Rapture: A Study in Pathos and Scenography
This article presents Aby Warburg’s art historical approach as a potential guide for scenographic creation and analysis, forwarding Rapture as an example: a song cycle presented by Sydney Festival 2021 to a live and livestreamed audience. The author designed the set and costumes for Rapture and here reflects upon the following questions: can Warburg’s appreciation for “emotive formulas” and “engrams” assist in the making of compelling scenography when conditions for live performance are so altered from the standard? How does a design methodology championing synoptics, analytics and empathy, as Warburg did, integrate within a broader collaboration? Reconstructing Rapture’s design evolution, this study looks to the Laocoön Group, Il Medico and geometries associated with hypnosis as three persuasive pathos carriers. It finds that scenographic focus, potency and expediency arise from the proposed methodology.
Keywords: scenography, design, live performance, Warburg, pathos-formula
[Aby Warburg] did not scrutinize works of art, but rather felt and saw the great formative energy behind the works. And he considered that this energy did no less than constitute the eternal expressive forms of human existence, of human emotion and of human destiny. Thus all creative formation, whenever it acted, became legible to him as a unique language whose structure he sought to penetrate ever more deeply and whose mysterious laws he sought to decipher. Where others saw definite, circumscribed forms, where they saw forms in repose, he saw moving forces; he saw there what he termed the great “emotive formulas” that Antiquity had created as an enduring legacy.Cassirer 15–22
This succinct introduction to “emotive formulas” was given by Ernst Cassirer in the obituary for his mentor Aby Warburg in 1929. It describes the relationship Warburg drew between images and the traces of pathos he detected within them. As a set and costume designer, I find myself frequently wondering whether Aby Warburg’s studies—specifically on emotive formulas—may hold clues for myself and other scenographers as we strengthen our own creative practice. After all, the recognition and handling of pathos in design affords me a conduit to the heart of an audience. Theatres have always offered liminal sites for concurrent realities, endless iterations for ancient and new ideas and ideals, offering visions of doom and catastrophe to help us make sense of our torments. This is true both within pandemics and without, in tangible and virtual space, as we are still discovering. Scenographers frequently intuit their dynamic and responsive paths through these liminal sites, vaulting from one suite of images to the next.
This process might be based on a responsiveness to pathos as described by Warburg and his protégées, but it is likely to be innately felt or embodied. A scenographer’s creative research leans towards the instinctive rather than the scientific, although of course there are exceptions. This paper recreates my own emotive formula experiments when designing for live performance. I offer my discussion of Rapture as case-study, in which I reconstruct the assemblage of visual material which informed that design. Both the process and presentation of Rapture revealed focus, potency, expediency and collaborative sensitivity, recommending an awareness of Warburg for a new and evolving scenographic methodology.
Methodologies for the Making of Scenography
Although scholarship on Warburg has proliferated in the twenty-first century, he remains largely undiscussed in my own field of scenography. Why? His image-centric approach is heavenly for designers. His was an inherently visual process and an inherently Dionysian one. Its definitive manifestation was the Mnemosyne Bilderatlas or Remembrance Picture-atlas, a series of cloth-covered wooden boards displaying visual research, fragments, notes and titles, gathered together thematically as graphic dissertations. They bear, in the very least, a superficial relationship with the walls of every rehearsal room I have ever known. In a rehearsal room, the walls display the journey embarked upon by designers to elucidate scenographic worldbuilding, a journey reproduced and represented for the purpose of sharing insight, ideas, decisions and hopes with all creative collaborators. Our images build a tapestry vaguely akin to the Mnemosyne Bilderatlas, but while Warburg’s images extrapolate meaning from one central image or question, our images multiply and extend for the creation of something new.
