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Weimar Kunstfest – Four Days and Nights in Germany’s Cultural Republic

On a sunny Saturday morning in Stellwork, a children’s’ and young people’s theatre beside Weimar’s railway station in central Germany, Andy Manley is performing his Critics Awards for Theatre in Scotland winning show, Stick by Me. Manley’s almost wordless tale, created with director Ian Cameron and produced by Red Bridge Arts, sees him duet with a series of ice-lolly sticks in a show that taps into a series of physical set-piece that looks at big worldly subjects of death, loss, love and friendship.

Manley’s creation also taps into an international language of fun that pervades throughout Weimar Kunstfest, the multi-artform festival that takes place annually over three weeks in late August and early September. Now in its thirtieth year, Weimar Kunstfest takes place in the former East German city more readily associated with the heavyweight seriousness of Goethe, Schiller and Liszt, all former residents.

This was prior to the city opening Germany up to its first democracy in 1919, when the WeinerReich Constitution was signed at the Deutsche National Theatre (DNT). This more or less coincided with Walter Gropius founding the Bauhaus design school, its centenary this year celebrating the movement’s forward-thinking radicalism.

Under new director Rolf C. Hemke, this year’s Weimar Kunstfest capitalised on a spate of other anniversaries that point up the city’s unique place in history, both in Germany and further afield. This includes the 200th anniversary of Goethe’s Persian poetry tribute, West-Eastern Divan, eighty years since the outbreak of the Second World War and the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

In a city with a population of roughly sixty-four thousand, this highlighted a similarly forward-thinking and wilfully political internationalist dimension to the boutique programme of theatre, music, film and visual art. With German elections pending, and the Alternative for Germany (ADF) party on the rise, such a show of artistic strength couldn’t be more timely.

Where this year’s festival began with Reichstag Re-enactment, a nine-hour reconstruction of the first day of WeimarReich constitution, it ended with Weimar Cabaret, an open-air display of songs by the likes of Kurt Weill, Hans Eisler, Bertolt Brecht and others the Nazis considered degenerate. The show was performed several times during the festival by Gintersdorfer/Klaben, a free-wheelingly playful group led musically by Ted Gaier of cult German band, Die Goldenen Zitronen.

Versions of Pirate Jenny, a piano-led riff on the Muppet Show theme and a wall of rubber tyres all featured, watched over by the statues of Goethe and Schiller that dominate the centre of the square in Theaterplatz. Such an entertainingly provocative compendium did away with the retro-chic clichés of much of Brechtian cabaret, with the company presenting it instead in a thoroughly modern riot of colour, queer cabaret and synthesised beats. This again rooted things very much in the now, as did the one-off spectacles rehearsed over a day by Gintersdorfer/Klaben, who in one show recreated in hilarious fashion a right wing demonstration that took place the previous weekend.

Inbetween, while the first week featured big-hitters such as British theatre director Katie Mitchell, it was the final week’s programme that really captured the essence of what Hemke wants Kunstfest Weimar to be about.  

Mail from Across There saw the Future 3 company set up a piece of social sculpture in a community youth club that looked at the strengths and weaknesses of reunification since the Berlin Wall fell. With a series of parcels passed from Dusseldorf in the west to Weimar in the east, a dozen totems designed to provoke discussion were handed out, with their accompanying messages read out by the audience. One of these was a CD of 1970s kosmische icons, Neu!, accompanied by a five Euro note and the instruction that it should be burnt. For the woman who sent it, both represented freedom.

In a residential kitchen, Luxembourgian actor Steve Karier played a man gets caught in the crossfire of international terrorism in South African writer Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom’s play, Out in Africa. As a story that pushes the boundaries of civilised behaviour, it’s a grippingly intense and intimate experience, and Karier is a mesmerising presence.

The visual art programme was conceptual, environmental and experiential. In the foyer of DNT, Fleeing to Thuringia – Past and Present, was a soundwork that cut up the voices of those who have migrated to Weimar over the years. In the park, Thom Luz’s Unusual Weather Phenomena was a playful mash-up of tape loops and weather balloons that seemed to huff and puff its way through an endlessly self-reinventing cycle.

Over at E-Work, a former power station that feels like the early days of The Arches or Tramway, four Taiwanese artists presented Light Interdiction. This took in the dystopian virtual reality lift-shaft by TAO Ya-lun, E-Werk Weimar No.1, Fujui WANG’s whooshing sound installation, Hollow Noise, made up of a circle of directional speakers emitting ultrasonic waves, and Dust by WU Chi-tsung, which reflected dust through a projector, making it more visible than usual. 

A three-hour durational performance saw artist Liping TING rooted on a mound of earth, before methodically removing her clothes, dipping her head in a bucket of black paint and covering herself and the sheets around her with it.

The boardroom of a former bank was the venue for The Children of Bauhaus, a two-screen film by Russian theatre director Maxim Didenko and American artist A.J. Weissbard. While children play in the woods on one screen, their delight in dressing up in costumes offset by more meditative moments, on the other, the camera slowly tracks its way out to Buchenwald, the site of the former Nazi concentration camp just outside Weimar. The fact that it’s being screened in the room where the decision was made to fund the camp gives things an extra edge.

A series of concerts showed the links between Bauhaus and the American Black Mountain College, a similarly radical institution where some Bauhaus artists decamped to, and featured works by Stravinsky, Ernst Toch and Stefan Wolpe. The relationship between music and the visual arts was exemplified even more in special recital of songs by Alban Berg, Shostakovich and Hans Eisler. The performance was set against a backdrop of Immer noch unterwegs, or We Are Still on the Road, a recent painting by iconic 81-year-old German artist George Baselitz, who attended the concert, and spoke afterwards. The painting features two figures, and is a response to a 1965 work, in which two similar figures are surrounded by a mess of their own making. For their descendants, the turmoil has been internalised.

The festival’s last words went to Weimar Cabaret’s massed singalong of Eisler and Brecht’s Solidarity Song, with Brecht’s lyrics scrawled in felt pen on placards lined across the pavilion, its audacious plea for unity in the face of reactionary forces summed up everything Weimar Kunstfest was about, and, like the festival itself, was a collective breath of fresh air for our times.


The Herald, September 12th 2019


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