Thuistezien 223 — 02.04.2021

Stefan Panhans & Meg Stuart
In conversation with Egbert Dommering

In this conversation Egbert Dommering talks to Stefan Panhans and Meg Stuart about the crossovers in their work and their particularities. Stefan Panhans is a German artist who works with photography, video, and installation through which he presents skewed everyday scenarios that move us to question accepted customs and desires. With a background in communication design, he deals with contemporary subject-centred issues such as the need for optimization and the ‘flexible ego’ under conditions of a ‘new spirit of capitalism,’ as well as the phenomenon of hyper-mediatization. As a kind of artistic research, his work undertakes a mental archeology of contemporary media and its effects on our minds and bodies. Dommering describes his first impressions of Panhans’ works: zombies moving on a train— they all look alike, from a specific higher class or status. It is packed and not clear what they’re doing. At the same time, another work transfers a different feeling of disconnect or ‘zombie-ness’, where a weathered-looking woman talks remarkably fast about all kinds of complaints, conclusions and mantras — also like a train, but then of thought and language. In another work, 35 minutes long, Panhans sketches an almost mythical situation of camping outside, one that has been often reproduced and represented in various media; an image where ideally one would feel comforted and connected. Yet it is dystopian. He says ‘Consuming is not fun, it’s work’, referring to the general alienation present in even the most idealistic dream-like settings. The symbol of the moving train magnifies the experience of traveling through packed situations or the dream, where we are not really masters of our situation — neither Panhans considers himself a master of his practice.

American choreographer and dancer Meg Stuart works from Brussels and Berlin with her company Damaged Goods. Stuart's oeuvre is situated on the border between dance and theatre, and includes numerous improvisation projects and collaborations with artists in the fields of visual arts, music and dance. The interdisciplinary nature of her practice means she is searching for, or perhaps collecting, possible ways of expressing what can’t be expressed in a clear-cut way. Her works revolve around the idea of an uncertain body, one that is vulnerable and self-reflexive. Similar to Panhans also emphasising language, though she views it in a more idiosyncratic way. Every piece expresses and demands another approach to understand its own terms, and subsequently the work redefines itself in search of new presentation contexts and territories for dance. In contrast to traditional video art, dancing includes performing those concepts and impressions that otherwise would be objectively recorded as a picture in a frame. Dance has the potential to speak, to express an interior world beyond the perceived moment. Nevertheless, Stuart is inspired by the ‘stillness’ of visual arts and sees her work as actions or sculptures in motion, where the object of the body is fragmented and not always shown in its integration. Dommering points out the spasm-like movements and energy in her works; that indeed demonstrates the kind of neurotic forces that drive our body day to day, and have to digest the imagery of mass culture. As a container of streams of energy and frequencies our movements are not only our own, but also have absorbed those of others, making for a fragile body where nothing is assumed and language keeps shifting. Stuart tries to flow along with this fact of life — one work shows a group of dancers tied in a knot of bodies, who as a collective of individual forces devour — almost with urgency or compulsion — all kinds of materials: clothes, purses, shiny and colourful textiles. Lastly she shows a collaborative work for a karaoke project, that again represents a tension between bodily contradictions. Corpse-like bodies floating still in water, but wearing white robes and taking on foetal positions. What at one moment is macabre, seems sacramental the next.

The relation between movement and subconscious drives/forces of identity seem to be the fundamental premise for both artists’ works. Both play with absence and ambiguity of meaning, of that which is just beneath the surface. Reality for them is accidental, and we’re just witnesses and participants in it.

Egbert Dommering is a Dutch lawyer. He has been a professor at the Institute for Information Law, University of Amsterdam, since 1988. Moreover he has worked as a lawyer specialised in telecommunication-, media and entertainment law. Dommering also writes about art on different platforms, among others De Groene Amsterdammer and his own blog.

Text: Yael Keijzer