Mirosław Bałka: a Molehill, a Collapse, and Trenches – An Interview
"My vision was that of a black cavity, a theatre of shadows, something that takes place inside a cave" – Agnieszka Sural talks to the sculptor, experimental video artist, and author of the stage design for The Magic Mountain opera.
Agnieszka Sural: With the music of Paweł Mykietyn, "The Magic Mountain", directed by Andrzej Chyra, does not tell the story of Thomas Mann’s novel, which was set right before the outbreak of the First World War. Yet, it is impossible to ignore the pertinence of Mann’s book in relation to the current political situation.
Mirosław Bałka: I became aware of the anguished character of the political scene not through current information on the events that are taking place in the east of Ukraine, but thanks to what the media wrote about The Magic Mountain. Before the premiere, we received the happy news that the New York Times published a brief note about the performance. The "What’s On" column wrote – Berlin is here, over there there’s also Morocco, and then, there is Poznań where Paweł Mykietyn’s The Magic Mountain is going to be staged. It was noted that it’s interesting to observe that there is a war going on only a few hundred kilometres from the place where this work is to be staged.
Let us start from the beginning: in 2011, Michał Merczyński, the artistic director of the Malta Festival proposed for Paweł Mykietyn to write music for The Magic Mountain. Andrzej Chyra – who staged Shostakovich’s Gamblers at the Baltic Opera in Gdańsk in 2013 – was to direct the piece. Later, the author of the libretto, Małgorzata Sikorska-Miszczuk also joined the project. And then you – towards the end of last year.
I joined rather late. The term stage design was never used in the preliminary talks. We spoke of an artistic vision. I don’t engage myself in stage design. I created a vision which was meant to complete Paweł’s work.
You gained your first experience of the theatre in 2011, when you collaborated with the director Arthur Nauzyciel for his staging of Jan Karski (My Name is A Fiction). Produced by the Centre Dramatique National in Orléans, the performance premiered at the Avignon theatre festival and was shown in Warsaw the following year. You created a video piece for this production.
Yes, the projection filled the entire stage in act II of the performance. A monotonous 20-minute-long film was accompanied by a voice recording of the Swiss actress Martha Keller. She read out fragments of Karski’s memoirs from his visit to the ghetto. Music composed by Christian Fennesz joined in at the very end of the projection.
It was a difficult experience for the spectators. The camera followed what were the boundaries of the Warsaw ghetto on a map. Its movement was rather strained, because some of these meanders are quite complicated. This mapping out of the plan of the ghetto was looped.
It’s difficult to call that experience strictly a theatrical one. What I suggested was only a fragment within the staging. Riccardo Hernandez was responsible for the stage design. But I think that my first experience of theatre was the work on "The Magic Mountain". Karski was an introduction…
I began teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw in the Department of Media and Stage Design. Perhaps this was a signal that one day, I would create a stage design myself. Now, [following the splitting of the Department into two units, only Media Art [Department] is left [in the name], and I am realising a stage design. A funny situation.
Once, the design for Wagner’s "Das Rheingold" drew my attention, in a production directed by Patrice Chéreau. The opera was shown in Bayreuth, with Pierre Boulez as conductor. The stage design created by Richard Peduzzi impressed me with its scale and spaciousness.
A few days ago, I participated in an exhibition of the Lambert Collection in Avignon, which is actually dedicated to Patrice Chéreau. I got to know the work of Peduzzi a little bit more closely on this occasion, and, one month after the completion of The Magic Mountain, it turns out that my [artistic] roots derive from that "region".
In the stage design for "The Magic Mountain", one can also trace the inspiration of Beckett.
Through simplification of form, Beckett is someone who delves into the essence of what it is to be a human being. The formal limitations which he employed on the stage came close to me. I did not want to build a set which would be a decoration. I was building an object. With the insertion of actors into this object, I wanted to generate limits. So the spirit of Beckett did appear.
The singers move along corridors, which are vertical in act I and horizontal in act II. Their possibilities of expression are subject to the place in which they perform. There are certain limitations. I think that it was an important entry into the opera, this introduction of discipline, of corridors-principles. In the context of the libretto, which is very poetic and can be difficult to understand, an element of gravity was needed, a visible existential burden.
What was your vision of the set?
My vision was that of a black cavity, a theatre of shadows, something which takes place inside a cave. The vertical section of a pyramid was an inspiration, long corridors leading inside the tomb chambers, or to put it more organically – a molehill.
