Performance art takes over Prague | Arts | DW | 24.06.2015
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Performance art takes over Prague

They want to reclaim downtown Prague from the tourists, says the Quadriennal's artistic director. They're doing that with a personal look at the Armenian massacre, a weather-battered piano, and a host of creative works.

Blue chairs with a red inscription "PQ 2015 18.-28. 6." hang all over the city in more than 60 places, bolted in various wild, eye-catching sculptures. The seats show the way to the venues of the Prague Quadrennial, the largest scenography event in the world, also known as PQ. Yet you'll need more than this guerilla marketing strategy to find your way through the loaded program and select the most interesting exhibitions and events of the festival.

Staying with Franz Kafka

Prague Quadriennal 2015. Copyright: PQ, Viktor Tuček

One of the venues of the Prague Quadrennial 2015: Franz Kafka's birthplace

The first stop is the birthplace of writer Franz Kafka, a house on a square now named after him, Namesti Franze Kafky. It was empty and now serves as one of the liveliest venues of the PQ. Nearly 50 different exhibitions are set up on its four floors.

The artistic director of the PQ, Sodja Lotker, watched visitors flood the stairways and corridors of the Kafka house when she officially opened the exhibition there. She sees the venue as one of the main assets of this year's world exhibition, which has taken place every four years since 1967.

"The historic center of Prague was overtaken by tourists long ago and now we are taking it back," she said.

Gripping look at Armenian massacre

The last room on the third floor of the Kafka house definitely makes one thing clear: Scenography is much more than stage design for theater. It is the art of combining images, sounds and objects to create something new.

The Armenian photographer Vahan Stepanyan and his three colleagues took 50,000 photos of schoolgirls with dolls in the ruins of a church and used 10,000 of them for an eerie film they show in Prague as part of the installation, "Red Hail... because it never ends."

Prague Quadriennal 2015. Copyright: PAN Photo

The photographer Vahan Stepanyan took 50,000 of these pictures for the installation "Red Hail"

The photos are based on documents of the Norwegian missionary Bodil Katharine Biorn, who worked in Armenia in an orphanage in 1905. One year, she raised money in Norway to give each of the girls a doll for Christmas and photographed all the happy children with their new toys.

After the 1915 massacres of the Armenian people, Mother Katharine - as she was called - tried to find out what happened to those girls. She couldn't find a single one of them. They had all been murdered. Altogether, 500,000 children were among the victims of the massacre.

"We've been wanting to work with these photos for a long time. Bodil Katharine Biorn's grandson gave us access to the approximately 60 surviving shots in a Norwegian Archive," explained Stepanyan. The black-and-white film they made also features sacred music specially written by the Armenian composer Tigran Hamasyan.

The soundtrack for the new staged pictures revives the atmosphere of the original ones, as if time had stopped and still held the laughter of these children. The result is a very aesthetic and moving work of art.

Beach pianos and low-flying birds

Leaving the Kafka house, the PQ also has installations in the open, such as the Finnish and Swiss exhibitions.

Prague Quadriennal 2015. Copyright: DW/R. Otte

This piano spent a year on the beach. How does it sound?

How does a piano sound after spending a year on the beach? The Finnish installation "The Sound of Music (in a box)" answers that question. Listeners put on headsets to discover the completely different sound of the weather-battered piano: It scratches and snarls.

The installation offers a very vivid depiction of the PQ's theme this year: "SharedSpace: Music Weather Politics." Sodja Lotker explains that it refers to the fact that theater is a social space, which reacts to what is happening in its surroundings. It also "links scenography with aesthetics, ethics and nature: All these things are larger than the theater," she added.

Prague Quadriennal 2015. Copyright: DW/R. Otte

A puzzling installation: A footbridge on Wenceslas Square

Not all contributions are as convincing. The Swiss built an iron bridge on Wenceslas Square in the heart of Prague. The program states that it "allows pedestrians a bird's-eye view on the setting of many historical moments." Unfortunately, they are not indicated on the bridge: The red panel by the blue chair is empty and the one-meter (3-foot) high bridge hardly offers a bird's-eye view.

If experts might find interpretations for this type of intervention in the public space, they are unfortunately lost on the larger public. Fortunately, other concepts manage to engage both the specialists and the general public.

Another experiment is successful at the PQ: It combines big-stage productions, such as the Viennese choreographic live film "Deep Fish" with student performances, which pop up throughout the city.

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