Here, I use my designs for Rapture as a test-case; a research and reference tapestry akin to the sketchy beginnings of a Bilderatlas. Rapture was a live performance work. A staged-song-cycle performed at the Barangaroo Headland on Sydney Harbour for the 2021 Sydney Festival, after the disruptions of 2020 stalled its full-length mainstage theatrical iteration. For Sydney Festival, Rapture played on an outdoor stage to three thousand people each night in a sprawling physical reality and to countless more via livestream. The design challenges were intense, compelling me to revisit Warburg’s notion of pathos. And it is crucial to note that I followed his imprecise path alone, although in the ebb and flow of creative discussion and evolution, my collaborators generously endured my Warburg-focused experiments. My research questions were: how to distil and consolidate an existing visual dramaturgy when conditions were so changed? Could the theatrical domains of cabaret and contemporary opera, along with their tropes and visual cues, be uprooted, dislocated and remain powerful? How best to deploy visions capable of deeply affecting a pandemic-wounded audience? And how does one’s design approach integrate within a broader scenographic collaboration?
Rapture’s History, Summary and Visual Language
In advance of the pandemic, Rapture had been programmed by Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre, under the title Go to Hell. Michael Kantor was to direct, I was to design, and the creative team included a swathe of provocative Australian artists. It was to play in the Merlyn Theatre as a scripted and scored live work, a hybridised glam-rock-atonal-contemporary-opera-cabaret; a “journey of psychosis and ecstasy” (“Go to Hell”). When the Malthouse cancelled Go to Hell without a view to future billing, Sydney Festival’s Artistic Director Wesley Enoch commissioned a distilled, sung journey of psychosis and ecstasy—a song-cycle—renamed it Rapture and placed it at the Barangaroo Headland.
The story of Rapture follows a lonely, isolated protagonist, Paul (Paul Capsis), as he is seduced into a cult of excess and led on an abstract journey by an unknowable preacher (iOTA); on a tour to the wildest elevations of pleasure and gnarliest pits of emptiness and heartache. His arc is one of intense mystery, intense elation, intense pain and, finally, pensive reflection. There is no literal resolve for Paul, yet we leave with a hazy sense of hope for his future. In director Michael Kantor’s words, “the journey becomes ancient and eternal, from Cain’s bloody first murder of his brother through the ten plagues of Egypt and to rivers of infected blood. This deluge leads back to now, on the ecological precipice: caught between impossible fantasies of The Rapture and environmental reality” (Kantor).
Originally, our strongest visual research cues had been the photographs of Tod Pappageorge for the representation of excess; the work of Derek Ridgers for candidness and carelessness; of Julian Rosefeldt for contrivance, construction and display; of Paolo Sorrentino’s Loro for scale of grandeur; the collision of the organic and the architectural in Nicolas Feldmeyer; and the poetic visions of Luis Buñuel. But again, the new conditions for Rapture required a sharpening of the visual language. We were outdoors, no longer in the close intimacy of a purpose-built theatre. We were to play to three thousand people and roving cameras, not a few hundred comfortably seated patrons. We had a concert stage with the harbour bridge behind us, not a malleable, infinitely transformative black box. We were an abstracted song-cycle, not a fully scripted performance. Rapture’s design now demanded imagery powerful enough to elicit emotion from two hundred metres and beyond.
Barangaroo, our new site for the presentation of this work, is extraordinary. It is a place of profound cultural significance; on Gadigal Land in the Eora Nation, its shorelines were a momentous resource for Traditional Owners long in advance of white settlement. And it is a place of congregation as well as sustenance. Middens and engravings into sandstone around the site speak of activity dating back six thousand years (Ridgeway). It is named “Barangaroo” after the determined eighteenth-century Cammeraygal woman, acknowledged hunter and provider; a woman who, unlike her famed husband Bennelong, rejected European conventions. This is one of Sydney’s most striking headlands. Sydney Festival’s stage positioned the foreshore, again, as a place of congregation and offered me the extraordinary privilege to create a challenging, defiant and powerful work within it. When reconsidering Go to Hell as Rapture for the Barangaroo Stage, I strategized to move along a trail of emotive formulas; seeking the strongest root image to carry meaning and potency over vast distances. I looked for visual formulas that could bind my extant visual research together and push it forward to its new, consolidated and hallowed context. This is how I decided to work with the theories of Aby Warburg.