It was important to determine the gesture which the stage design would enact. This Beckettian, Camusian, existential gesture was an inversion, a collapse. A healthy body falls over, and is then defined as an ill or dead body. I wanted the stage design to also collapse.
It turned out that following the gesture of collapsing, corridors previously used for vertical communication in act I can be defined as trenches. The story of "The Magic Mountain" was thus additionally interpreted, with the lurking shadow of the First World War. It was a peculiar war, rather sluggish in terms of movement that consisted mostly in the shifting of trench lines, which were occasionally poisoned with gas. In this strange timelessness, soldiers were dying.
A molehill, a collapse, and trenches are the three words, the three elements through which I can speak of my stage design. The fact that I could clearly define it was important to me. The naming of what I wanted to do was an important part of the work, as well as the simple defining of the concept.
How did you collaborate with the other authors of the opera?
It was a difficult process, because while the set was being designed, the work was not yet completed. One could get a sense of some kind of vision, but its complete version was known only to Paweł. The voices of singers were substituted with electronic imitations, which for me as a non-professional were impossible to hear. It resembled a Beethovenian composing of a stage design, where the deaf designer composes for a piece that only the musician can hear, deep inside of his own head.
Of course, certain elements were given and known: the presence of electronics, a great presence of silence. These were the signals that I could observe. Discussion with Andrzej Chyra was also important, because he gathered all kinds of images that seemed important to him, for example, visions of purgatory. The presence of a real stage designer, Magda Maciejewska was also important: she is responsible for the costumes.
I was able to discuss a lot of things with her. My knowledge of stage design was rather poor, so her participation in all the talks was significant.
What kind of images were gathered by Andrzej Chyra?
They inspired Magda in her work on the costumes. For Andrzej, the Belgian painter Michaël Borremans, exemplary of the Antwerp school, was an important figure. It was about his vision of colour tones, the fragmented depicting of figures, and the vision of an empty space, which is also something that is close to me.
Magda Maciejewska made the costumes which you were initially meant to take care of.
Yes, at first I courageously said that I could do them. Luckily, Magda joined the project.
Creating the stage design for "The Magic Mountain" was a good experience and an educational one. It turned out that, for example, one has to know what each singer can physically do on the stage. I did not take this into account at first, but we managed to correct this. This is where the very innovative use of simple, comfortable white office chairs comes from in act I, chairs which substituted the original minimalist and delicate half-seats. Health and safety. I gave up aesthetic considerations in favour of a human gesture. I broke from my own aesthetic vocabulary in this way.
Apparently, you wanted to create a set which would have a low temperature. How did you manage, faced with the artificiality of the theatre? In your art, you are devoted to the material truth.
While working, I came to realise that a lot of synthetic materials emerge as one works on a stage design. It was an inversion of what I engage in in art, and in the beginning this constituted a certain problem. The world of theatre is a world where everything can be made out of paper, and I have been shaped by the honesty of employed materials, I have built my art upon this, and I continue to do so until today.
The important thing for me was to get rid of all the soft elements such as the theatre curtain, the rags lying about on the stage. I chose the simplest materials which seemed to me to be the most honest – a steel construction and plywood, painted black with gloss paint rather that the matte that is usually used in the theatre. This gloss paint was meant to be vibrant, to catch light.
We conjured up the element of snow together. First, there was the concept of black snow, but in the end we came up with real, white snow. It is not an element from the dictionary of magic, but one of the stage's truths.
What was your approach towards props? There are few of them in the performance – tea cups, thermometres, and a newspaper.
I fought the props.
The anaconda is a significant motif of the opera, while it does not appear in Mann’s novel.
Previously I was sceptical, but then I came to understand that the anaconda is a very important figure. A strange animal, something outside of our understanding of the world, something wild and unimaginable, it can chew up, spit out, or devour. A fantastic animal from the zoology of Borges, but also an animal that is present in the political and social sphere. Małgosia Sikorska-Miszczuk, who created the anaconda, prefers not to explain it.
For a moment, our anaconda was an earthworm. It appeared on the cover of a book about the performance. It is a shot from a recording of an earthworm which I had in my video archives. Everyone gets the anaconda that they deserve.
The anaconda also appears in the stage design in act II – lyrics from the aria about the anaconda move across the entire back wall. It makes it hard for the spectator to read the projected text, because it moves very slowly. It reminded me of a landscape with a crawling anaconda.
The text begins with Die Anakonda. The German Die is also the English die, to die. The last word is Menschen – people. After the word Menschen everything ends in the performance.
The conversation was conducted on 13th July, 2015 in Warsaw.