Surrounded By Debris

We just can’t stop messing up. The human struggle persists in two large-scale performances at Lilith Performance Studio in Malmö.

Éva Mag, Operation Analysis, 2023.

There’s been an explosion. The kitchen has fallen apart and there’s a red fluid covering the walls. The two remaining walls are dangerously wonky. A person is walking around among the debris trying to clean up, filling bucket after bucket with the wet red substance, only to pour them into a larger cistern which pipes the liquid back into the broken room. The job can’t be finished.

Anna-Karin Rasmusson’s performance piece The Rapid’s Beginning (2023) is one of two works introducing Lilith Performance Studio’s new presentational format ‘Durational Space’. For the last fifteen years, the studio has commissioned and produced over fifty large-scale performances, giving visual artists the opportunity to work on a scale akin to a theatre production. With the new format, two performance works will go on alongside each other. This is a way to show more works, as well as, perhaps, initiating more conversations about what the works are and what they do. At least, that is the first question posed by the other ongoing work: what are the performers doing?

Inside the larger of the studio’s spaces, the dancers are crawling, inching, and clinging to each other and the props in a room where large tubes of fabric are hanging from the ceiling. Unidentified clothes are drenched in a big container with muddy water. The audience is placed on a balcony overlooking the space, and underneath our feet is the cast of a human body. In Éva Mag’s Operation Analysis (2023), people voluntarily create obstacles for themselves and each other. The dancers drag clothes around their legs. One is blind-folded and another wears only one very high-heeled shoe. On top of that, they’re carrying around what looks like waste, burned clay, or the odd piece of pipeline.

It’s like a yard clean-up gone very, very wrong.

All the same, there are several moments of kind intimacy. The background music prompts one dancer to approach another in a contact improvisation. At one point, it seems like they engage in cannibalistic wrestling, but at another it appears more like a smooth little dance.

Improvisation often renders a performance a bit imprecise. Both the director and the audience have to allow for the action to be “a kind of” something. That is also the case with Mag’s piece. An analysis of Operation Analysiswould conclude that human beings are not rational. The signs are many. For example, the way we all fuss about and find confidence in each other’s various impulses. Rather than any rational plans, our fates are governed by our unexpected reactions and the way we suddenly fancy things. The dancers accept the obstacles stacked around them and sometimes add new ones. They accept loud, irregular sounds and bangs. It’s like these people manage to disregard both the bad qualities of matter, and the bad qualities of each other’s thoughts.

Anna-Karin Rasmusson, The Rapid’s Beginning, 2023.

When I attended the two performances, I was cast in very different roles as a member of the audience. Watching the tentative dancers in Mag’s piece, I became the one looking for meaning, judging the mess, and searching for a pattern. Standing next to Anna-Karin Rasmusson, I was powerless, deprived of the possibility to act.  

Both these works display a sticky fight against a pain that we’ve brought upon ourselves. In both, the human struggle goes on, in spite of the audience’s judgmental presence. Because, yes, I recoiled. “That’s not an image of me,” I claimed, while also feeling the urge to sort out the situation (and if not sort it out, then to leave the performers to themselves). And here’s the rub. Of course, I’d like to think that humankind would stop messing up, if only we could get a better look at ourselves. With scrutiny, reliable witnesses, and better analyses, we’d understand more and improve the way we act in the world.

But clearly, that’s not going to happen.

Hedvig Weibull is a freelance art and performance critic based in Svalöv, Skåne. She has a BA in Drama  (Queen Mary College, University of London) and an MA in Theater Studies and Art History (Stockholm University). 

Éva Mag, Operation Analysis, 2023. All photos: Petter Pettersson / Lilith Performance Studio.