Valeska Gert (1892-1978), the most influential 20th century performance artist you’ve never heard of, danced traffic jams, car accidents, slow movie cuts, boxers, babies, orgasms, and most radically, nothing.
In a 1920s performance that was often repeated but only documented in a single photograph, Gert entertained Berlin cinema audiences during the pause between reels by dancing… the Pause itself. Posed in front of a curtain, arms stretched above her head and completely still, Gert managed to put conceptual brackets around “nothing” some thirty years before John Cage would compose his “groundbreaking” silent piece, “4’33””.
The quiet of “Pause” allows a cacophony of ideas and concepts to crowd in. Could there, perhaps, be a comment in there on the neurasthenia caused by the sudden acceleration of everything? Or a recognition of the bewildering difference between a still body in the flesh, and the moving body onscreen? Maybe it is ideas of labor that are being challenged: a body doing nothing teases Marxist ideas of the productive, working subject. Or maybe it is time itself that has come under the microscope, as anticipation, intention and retrospect merge and emanate from a body that puts a space between what has happened and what will.
According to the curators of “Pause. Valeska Gert: Moving Fragments”, Wolfgang Müller and An Paenhuysen, there’s a good chance that Gert was long forgotten and unacknowledged because this tumble of radical concepts originated from a woman. As a female artist using her own body as a medium, she was likely long dismissed as simply an actress or dancer. Taking cues from Müller’s new biography, Valeska Gert: Ästhetik der Präsenzen, the exhibit is careful, however, not to characterize Gert as a burlesque or grotesque dancer, but rather as a boundary-crossing, gender-bending, proto-punk conceptual artist leap years ahead of her time.
“Pause” was one of innumerable works by the restless, dynamic and freaky Gert, who throughout the 1920s and 30s was a luminary in the Berlin cabaret and cinematic scene. Exiled as a Jew in the late 1930s to England and the US, she opened the fleeting, ragtag “Beggar Bar” in New York, where she would perform while underground names like Tennessee Williams and Jackson Pollock would serve the drinks. Back in Berlin in the late 40s and mostly forgotten, she opened another bar, “The Witches Kitchen”, went on to perform special roles in Fellini, Fassbinder and Volker Schoendorff films, among others, and was artistically active well into her 80s. Documentation remaining of her work is remarkably slim, and the exhibit displays only a tantalizing smattering of it, but it is enough to get Gert’s name back into the art history books.
Müller, an artist himself, founder of the conceptual art/music group Die Tödliche Doris and seminal figure in the West Berlin punk scene of the 80s and beyond, has become a vocal advocate for the revival and recognition of Gert’s legacy. He suggests that her work was the unwitting precursor to happenings, performance art, improvisational music, “bar and restaurant art”, punk, and just about every other experimental medium or movement of the late 20th and early 21st century.
In a 1975 clip of a German talk show that can be seen in the exhibit, a mischievous 83 year old Gert ,with her elastic, chalky white face, red lips, and a solid but slinky torso slipped into a high-necked Star Trek-style pink dress, assures the young, rather brittle host that though she’d been forgotten for so long she was now just at the beginning. As the concepts expressed through her face and body dance into the 21st century, it seems, perhaps, she was right.
(Images courtesy of Hamburger Bahnhof Museum)