The artist Magdalena von Rudy was born in 1973 in Poland and has been living in Germany since 1991 (currently in Wuppertal). Von Rudy also works with various genres—drawings, sculptural objects, installations, and video. Several of her video works use found footage or are closely related to film classics, such as her single-channel work Persona Syndrom (2005), referring to Ingmar Bergman’s Persona (1966).
Regnava nel silenzio (2008) is a single-channel video piece of 7 minutes. It is supposed to be projected at a white wall a little above the viewer in an oversized format. The title is the first line of Lucia’s famous aria in the opera Lucia di Lammermoor (1935) by Gaetano Donizetti and is the Italian equivalent for ‘silence reigns’. Presented on the screen are two young women in a medium close-up, separated by a hardly perceivable split-screen before a black background, one wearing a blue singlet, her blond hair down, the other wearing a red T-shirt with a ponytail. The women look identical—they are either identical twins or, more likely, one person filmed twice in different outfits and angles and joined together in one image. Since this is left open to the viewer, the two representations will be treated as two ‘figures’ here, taking into account that other video works by von Rudy definitely work with two images of identical people. Due to the personal duplication, the main action is presented as split, conveying not a coherent but a twofold, broken perspective. In Regnava nel silenzio, at times the one, at times the other figure is in the foreground; both also fade out and disappear into the black several times. After a few minutes, they are positioned on opposite sides of the screen; now and then one figure is represented twice and the other disappears. In addition, their size changes from a medium close-up to an extreme close-up and vice versa. Below them, a horizontal black frame is visible and in front of them one vaguely perceives the outer frame of an open laptop, which is turned on at the beginning of the clip. The women view and describe something they see in front of and a little below themselves (or: in the monitor). In the installation, it is the audience that occupies precisely this non-mediated off-space. The formal characteristics of Regnava nel silenzio described here function as elements of disillusion as well as self-reference to the recording and reproductive medium.
In German with English subtitles and speaking in the present tense, the figures describe an action happening simultaneously off-screen, invisible to the audience. They speak in short alternating passages, sometimes continuing each other’s unfinished sentences. Using contemporary language they verbally depict two men approaching each other sexually: how they begin to softly touch each other, then kiss, then slowly undress until the tape ends. A leading characteristic of the verbal performance is the fact that the speakers do not make judgments, personal comments or show any other reactions to what they observe. It is only their voices that mimetically display the romantic scene. This affective modulation of the words uttered generates strong tension and seemingly ‘unmediated’ participation. The sensitive, partly fearful, partly curious but always low tone of their detailed descriptions does not quite fit to the obscene content narrated and therefore produces an alienation effect. The women’s faces serve as projection screens of their emotions, while the narrated events, completely withdrawn from sight, reappear visually exclusively in the audience’s imagination.
The aesthetic function of this narration corresponds closely to the dramatic convention of teichoscopy: a simultaneous off-scene event being represented through a mediating figure who narrates what he or she perceives to the audience and the stage personnel. This technique was established in order to heighten dramatic tension and as a means of representing non-representable content, such as brutal murder, incest and the like. Von Rudy’s application of this traditional dramatic element, which has curiously evolved from Greek tragedy to new media art, raises the question as to whether such a thing as a non-representable taboo still exists today with regard to sexuality. The ‘ob-scene’ homoerotic action—not seen but only heard, mediated through voices—is marked as a visual taboo but at the same time emphasized and prominently displayed on the acoustic level, through verbal mirroring. This technique of ‘speaking out’ stands in harsh contrast with the title of the work claiming a ‘reign of silence’.
Even though it is at no point explicitly mentioned, cineastes may recognize that the female performers are in fact describing not a real or imaginative event, but concrete media content: the homoerotic love scene of the two male protagonists in Ang Lee’s cowboy movie Brokeback Mountain (2005). Since the verbal action in the artist’s video is a remediation of a Hollywood movie, the question of the representational taboo is further complicated: the video paradoxically stages and claims the non-representability of a scene that has previously been seen by millions of people and which, according to film critics, has in fact broken one of the taboos of mainstream cinema!
Because the verbal representation refers to a concrete work of art, the mode of narration is thus not only to be considered a post-modern variant of teichoscopy and a post-modern media reflection on this ancient drama convention, but also as literary ekphrasis, a recent concept in literary theory borrowed from art history, which stands for detailed verbal descriptions of works of visual art within literature, aiming at a vivid evocation of the object. Regnava nel silenzio, one may conclude, receives its literary qualities less in poetic language than in the adaptation of such literary techniques established in classical drama and in narrative alike.
An excerpt from: Claudia Benthien: „The Literariness of New Media Art – A Case for Expanding the Domain of Literary Studies (with Analyses of Recent Video Art by Keren Cytter, Freya Hattenberger and Magdalena von Rudy)”. Journal of Literary Theory 6.2: Themenheft ‚Literary Theory and Media Change’ (2012), p. 311-336, here 328-331.
1 Reference is made here to the presentation of Regnava del silenzio in the 2010 group exhibition Ars Homo Erotica in the National Museum of Warsaw.
2 άσεμνο (ob skena), in the sense both of ‘off-scene’ and ‘ob-scene’, as one of the suggested—albeit highly controversial—etymologies for the Greek adjective.