Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Camshafts in the Rain, 2016. Performance view. Tatiana Feldman. Photo: Simon Vogel.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Camshafts in the Rain, 2016. Performance view. Tatiana Feldman. Photo: Simon Vogel.

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd

Bonner Kunstverein

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, Camshafts in the Rain, 2016. Performance view. Tatiana Feldman. Photo: Simon Vogel.

Some sights are unforgettable. Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s performance Camshafts in the Rain, 2016, produced several such sights, including beetle-like actors wearing enormous colorful paper turbans while stalking around the gallery with the mechanical motions of automatons and a seated Medusa whose head, fringed with giant snakes, rose as a handle was cranked, then collapsed back on her shoulders with a heavy thud. The action was punctuated by moments of silence when the turbaned figures stopped as though glued to the spot. The spectators present the production with the wide-eyed awe of children.

In fact, with its antique-looking painted-wood automata and the turban-wearers who turned their cranks, the scene recalled a circus or parish fair rather than a contemporary art institution. The comparison is not meant to be disparaging; on the contrary. Rather than looking down on this sort of popular entertainment, Chetwynd is positively fascinated by the grotesque, absurd, and carnivalesque aspects of demotic theatrical formats. As the Glasgow-based artist says, she is not afraid of bad taste and certainly not of the ridiculous—she embraces the liberating power of the laughter that her bizarre and ludicrous productions sometimes elicit.

That power is an idea she owes to the Russian literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Prompted by the parodic aspects of the art of the Russian avant-garde—which still have not received the scholarly attention they merit—Bakhtin first highlighted the critical and emancipatory potential of the grotesque, of impersonation and carnival, in the 1930s. The laughter they called forth not only set people free, he argued, it also undermined authoritarian and hierarchical social structures. Reading Bakhtin inspired Chetwynd to explore popular rituals, street theater, and mythology with a view to those instants of mirthful release. The work of the surrealist Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer has been another major source of inspiration for her.

For Camshafts in the Rain, Chetwynd delved into the world of historic automatons, a field in which one resident of Bonn boasts particular expertise: Falk Keuten dedicated an entire book, titled Mechanische Spielobjekte und Automaten (1990), to the history of such mechanisms, which reaches back to ancient Egypt and is rife with absurd and monstrous contraptions. From the water clocks of medieval Arab inventors to modern-day robots, humans have devised the oddest apparatuses to bring forth mechanical movement. For the show, Chetwynd had no less absurd wooden automatons built, all set in motion by turned cranks. That is how the Medusa’s head rose during the performance, and how a mechanical pianist hit the ivories with delirious abandon. After the performance, visitors were invited to lend a hand and operate the equipment.

The scene played out before a backdrop composed mostly of large black-and-white posters on the walls—depicting dancers, groups of people, and various mechanical contrivances. The floor, too, was covered with paper that the artist had painted with black stripes. The arrangement looked a little improvised, even amateurish, but made an ideal setting for the bright costumes and the actors’ big, colorful turbans. There was no stage; the members of the cast mingled with the spectators, who followed them around, only to be startled afresh every time the Medusa’s head dropped back down. As their ever-broadening smiles revealed, they relished becoming participants in the production.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.