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Lamenting the future

Photo: Guy Cools

Part of the Invisible Diaries series

Week 12 / Day 4

Photo: Poster for 'Trauern'

I am back home in Vienna after my little pilgrimage to Hamburg. The big discovery in the exhibition Traurern / Mourning at the Hamburger Kunsthalle was the work of the Albanian film and performance artist Adrian Paci. The exhibition showed three of his videos, which all deal with the subject of mourning. Interregnum (2017) is the most political work. The video consists of found footage of several state funerals in communist countries including Stalin’s and Mao’s. The images constantly switch between crowds queuing and saluting the corpse with sideward glances or raised fists revealing a uniformed, formatted way of state-ordained manifestations of grief, and close-ups of more authentic, often extreme individual emotions, experienced in the public crowd or in the privacy of one’s home while watching or listening to the news on radio or television.

The Guardians (2015) starts with still-lives of fragments of abandoned architecture with patches of nature (mostly weeds) in-between. Slowly it is revealed we are at an abandoned cemetery, with as only human presence a group of children, who walk through it, sit on the gravestones or play with the gravel. Their actions and movements become more deliberate: a hand cleaning a stone or pulling out weeds. The final image shows a bird’s perspective, revealing many ‘little guardians’ taking care of the graves of the dead. I was particularly touched by this video because it reminded me of my own visits to my father’s grave, and how very unemotional and pragmatic they usually were: just cleaning his gravestone or harking the sand around.

The third and last video, Vajtocja (2002), was the one I was most curious about, having read about it in the catalogue that accompanies the exhibition (which you can download for free from the website of the museum). It starts with the artist knocking on a door of a house in a rural village, being received by an elderly woman. While he puts on his best suit, she prepares for him the bed in the next room on which he lies down, so that she can start singing her traditional lament (a weeping song for the dead) for him.

My own artistic and dramaturgical research on which I am currently writing a book has focused on a similar Greek tradition, the moirológhia, which I discovered in 2000 when I participated in the first Summer University of the National Theatre of Greece, just across the border in the Zagori villages of Epirus in Northern Greece. During the summer university, we started to research the moirológhia, which are not only sung at funerals, but also at weddings, and to commemorate those who migrated, or at the beginning or the end of the panegyry, the local village festivals in honour of the guardian saints. We worked with Katerina Zakka, a retired schoolteacher, who was also a semi-professional lamenter.

Photo: The moiroloi singer Katerina Zakka (Zagori, 2000)

The moiroloi singer Katerina Zakka. Zagori, 2000.

From that very first encounter, I became intrigued and fascinated by the powerful performing qualities of these lamenters, who allow their audiences to have a huge, emotional release, by literally liquefying their grief to tears. The moirológhia are also very theatrical in the way that they are most of the time presented in a dialogue form. A widow talks to her deceased husband. A mother to her married daughter or to a relative who migrated. The laments literally give the absent person a voice to talk back.

Discovering the moirológhia, I also started to realize that a lot of contemporary art creation in different disciplines are all forms of laments. Together with like-minded artists, such as the Brazilian, London-based choreographer Jean Abreu and the Brussels based choreographer couple Rosalba Torres Guerrero and Koen Augustijnen, we have been researching the physical language that would accompany these laments.

In Paci’s video, the female lamenter covers her head with a scarf before she starts her weeping song, which she accompanies with simple but meaningful hand gestures, while her upper body is swooning up and down in a trance-like way. Eventually, she also starts touching and caressing the body to end her lament abruptly with a stylized cry: “ooi ooi ay”. After which Paci gets up from the bed and thanks her matter-of-factly. The lightness of the ending, which makes you smile, reminded me of my own experiences in Greece, where the lamenters would first bring their audience to tears, to switch in a split second to laughing and telling, often erotic jokes. Eros and Thanatos, sisterly and somatically united, in the bodies of knowledgeable women.

Photo: The moiroloi singer Katerina Zakka.

“Eros and Thanatos, sisterly and somatically united, in the bodies of knowledgeable women.”

The moiroloi singer Katerina Zakka.