Theoretical Context and Framework
Aby Warburg was a maverick, eccentric and divisive German Jewish art historian, working at the end of the nineteenth century. His methodology, infused as it was with magic and obsession, flouted the epistemological framework of traditional art history (Didi-Huberman 7–19). He was the forebear to iconology, the point at which “iconography” turns interpretive (8). Warburg believed in the science of culture and of the emotive formulas which underscored that science. His were experiments in the weaving together of credible, “magical-links”between art, artefact and social memory (Wind 27). He saw a steeping of memory, trauma and knowledge throughout time, carried on the back of images. He also believed that artistic expression was made possible by the preservation of “engrams” of human experience. To Warburg, these traces of memory exemplified in symbols and gestures, enabled the viewer of an artwork to subconsciously behold millennia of sadness, ecstasy and bliss.
Engrams is a nineteenth-century term for the physiological change owing to the effect of memory on an individual and species. As Ewald Hering put in an 1870 lecture to the Akademie der Wissenchaften in Vienna, “brain matter which reproduces the thousands of years of work in his forebears’” (20). Warburg argued that the very darkest recessions of human experience were not necessarily culturally prescribed but commonly felt, in spite of time and space. There were—and are—clear problems with any presumed universality of experience, but his insistence on the broad reach of emotive formulas is still interesting. Throughout Warburg’s oeuvre, pathos is amongst the most visited themes.
There is a tangential, nebulous nature in Warburg. Sarat Maharaj identifies his as a “chaotic, impromptu think-feel-know” methodology (10). What I have just called “steepings” have been termed transmissions, hauntings, residues; culture as akin to shoots on a rhizome (Didi-Huberman 12). And all images are welcome fodder in his visual and theoretical model. His 1923 study Images from the Region of the Pueblo Indians of North America placed children’s drawings, earthenware motifs, performance rituals and architectural nuances from the San Ildefonso, Acoma, Zuñi and Hopi Pueblos amongst and between the classical Laocoön and Asclepius, in a concerted attempt to address his own “western fever” (Gombrich 88) and gauge the pervasive tenacity of symbols in the human imagination (Steinberg 59–67). He sought, in that study, to broaden his gaze and embrace cultural practices beyond the west, surveying artwork and theses synoptically, analytically and empathically. In fact, these three principles are what I find most persuasive within his approach, and most valuable when transplanting his philosophies into the domains of live performance. Maharaj points to Warburg’s approach as an experimental-embodied practice of research and draws parallels between it as the “nameless science” and Samuel Beckett’s The Unnameable. Again, this is significant, scenographic territory: Maharaj is erring towards the embodied knowledge scenographers activate when dreaming up concurrent realities, those endlessly iterative visions for old and new ideas and ideals.
But what of existing scenographic methodologies beyond embodied knowledge? What is the standard? Oscar Schlemmer of the Staatliches Bauhaus was one scenographer who decidedly built a unique methodological imperative into his work. In his writing, teaching and designs, he sought formal abstraction and geometry as unifying principles, and his chef-d’oeuvre, The Triadic Ballet, was his graphic manifestation of Apollonian/Dionysian oscillation (McKinney and Butterworth 26–27). Tadeus Kantor was another, whose manifestos, poetry and directions ran alongside his spatial installations, designs and bio-objects. Yet, debatably, intuition and embodiment are the prevailing approaches. Evidently, I was compelled to analyse the systems underpinning my own design decisions and now see scope to reposition Warburg’s art historical approach as a scenographic research model, useful in both the creation of design and its analysis thereafter.
