A letter

Dear All,


The first danced part of Marlene Freitas’s Jaguar is a joyful and gay couple dance. At times perfectly synchronized and at times more loosely together, as if the movement was drawn with soft pastel, Freitas and Andreas Merk, dance as a couple in love in one of those motion pictures of the 1950s that used to be broadcasted in Sunday matinés.

However, every now and then, some strange forces and invisible events trouble the normal unfolding of the performance. Actually, as the audience enters the theater, the performers are already wandering around, blindly, on stage; their walk is halfway between that of the alienated Oedipus of the last scenes of Pasolini’s film and of Chaplin. Nonetheless, laying on top of a traditional tune taking its time, the first danced part succeeds in making the audience feel at chartered land. The blind beginning, the small events and the short violin transition alike soft electric discharges, constitute rather modest signs, only slightly raising the suspicion that things may take a different turn.

Indeed, the following dance, unfolding upon Arnold Schoenberg’s Transfigured night (1899), plunges the audience into a world of absolute strangeness. Backed by Andreas Merk, Marlene Freitas takes the lead by performing with a towel that at times looks like a classic drape and at times a prosaic shower towel, in an “uncanny” irresolution between the two. This aesthetic category is particularly pertinent in relation to the aesthetics of Marlene Freitas. Already the NY Times used it in relation to her performance in (M)imosa (2011) where, among others, she impersonated Prince performing Darling Nikki [linkfor the critical reception of Marlene Freitas, cf. link]. Indeed this category is also essential for making sense of the earlier Guintche (2010) later Paradise (2012) and Of Ivory and flesh (2014).

The Transfigured night is based on Richard Dehmel’s poem on a couple that, while walking through the night, share the dark secret that she bears the child of another man, and, finally, reconcile. Schoenberg’s sextet is nourished by a deep death drive. This aspect is perfectly underlined by the performance of Freitas, through the uncanny manipulation of her towel, at times classic, at times perfectly prosaic, or even a shroud. This is particularly interesting insofar the Transfigured night is also the swan song of the tonal musical system. There is both the death of the gay couple with which the show started, and of the system that for centuries governed the production of erudite music in the West. After it, for about two decades, Schoenberg would craft its alternative and revolutionary twelve tone system (dodecaphony). The deadly mood of the romantic Transfigured night is stressed by the overlapping of Claudio Monteverdi’s Lament of the Nymph (1638). At this stage the audience has been holding their breath already for a while.

The performance proceeds with another gay, joyful and punctually troubled dance, for coming into another landmark of Western music (and performance), Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring (1913). At a first stage Andreas Merk, and at a later stage him and Marlene Freitas, fully embody the rhythmic exuberance of the Rite, with its recurrences and repetitions, a piece that is based in popular myths, harmonies and rhythms (films 2, 3). The classic drape and prosaic towel, their flowing in the space and over the body, their laying down on the floor, are both perfectly and uncannily pertinent here. The performance is at once tense and comic, at their highest degree.

Interestingly, it was around the polarity between the dodecaphonic Schoenberg and Stravinsky that Theodor Adorno wrote his influential Philosophy of the New Music (1949). As it is well known, here Schoenberg plays the role of the hero while the archaic and primitive Stravinsky represents all that should be left behind. Although later Adorno would partly revise his position, he was rather effective in repressing Stravinsky from the cultural debate. It would take decades until a new generation, led by Pierre Boulez, would bring him to the foreground, indeed to the same height of Schoenberg. While the latter overcame the tonal system - however remaining stuck to the rhythmic structures of the very same system that it refused -, the former revolutionized Western rhythm. The “developing variation” (entwickelnde Variation) that for Adorno constitutes an index of the superiority of Schoenberg, is just a side of the coin. Indeed another fundamental pole in the history of modern music was the revolution of rhythm, led by the primitive, archaic, Stravinsky. For Leonard Bernstein, Schoenberg and Stravinsky searched the same thing through different ways: “increasing expressive power” (film 4); just as Marlene Freitas is doing today, at Jaguar with the intercession of these modern masters. Likewise, the development of, on one hand, abstraction, and, on the other hand, expressionism, surrealism, the discovery or invention of outsider art, constitute the two sides of the same coin.

