the threshold of incompleteness on which art is sitting tight in spite of all the political and ‘anthropological’ impositions.”

In a recent conversation with Anselm Haverkamp about the theatre I said, “We must have the courage to conceive the theatre as an exhibition and vice versa. This could lead to a third form in which the incomplete, the unspeakable und the invisible have a fundamental role”, to which Haverkamp replied, “These are structural contexts which are spatial; and they are spatial because they must be conceived in relation to time. For, in this case, the emancipatory progressing moment is not time but the regression into space. Space reconstructs the course of time and in this reduced space you arrive at what Chris calls ‘the unfinished’.” In that sense too, the museum in progress project in Vienna will never be complete even if it already presents the twentieth “Safety Curtain” at the Vienna State Opera.