Safety Curtain 2008/2009

Rosemarie Trockel's Safety Curtain 2008/2009

"Being present as an interested spectator at a theatrical performance does for adults what play does for children, whose fumbling anticipation of being able to do what grown-up people do is in that way gratified." (Sigmund Freud)

"But when you played by yourself, as always, it could happen that you overstepped the bounds of this agreed-upon, generally harmless world unawares, and found yourself in circumstances that were completely different, unforeseeable and at the same time irresistible." In the pages that follow that sentence, the circumstances in which the eponymous narrator in Rainer Maria Rilke's great experimental prose work "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge" (1910) finds himself are a series of scenes in a remote room of his ancestral home, where Malte explores one after another dark and deep wardrobe full of costumes for fancy-dress balls and uniforms of military and ceremonial orders. The last of the wardrobes contains not costumes as such but "all kinds of random paraphernalia" for dressing up. As he handles and tries on "the spacious cloaks, the scarves, the shawls, the veils, all those yielding, wide, unused fabrics that were so soft and caressing, or so smooth that one could hardly keep hold of them, or so light that they flew by one like a wind, or simply heavy with their own weight," Malte feels himself transported into a kind of hallucinatory intoxication. Wrapped in fabrics, he envisions "truly free and infinitely shifting possibilities: to be a slave girl who was about to be sold, or Joan of Arc or an old king or a wizard."

Rosemarie Trockel's "Eiserner Vorhang" project presents to the audience in the Wiener Staatsoper something like the threshold of the room full of wardrobes in "The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge". The object of which the safety curtain bears an image is a so-called wool-picture called "Keller" (Cellar) that was made by the artist in 1988 by stretching machine-knitted black woolen fabric over a wooden frame and then arranging over the woolen picture surface skeins of the kind of readymade plastic filaments that are sold at novelty and craft supply shops as imitation "spider webs". More precisely, the image on the curtain is a photographic enlargement that represents the wool-picture with a more than three-hundredfold increase in size, transforming a work that had taken up its place in relation to the history of the easel painting and of the modernist monochrome in particular – one thinks, for example, of the Russian Suprematist artist Kasimir Malevich's "Black Square" (1915), a point of departure for other works by Trockel – into an image whose scale seems virtually cosmic.

If the image of the deep black wool and the delicate white plastic web calls to mind the threshold of a room that is at once alluring and threatening, it is also as if, with its appearance on the safety curtain, Trockel's wool-picture might become for the audience seated for a performance onstage at the Staatsoper what the garments inside the dark wardrobe were for Malte: an enveloping fabric – here a monumentally dematerialized one, a kind of stuff remade as image (or, virtually, as space) – in which one might experience oneself transformed not so much by a change in what surrounds one as by the awakening of one's imagination or indeed one's own potential artistry. In that the audience might find it had something in common not only with Malte – and with Trockel, to be sure – but also with the arachnids who fashion the webs of which the plastic filaments as depicted on the safety curtain are a simulacrum, spinning webs as human weavers spin the fibers of which wool-pictures, and so many other things, are made.

Trockel's image on the safety curtain marks for its audience a threshold not only of imagination but also of – a point of entry into a space in which one's imagination might take hold, a space in which one might find oneself capable of as if with characters on a stage, whether figures from history (Malte's Joan of Arc) or creatures of one's own or another's fantasies. Or perhaps it would be better to say that Trockel's picture on the safety curtain marks a threshold at which one's mind might make itself over as a space with a privileged view onto a teatrum mundi.


Sigmund Freud, "Psychopathic Characters on Stage" (1905/06) trans. James Strachey, The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works, Volume VII (1901–1905): A Case of Hysteria, Three Essays on Sexuality, and Other Works (London: Hogarth, 1953–1974), p. 304. Unpublished in Freud's lifetime. Translation modified.

Rainer Maria Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge (1910), trans. Stephen Mitchell (New York: Vintage, 1985), pp. 101, 104–105. Translations modified.