This is both known and displayed with detachment in the conservatories of Western culture, either the art museum, the concert hall or its CD shop. Indeed, nowadays, Schoenberg and Stravinsky constitute modern classics and products of mass consumption like many others (say, the Pet Shop Boys). In Jaguar these lines of development are again put into intense reverberation. Several aspects converge in this direction, firstly and obviously the choice of such monumental and historically contradictory musical persona. But it is the clustering and montage of the heteroclite materials, their choreography, that is fundamental.

The interplay and opposition between moments of identification with the work (the joyful and gay dances that punctuate the two hour show) and the moments of uncanniness, whether episodic or unfolding at long (the Schoenberg and Stravinsky choreographies), play a central role to such respect. There is a constant oscillation between identification and its stoppage, an ongoing brechtian “distancing” or “estrangement effect” (Verfremdungseffekt): one oscillates between familiar and rather unfamiliar grounds. Towels play a fundamental role in the show, offering the subtle and ambiguous oscillation between such disparate poles as the classic drape (of statues or painting, renaissance, baroque, neoclassical… or modern, as surveyed in G. Didi-Huberman, Ninfa Moderna, Gallimard, 2002), the shower and sauna towel. The solution is more than remarkable; it is truly brilliant. The say of Lautréamont is perfectly fit here: “beautiful as the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella”; as Marlene Freitas indicates, “Jaguar is the name of some horses”.


In an article published at the HS, J. O. Miettinen testimonies about his deep irritation in relation to Jaguar. Unable to identify the basic coordinates of the aesthetic world of the Marlene Freitas (although she no longer is a stranger to Helsinki, but of course it is necessary more than having liked the previous shows...), unable to confront the new piece with any critical or cultural position, to put forward clear and distinct arguments, the article is not a “review” but simply a “chronicle on the author’s irritation”.

The chronist acknowledges that the choreographer has previously been to Helsinki, complains that the program lacks information about the music, mentions that the show includes a polystyrene horse, makes a short reference to the minimalism of Freitas’ performance and, in fact, not much more, having lost the nerve as he did.

After more than a century of “untitled” works and misleading or deceptive information provided by artists (one readily thinks of Bansky, but, in the finnish context, it occurs, as a mere example, Hanna Hanninen’s Brooklyn Bridge...), it is of course the artist’s prerogative to give as much or as little information as they like, which is always a rather interesting aspect to analyse. Clearly the chronist chose to protest - on grounds he does not clarify -, instead of analysing.

Nevertheless, he succeeded in identifying Schoenberg’s Transfigured night and Stravinsky’s Rite. But that was it; the chronist did not manage to develop any meaningful consequence from these findings. Yet, as we have seen, this couple is central in Adorno’s critique, which, whether one likes or not, is a cornerstone of cultural critique, a reference so fundamental to professional reviewers as one expects the Kalevala may be known to HS readers.

There is of course more music in the show, sampled, transformed, including music from Cape Verde, the homeland of Marlene Freitas. This means that in an age of (artistic) globalization reviewing will become increasingly demanding, requiring more work, possibly the necessity of asking more questions and, it is advisable, to the right informers. Apparently the chronist asked the sound technician about the music; but, shouldn’t he have asked the author, Marlene Freitas, instead?! If the Helsingin Sanomat is to review a Kiasma exhibition, will it look for further information by asking the lightning technicians on curatorial choices, or to the curator himself?... The chronist’s choice of informer was wholly unprofessional, we think.

