Berlin, January 2007
The piece disappointed those who came to see a dance and even some who expected a performance. Just skim through the photos below to get an idea. Watching on the stage what appears to be a regular workout is not everyone's taste, but this alone does not discredit a piece as some reviews suggested.
Anything done on stage may become a performance. Even the stage is not mandatory, so what discerns a performance from arbitrary activities, apart from its purpose to be watched? I am not going to engage in this issue here, but I may offer a couple of hints why Ciupke's and Kango's piece was more than a workout.
A detailed description of the piece was published by Volkmar Draeger. (If you don't read German, the photos here serve as a substitute.) I like Draeger's description but disagree with his conclusion, which reads approximately like this: What makes the performer sweat is irritatingly monotonous to the audience, because it is left unprocessed and unglossed. Glossing is the true purpose of art, insists Droeger. The problem with this statement is that in the very moment you define a rule, there is an opportunity for someone to make a point by breaking it. Modern artists actually spend large efforts searching for rules which cause interesting effects when violated. Monotony, irritation and boredom are good examples, still valuable because not worn out, but none was used by Ciupke and Kango. What they did was body art and the story was about overcoming their own limits and about endurance and control, rather than about physical exhaustion as in Julie Nioche's "les sisyphe" or - obviously the idea is not new - by Marina Abramovic.
The strain is visible and laudable and it should be so, no need to hide the physical effort. But the stress and exhaustion is a means rather than purpose, which makes the piece different from the masochism of Chris Burden or contemporary Chinese performance art. To make this distinction clear to the audience, an exercise in English grammar is played and the dancers practice declension while training their muscles. (Dancers? You would not expected it if you saw just this piece, but both Ciupke and Kango are "real" dancers with records ranging from Romeo and Julia to modern choreographies.)
Control is the central concept of the piece. Endurance and discipline was surely a challenge, but not the biggest one. Push-ups till exhaustion, when groans cannot be suppressed any more (photo above), were followed by acrobatic interludes which demanded precise control of the balance. Two examples are shown below. In another, risky piece Ciupke climed up and stood straight on Kango's shoulders, first on both legs and then just on one. The fact that they kept close to a horizontal bar which Ciupke might be able to catch after losing balance did not make it look less dangerous. Without cutting or burning their bodies, they achieved perceptions similar to the extreme body art of the 1970th and 1980th while avoiding its absurdity and adding a new positive element.
The audience did not seem to have problems with the classification of the piece that plagues the critics and rewarded the performers with a prolonged applaus.