|Dau Visa Centre on the Place|
I had absolutely no idea of what awaited me in Dau. Having visited the website multiple times, I knew that it was a multi-media installation, involving a number of fiction films, video installations, documentaries, art work and so on. I knew that it was “an experiment” in which people from various walks of life participated over a number of years. I knew that the set was built in Kharkov in the Ukraine, and that whatever awaited me was going to be something like a psychological study of isolation and what happens when people are thrust together in a small living space for a period of time. I knew that the première in Berlin at the Film Festival was cancelled when the organizers realized the enormity of the project. I had also seen a few clips of some of the films, but how and where they fit into the larger project, I had no idea. I knew that Paris was the first lucky city to house the event after years of anticipation. Lastly, I knew Dau was going to be monumental—in every sense of the word—because it had overtaken the two theatres either side of the Place du Châtelet. Given all this, plus the ambiguity of the publicity around Dau, I knew I had to go. It turned out that nothing could have prepared me for Dau, least of all, time in the Soviet Union.
|Dau poster at Théâtre de la Ville|
Rather than buying a ticket, visitors are required to buy a visa on line at least two hours in advance. Why? It wasn’t clear until I arrived at Place du Châtelet, as instructed, 30 minutes prior to my chosen entry time. I picked up a visa that looked almost identical to my carte de séjour. I then headed to the under renovation Théâtre de la Ville for two rounds of security at the entrance. Both the Théâtre de la Ville and Théâtre Châtelet have been taken over by Dau for three weeks of their renovation period. While neither space bore much resemblance to my memories of Soviet Russia, they had been refitted to something unlike any other spaces on the contemporary Paris cultural landscape. The easiest reference for both is Berlin’s Tacheles with a 21st century Paris twist. The spaces on each floor, the stairways, and the theatres have been transformed to have an “under construction” appearance. Each space within both buildings has been given a name that in some way reflects the work on display there—Communism, Animal, Body, Intimacy, Addiction, Ambition, Orgasm, Compliance, Ideology, and the list goes on. To be sure, nothing resembled the Soviet Union.
I settled on buying a six hour visa and stayed for eight hours. Despite the intensity and confrontation of the images, and the serious challenge of being immersed in the fabricated environment of Soviet Russia, the eight hours slipped by without me noticing the time. Indeed, because no electronic devices, including telephones, were allowed into the buildings, time took on a wholly different character. Mostly, it became incidental.
|Ilya Khrzhanovsky, Dau, 2019|
On arrival at the Théâtre de la Ville, I headed straight upstairs to ANIMAL where a film was about to start. I noticed lines to get into various other spaces, but the cinema was nearly empty. People filtered in once the film began and, to my surprise, got up and left pretty soon afterwards. My first film was Dau 11, set for much of the time in the Institute Cafeteria. It’s true that it was slow and, in the beginning, reminded me of watching Jeanne Dielman. But as the film wore on, I realized it was a very carefully constructed, unfolding narrative, moving towards a violent and extremely difficult to watch ending. In this and the other two films I saw, there was a prominence of excruciating violence—think of a man taking a sledge hammer to his fellows and lovers—excessive drinking, painful psychological manipulation, unredacted sex, including rape. Dau 11 builds up to a scene in which a KGB officer (or lackey, it’s difficult to know which) forces a woman to put a cognac bottle in her vagina. In another film, a young woman in a glass cage begins to imitate the distress of a monkey captured in an adjacent glass cage, and in another, a man butchers his lover among others. In one of the daily rushes there is a scene in which Dau, the physicist after whose biography the whole project is named, forces two women to have sex while he watches and teases in something like a sado-masochistic torture. When I say sex, violence and manipulation, I am not talking about shots of someone’s upper body performing sexual intercourse. No detail is spared. Yes, for example, after watching her painful undressing, we see the woman put the cognac bottle into her vagina and the officer subsequently pushing it in and out. Each of the films I watched contained similarly disturbing and confrontational images that I have not yet forgotten.
The placing of the body under extreme stress, whether it be naked women being physically and psychologically tortured, or men being pushed to limits through physical exercise, was the films’ representation of the misogyny and sadism of the communist regime. I’m pretty sure that walking into the film, staying for 30 minutes, and leaving to enjoy a vodka at the bar, would not have produced the harrowing experience that I had. So, (un)like life in the USSR, Dau offers different opportunities to different visitors.
The spaces I enjoyed the most (given that I didn't exactly "enjoy" the films) were those in Théâtre de la Ville identified as COMMUNISM. A series of small rooms underneath the cuppola were staged as those of ordinary people in the Soviet regime. There was an abacus in every room, period clothes and shoes, photographs, newspapers from back in the day, sewing machines, tablecloths and ornaments. I wandered through these rooms around 1am and they were filled with people, young and old, sitting around talking, arguing, playing chess and smoking. These were the only spaces in the whole complex that reminded me of the Soviet Union. There was also the odd person asleep on the mattresses, others washing clothes and stringing them up on lines across the rooms, and many drinking vodka. Who knew life without cell phones could be so engaging!
|Daily rushes from the five years of filming can be seen on monitors in HISTORY|
Another thing I loved about the absence of cell phones was that in the breaks between films, as well as when looking at video installations on the stairs, or simply wandering around, there was always a feeling of community. Sitting in the screening space waiting for the next film to begin, people started up conversations, wanting to discuss the film we had just seen, talking about the difficulty of watching the daily rushes (on monitors in single occupancy cabins downstairs in HISTORY), engaging in general chit chat like we used to in our pre-Apple lives.
For people not interested in the films—though I do think that the event is going to be of most interest to film people—there were concerts and performances in other spaces. In the FUTURE, I saw a technical music concert with synthesizers. People lay on a sunken sand-covered ground with their heads under a strobe lights, flickering to the beat of the music. It was something that I imagine would be best experienced stoned. For the audience, a giant mirror began at the back of the “staged area” and tilted upwards to the front, high above. We sat on raked concrete stairs in the round, feeling the beat of the music and watching the people, the flashing lights and the lights of the synthesizer in mirrored reflection.
Other than the films, videos in unlikely nooks and crannies, period Soviet artworks from the Pompidou, and a sound design, extended from the films, reverberating throughout the whole building, it was also possible to go shopping. Dau merchandise, such as postcards, note pads, unmarked tinned food, industrial gloves and jackets—none of which I ever saw on the shelves in the Soviet Union—could be purchased at Paris 2019 prices. And of course, food and drinks were on sale at the bar, both of which were more authentically Soviet than the merchandise: goulash-looking stews for 2€ and cheap vodka in tin mugs for the Paris proletariat.
All in all, it was an intense and fascinating 8 hours. However, as a film watcher and lover, I admit, Dau was challenging on many different levels. Will I go back? Probably not, but only because I don’t have the time. For all the confrontation of the experience, even though the films were chilling, they also have an authenticity that makes them compelling and, as films, they were at times very beautiful. In fact, I am very much looking forward to their full theatrical release.