While the chronist complains about the lack of information on the music, he does not complain on the lack of information on the costumes, for instance. Such biased attitude is indeed telling of the hierarchies - trivial and conformist - that structure the chronist's standpoint. Indeed from the outset this attitude postulates that a music piece is more relevant than a T-shirt or a pair of socks. Why? What if for Marlene Freitas things happen the other way round, i.e. if for her it is essential to put a “monumental” piece of Schoenberg at the same level of a towel? It is as if the chronist were ignorant on finnish modern and contemporary art? For instance, as a mere example, is he acquainted with the work of Veli Granö? While for some the actions of heroic men deserve more attention than that of a child, a bird, a madman or the adultery committed by a farmer’s daughter as depicted in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, it seems to us that Freitas made the latter choice. The split is clear cut: between those that in a conformist way accept all sorts of hierarchies (aesthetic, often also social and political); and those that, with their labour, challenge them.

Eventually, as the chronist testifies, there is a polystyrene horse on stage (fig. 9). However, putting things in this way is remaining at a non-critical and conformist stage of non-analysis, which is absolutely misleading. It is the equivalent of, in a supposed review, saying that there are paintings, sculptures and videos at a Kiasma exhibition.

In fact, the so called “polystyrene horse” is a representation larger than the natural scale, as a statue, as indeed its referent is one of the horses that Giulio Romano depicted at the Sala dei Cavalli (1525-27) of Mantua’s Palazzo del Te; it was remarkably manipulated by Freitas and Merk. Therefore, perfectly consistent with the inclusion of Claudio Monteverdi, as well as the insistent interest of Marlene Freitas in puppets (the theater of Tadeusz Kantor comes readily to our mind), and inconsistent with the prosaic polystyrene, the towels, the tennis costumes, and much more. Yet, such “inconsistencies” are perfectly consistent with the fine artistic tradition that goes under the name of Surrealism, with its many Survivals (Nachleben), that incidentally has a long and superb history in Finland (among many others, cf. Yöjuna / Night Train, Kiasma & Like, 2003), including such fine artists as V. Granö, U. Jokisalo, H. Hiltunen, or K. Vehosalo (fig. 8), just to quote a few names. It is therefore wholly displaced to speak of “minimalism”, as the chronist does. Here, again, on what is possibly the only remark with a critical sense, he got badly wrong.

Intensity, emotions, empathy, being fundamental aspects of the artistic discourse of Marlene Freitas, it is not a surprise that in return she may get the sympathy and enthusiasm of many and the antipathy of others. That emotions play a role in any critical assessment, goes for itself. The fact that, in a prestigious newspaper as the HS, a review turns into an irritated emotional discharge, absolutely non-critical, is unique in its kind.

Moi, moi,

J. Figueira

PS: As I was completing this letter, N. Hallikainen published a fine example of what critical work can be, and a rather positive review Jaguar: link (the finnish version is available at the same site).

Thanks to Paulo de Assis for assistance on the musical aspects.

- - - - -

João Francisco Figueira (b. 1968), is an architect, was awarded his PhD in Helsinki with the dissertation Images at Work (TKK, 2009) and has been collaborating with Marlene Freitas since her Guintche (2015), until the most recent Jaguar (2015). It is on the grounds of this close, but also distant, collaboration with the choreographer, that this letter is written. It is addressed to his friends, J. O. Miettinen and the Helsingin Sanomat. The choosing of the letter format is inspired by the work of Daniel Arasse (1944-2003).

1. M. M. Freitas, Jaguar, 2015. Photo Uupi Tirronen.

2. J. Darvas, Igor Stravinsky, kompositör, 2001. Full version (53'). You tube link.

3. Idem, excerpt. On the repetition of the same chord.

4. Bernstein on Schoenberg, 1973. On Schoenberg and Stravinsky, see 4'20'. You tube link. The following lectures: 2, link; 3, link; 4, link; 5, link. Review: link.

5. M. M. Freitas, Jaguar, 2015. Photo Uupi Tirronen.

7. M. M. Freitas, Jaguar photo.

6. M. M. Freitas, Jaguar, 2015. Photo Uupi Tirronen.

8. K. Vehosalo, Hygiene2010. Oil on canvas, 195 x 170 cm.

9. M. M. Freitas, Jaguar's horse.