THOMAS LEHMEN’S “SCHROTTPLATZ” AT FAVORITEN 2010 FESTIVAL IN DORTMUND
By Jeroen Peeters
In a white, equally lit space, several objects lie scattered across the floor around a central row of chairs: a sardine can, a tomato, a cable, a spotlight, a microphone, a newspaper, a set of walkie-talkies, a stone, an axe. And a body – an anthropologist from Mars maybe? But then the body looks human really, and the programme states it listens to the name ‘Thomas Lehmen’. Schrottplatz (junkyard) it furthermore says, though the setting looks quite neat and the room very much like a theatre. In a junkyard reside not only trash and abandoned objects, but also the history, meaning and potential meaning they embody – all of it abandoned, perhaps already before they ended up in the dump. Dragging this stuff into the theatre is something of a recycling process, an attempt to make the objects’ potentiality resonate in an environment where mostly human beings take the word.
Suddenly the human body that listens to name of Thomas Lehmen wakes up and looks around a little bit, scratches his chin and entertains a pensive facial expression. Then he gets up and approaches the things lying around. By looking at them, pointing at them. And then by counting them, several times, each time according to a different logic, starting in different places, sometimes ending at eleven or twelve, then at fifteen, sometimes including himself, sometimes not.
The counting is a way of ordering and an implicit act of naming, which brings Borges’ well-known Chinese encyclopaedia to mind, The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge, in which animals are divided into: “(a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel's-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”
Ceci n’est pas une pipe
Once the microphone has been named, Thomas Lehmen starts to explain its composition and functioning in great detail. Then follow the chair and the other objects, and after a moment Lehmen finds himself carried into a dialogue with the tomato while “explaining the things to the things”. The objects now sit on the chairs and appear as a school class rather than as a second audience group. Together with the tomato, we do learn a few things about the objects and their environment. About the cable that connects things, the sardine can, “a container that transports things over time”, or the beamer which “throws images, that is appearances of appearances”. What is a floor? A space? And an audience? What is human activity?
Upon which Lehmen starts to dance, like a series of charades that begins with doing the dishes. At the end he explains to the tomato that these were all activities humans do. Doing the dishes, dancing, dancing doing the dishes, dancing doing the dishes and commenting on it – the perspectives multiply and Lehmen gladly lingers in their ambiguity. When the scope becomes too large, like “And the universe?”, Lehmen says to the tomato: “Oh, that no one can possibly know.” But then more telling still is his admission that “everything makes sense. Everything makes sense!”
That one line reveals Lehmen’s repeated grappling with the Bildungsideal, with our humanist as much as with our human perspective. After his exploration of learning processes and world-producing activities – in pieces such as his 2006 cycle Lehmen lernt, In all languages and Invitation – Schrottplatz is yet another endeavour of the choreographer to tinker with the views we impose on things. And perhaps leave the condition in which everything makes sense for a moment?
Stop making sense
Schrottplatz has something of an essay, a series of attempts to come closer to the world of things. Yet, now that it is clear that “everything makes sense”, every further attempt is somehow bound to fail. The first image projected by the beamer is not a still life of all the objects, but an image of a beamer, as if everything were self-projection – but isn’t that a very human idea? But Lehmen persists, if not to come closer to the objects’ perspectives, then at least to trying to escape his own. He aims to give the things a voice by mumbling and humming, embarks on magic and animistic dances, listens to the tomato’s heartbeat and ends up probing the objects’ surfaces with a microphone, adding noise to the all too transparent tableau.
At the end Lehmen picks up all the objects and drops them one by one from 1.5 meters height, a series of thuds amplified through the walkie-talkies and reverberating in the theatre as a grainy echo of the things’ own gravity. Lehmen doesn’t throw himself on the floor though, but simply takes a bow – it’s not so easy to become an object or get rid of oneself after all. But then just before, Lehmen carried one of the walkie-talkies in his pocket while dancing, creating a feedback loop and involving himself in the creation of noise. The distorted sound is a more poignant (acoustic) mirror image than the beamer’s unperturbed self-projection. Lehmen may very well find himself trapped in a feedback loop while dancing on humanism’s junkyard, yet in this process of auscultation he also touches on the promise of a different language announced by the noise.
Leaving the condition in which everything makes sense for a moment is a vain undertaking, to be sure, but sometimes moving in its insistence and naiveté. I remember myself thinking during the performance “I am not a tomato”, and also “I am not Thomas Lehmen.” As much as an essay on objects, Schrottplatz is a self-portrait of the choreographer indeed. In a poetics and universe in which everything is well-shaped, well-considered, well-placed and imbued with meaning the somewhat messy ending is a relief – but not quite a junkyard.