Bertolt Brecht has been dead since 1956, so it would seem rather odd to assert that he has emerged from an East German Tardis and is currently walking the streets of Shoreditch or sipping cocktails in a Hoxton Square bar. However, a Brecht-inspired creative asteroid has recently hit the old Shoreditch Train Station, care of London-based British Israeli artist Eran Tsafrir. Tsafrir is showing a mixed-media installation entitled diG.shaKe.riSe.andblEEed,myloVe. // ascensIon. at a derelict part of the former station. The work deals with the street protests erupting across London and the UK during the present economic difficulties.
What this has to do with Genosse Brecht becomes clearer once one invokes his famous ‘Verfremdungseffekt,’ by which an audience is meant to be so distanced from familiar material that it is forced to think about it in a refreshing new way. Visitors to ascensIon. are enveloped in darkness and assaulted from all sides by clashing extracts of political debates and statements. By this visitors are forced to listen to our leaders (Cameron, Osborne, Balls, Clegg et al) and re-consider what they are saying to each other and telling their wider audiences.
Hanging from the ceiling are pastel coloured, metal-framed images, including a self-portrait whose stern features hint at the semi-camouflaged Old Masters who occasionally peer out of their own Renaissance canvases. As one literally shines a light on the installation (with a powerful torch given to visitors at the entrance to the fully dark exhibition space), one observes a rubble-strewn staircase leading up to further protest footage emanating from television screens situated at the rear of the exhibition. As the politicians bicker on the audio, trains continue to hurtle by at regular intervals, contrasting organic sound with recorded voices. The bricks, concrete shards and railway paraphernalia are laid out in a stylised fashion across the steps, with one particularly long grooved slab pointing downwards in a diagonal fashion, possibly providing a symbolic link between the protests loudly demonstrating outside Parliament whilst the hacks continue abusing each other indoors.
The protest footage is partially obscured by a torn veil of distressed newsprint with headlines shouting about the latest cuts, demonstrations and police (over)-reactions. Viewers struggle to catch a full visual impression of events on the streets whilst their aural reception is continuously interrupted and overridden. The overall effect is a dutiful application of Brechtian Verfremdung which requires a sensitive visitor to review what they think they have seen, heard and thought about the great unwashed on the streets of Britain.
As to the merits of those protests, whether of the anti-capitalist, occupy or unionised varieties, perhaps a taste of Brecht’s own wit can put them in perspective:
After the uprising of the 17th of June
The Secretary of the Writers Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Stating that the people
Had forfeited the confidence of the government
And could win it back only
By redoubled efforts. Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?
(This poem addresses the East German government’s crushing of the 1953 East Berlin workers’ uprising. It is called “Die Lösung” (The Solution) and appears in Brecht’s Elegies).
For documentation of ascensIon. and further information see:
Commissioned by meinluftgesheft.
Image (installation view, detail) © 2012 Eran Tsafrir