As The Art of Being Human receives its premiere in Berlin’s Boulez Saal, artist Alexander Polzin explains how the process of creating it reflects the complexity of life
Sommer Ulrickson, Laurence Dreyfus and I knew each other and admired each other’s work. I’d already created some cover art for Phantasm, but we always wanted to do something more. Sommer went to a Phantasm concert in the Berlin Philharmonie and and met Larry backstage afterwards. On the spot, they decided to do something to bring the music together with movement. We all sat down and discussed themes that interested us and came to the question of ‘What does it mean to be a human?’ We started from there.
We were united by the idea that what defines us as humans, as separate from other species, is art making. Art reflects our desires and grapples with complex issues. Myths are not peaceful and comforting – they are usually painful and harmful, whether they’re about war, jealousy or strong emotions. In art, we reflect on how we can deal with these feelings. We need to breathe and eat, of course, but reflecting and making art are an essential part of being alive. Art should be not treated like the icing on the cake in our lives.
‘The agreement was that we would all test our individual boundaries in order to make something together – quite literally the art of being human’
The basis of the project was the urge to collaborate, but we were conscious that it wouldn’t be easy. We would all need to move out of our comfort zones. The agreement was that we would all test our individual boundaries in order to make something together – quite literally the art of being human.
There were compromises on all sides. Dancers need certain kinds of spaces and floors to move and they don’t usually have a dialogue with the musicians. Musicians are used to sitting alone on stage, concentrating on their fragile instruments, and not moving much. I generally create a sculpture to be put on a plinth in a gallery – no one needs to move it or sit on it. While I had to compromise to make the musicians’ situation part of my sculpture, the musicians sit on sculptures that are far from the comfort they’re used to.
‘The audience will see the autonomy of the three art forms, with early music performed at the highest standard, and dancers not only responding to the music, but relating substantially and physically to the musicians’
The audience will see the autonomy of the three art forms, with early music performed at the highest standard, and dancers not only responding to the music, but relating substantially and physically to the musicians. The stage sculpture is a tool to connect these two art forms.
I was very familiar with Phantasm’s recordings, and their special sound is in my blood. There is an endless richness to this music. None of it is only one layer. When you look closer everything is complex. This complexity is also important in the kind of art I try to create. It reflects the real world that surrounds us and is a way of seeing it. We shouldn’t trust easy, one-layer answers, but always see the multiplicity in the reality around us. This has always been my way of thinking but this music has reminded me how essential it is. You sit in front of five musicians, but their bodies and instruments create a single holistic experience.
‘Although each individual part is defined and complex, the magic happens when they come together. You can’t identify the individual voices – together they all merge into something greater’
This is also the symbolism of my stage sculpture. It is in five parts that can stand separately, each representing themselves, but they also fit together so seamlessly as one whole that you can’t imagine how they work apart. That is the experience of listening to Phantasm. Although each individual part is defined and complex, the magic happens when they come together. You can’t identify the individual voices – together they all merge into something greater. That is the ideal scenario that an audience experiences while listening and watching.
The collaboration was joyful because the circumstances were right. You can’t put something like this together in a serious way quickly. This kind of journey needs time and space. You can’t say, ‘Let’s put three different art media together and give them five days.’ There is no fast track to good results. But if you take the time to see and listen to each other’s needs, you have a chance to interact in a serious way that is valuable for society.
The pandemic put an even more obvious and heavy emphasis on this kind of work. It was a time to contemplate and rethink, not only for the performing arts, but for all human beings, locked up at home. What makes us special? What separates us from other species? The joy of making art, dancing, making music, listening to music and watching dance is a substantial part of what makes us human.
The Art of Being Human is performed at Pierre Boulez Saal on 23, 24 and 25 March and at the Aldeburgh Festival on 18 June. To find out about staging the project, please contact Rachel van Walsum.