Carbon 14

Founded by Gilles Maheu, Carbon 14 evolved out of street theater into a laboratory of hard-hitting social commentary. Their latest production Rivage à l’Abandon (Abandoned shoreline, 1990), occupies the entire museum. Based on the hermetic writings of East German playwright Heiner Müller, Maheu’s production constitutes a form of theatrical anthropology, with a neo-Brechtian flair. Wandering through the smoke-filled installation that serves as a preamble to the central theater piece, we come upon a cellist playing beside train tracks on which stand an illuminated set of balances full of crumpled paper. The installation also includes a replica of the Berlin Wall with video images of its destruction, photos of Marilyn Monroe alive and dead, and a forest of trees suspended from the ceiling.

The performance is based on the ancient Greek myth of Jason and Medea. Müller sees the story of betrayal, abandonment and ultimate tragedy as the earliest dramatic record of imperial colonization. He explains that “European history began with colonization. . . . That the vehicle of colonization (the boat) strikes the colonizer dead anticipates . . . the threat of the end we’re facing, the end of growth.”

Amid a reconstruction of an airport—Maheu’s modern-day version of Jason’s boat—a wall covered with newspaper and inset with a large video screen forms a backdrop. Medea, a veiled silhouette, kneels before the video-altar on which we see footage of an airplane taxiing across a runway. A procession of anonymous passengers enters, picks up their luggage and begins reciting ads from the personal columns. As we follow the monologues that form the body of the performance we are confronted with a myriad of scenes that are freed from the constraints of traditional theater. Two boys in lederhosen (Medea’s sons) light a chandelier and begin to swing it across the stage while a black girl dances a dervish. Hitler youth carrying torches run at an ever increasing pace along a ramp amid flickering images of parachutists, bombs dropping, and distant explosions.

The final scene is based on Müller’s dream of a voyage across the oceans and landscapes of a terminally ill planet saturated by pollution, technology, art, and war. Maheu’s multimedia effects begin to make us whirl. Figures wearing primitive masks kneel at the four corners of the stage, and a Golden Fleece hangs from above. The video screen becomes the voice of this pure apocalyptic vision. Buildings fly apart, lost animals wander aimlessly through empty windswept deserts, pollution spews out of smokestacks, stills of the Lascaux cave paintings appear and then the endless sweep of the ocean moves across the screen. The references become so dense that historic origins and projected future are no longer distinguishable. We feel completely transported into a netherworld of synthesized visual and sound fragments. Experience can no longer be digested, language has no memory.

John K. Grande