You will have to wait for another year until the book will be finished and is available, but here is already the link to a podcast, I recently made for Muzeum Susch in Switzerland and which gives you a taste of the diversity of artistic practices that are forms of contemporary laments: ‎ECHOLOT: Episode 3: 'Performing Mourning. Laments in Contemporary Art' on Apple Podcast. Parallel to engaging in artistic creations and working on the book, I also started to give workshops and courses in which I guide people in writing their own laments and eventually also performing them. When working on this with younger artists in their mid-twenties, I learnt to my surprise that several amongst them, weren’t interested in lamenting a past loss, but felt a need to lament their future and the lack of possibilities.

It is probably due to my early experiences with my grandaunts, which I mentioned yesterday, but during my whole life, I have developed close friendships with elderly women, who were often 20 or even 30 years older. They generously shared their life experiences and knowledge and have guided me gently to the next stage of my journey. I would like to honor today two of them: the Greek actress Sophia Michopoulou and the American theatre director, writer and all-round art producer and curator, Kathelin Gray who was a close friend of, amongst others, William Burroughs and Ornette Coleman, who named one of his jazz standards after her.

I met Sophia at exactly the same time I discovered the moirológhia. Soon after, she visited me in Belgium and she also started to invite me regularly to Athens or Crete, where she further initiated me in to the wisdom of Greek culture and the high ethical principles, she lives by. Never have I met such a talented performer who only lives for her art and at the same has so little ego. Sophia successfully lives the life of a ‘Buddhist saint’, always sharing and giving away the few possessions she has. I learnt from her to be less attached to material things, and in my turn, I tricked her in taking better care of herself by tempting her with her one weakness for Belgian chocolates.

Kathelin, I met more than a decade ago at the October Gallery in London, when I stayed there for the first time and she moved from the room I was supposed to stay in to the theatre next doors, while she was recovering from a knee injury. Since she couldn’t walk up the stairs, I would bring her breakfast upstairs, which we would share, while having long conversations about art and life. Through her, I discovered the amazing universe of the Institute of Ecotechnics, of which she is one of the founding members, and which turned out to be a parallel American, artist-led, counter-culture universe that already almost 50 years ago, started to address all the issues, we are dealing with at the moment. Check out Kathelin’s new website if you want to learn more about her.

In the first days of the global lockdown, Kathelin got stuck in a small apartment in NY after another knee operation. We have been talking to each other several times a week these past months, and better than any news reports, she kept me up to date with the seriousness of the situation in the States, making me realize how privileged we still are here in Europe.


Guy Cools is a Belgian dance dramaturg, currently living in Vienna. He has worked as a dance critic and dance curator. He curated from 1990 till 2002, the dance program of Arts Centre Vooruit in Ghent, Belgium. As a production dramaturg, he worked amongst others with Jean Abreu (UK), Koen Augustijnen (BE), Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui (BE), Danièle Desnoyers (CA), Alexander Gottfarb (AT), Lia Haraki (CY), Akram Khan (UK), Joshua Monten (SUI), Arno Schuitemaker (NL) and Stephanie Thiersch (DE).

As a dramaturgical mentor, he has been mentoring Anghiari Dance Hub, the International Choreographer’s Week in Tilburg, the project Danse et Dramaturgie in Switzerland; the Biennale Dance College in Venice and the Atlas program of Impulstanz in Vienna. He lectures and teaches at different universities and arts colleges in Europe and Canada.

His most recent publications include The Ethics of Art: ecological turns in the performing arts, co-edited with Pascal Gielen (2014); In-between Dance Cultures: on the migratory artistic identity of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui and Akram Khan (2015); Imaginative Bodies, dialogues in performance practices (2016) and The Choreopolitics of Alain Platel’s les ballets C de la B, co-edited with Christel Stalpaert and Hildegard De Vuyst (2019). With the Canadian choreographer, Lin Snelling, he developed an improvised performance practice Rewriting Distance that focuses on the integration of movement, voice, and writing.

He is currently using the time-out of travelling, working at home on his next book, Performing Mourning, Laments in Contemporary Art.


Photography by Pawel Wyszomirski.

Image is courtesy of the author.


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