Tri-focal Principles: Synopsis, Analysis and Empathy
Synoptic, analytic and empathic principles framed the method I applied to Rapture’s design evolution. These are principles which I have assembled from my own readings of Warburg, alongside philosophies of Georges Didi-Huberman, Cassirer, Wind, Maharaj and others. “Synoptic” places syn-, which means together, with -optic, vision or view. A “together-vision” communicates a view of the whole, hence we encounter “synopsis” in the same etymology. Warburg took a view of the whole when surveying a subject and paired this with a fastidious analysis. His analysis provided the detail that the synoptic approach alone precluded. Gott Steckt im Detail (The Good God Is in the Detail) was said to be his favored adage, which Didi-Huberman has taken to explicate: “a little devil always nestles in the atlas: that is, in the space of intimate and secret liaisons between things or between figures. A devilish genie lies somewhere in the imaginative construction of the correspondences and the analogies between each particular detail” (“The Devil Is in the Details [Exhibition] Curated by Jesus Fuenmayor”).
Inspired by these key principles, I began chasing emotive formulas and the engrams therein: Foremost in that chase were a) the metamorphic animality displayed in a scream, b) the avian Il Medico della Peste, the commedia dell’arte trope and c) the unreal conical helix.
Engram Chasing 1: The Scream
The scream chiefly belongs to the unknowable Preacher played by iOTA, who offers salvation to Paul on dubious terms. The Preacher is a shapeshifter, a changeling. Is, concurrently, the protagonist’s lover, mother, brother, creator. A demonic leader. Recall that I, evolving Rapture’s set and costume design, was flying solo on my engram hunt, but I was categorically integrating the thoughts, ideas and discoveries of my fellow scenographers, each applying their own creative methodologies to the task at hand. We had a synoptic function; a “together-vision.” To Nick Roux, vision designer, and Kantor, effigies of the Preacher needed to recall the intense screams of vintage Zippo lighter fluid advertisements and Mad Magazine covers. These references expanded to become the cascading head of the Preacher poised in a frozen scream, a smaller cascading head poised in the open gulf of his mouth and then another, and then another. Russian dolls, terrified fractals, a fleshy hall of mirrors ad infinitum. Our scream offered me an emotive formula to chase, an elicitation of the aforementioned Laocoön Group and its offshoots (figs. 8–10). Faces caught in frozen anguish. And this scream could be considered an engram of metamorphic animality. Not the reduction of an expression or mimetic gesture to a typology as was seen, devastatingly, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but the carrying on of a trace, or an engram, capable of making us shiver. My costume elements were thus directed to orbit the face and draw focus to the mouth of iOTA, contorted and infernal, but occasioning improbable empathy.
Didi-Huberman writes that “animality displays its power, reptilian and metamorphic, of marrying, to the point of totally absorbing it, the human form itself,” and he speaks at length of Warburg’s preoccupation with the Laocoön, “a central paradigm for all German aesthetics” (96). It is a struggle, a torment, an oscillation between the plastic Apollonian and Dionysian forces. “Warburg was well aware that the ancient recognition of pathos was inseparable for its use in poetry (the suffering of Achilles), in theatre (the suffering of Antigone) and, of course, in the figurative arts (the suffering of Laocoön)” (126).
Engram Chasing 2: Il Medico
Il Medico della Peste offered an extended shiver, an extended expression of metamorphic animality as harbinger of our end of days. Whereas Goethe saw in the Laocoön bodies writhing within a net of snakes, struggling and suffering coalescing in a single, fleeting moment, in Rapture I presented avian, not reptilian visions. The character of the Preacher is aligned with the raptor, from the Latin etymology rapio: to seize or take by force. For a bird of prey, both beak and talons are fit for the purpose of tearing flesh, truly and allegorically, and iOTA is, of course, nothing if not a songbird. The avian type offered extremes of violence and splendour, apt for a shapeshifter and a changeling.
Said avian type in the historical context of western live performance brought me to the feet of Il Medico. The trope in the commedia dell’arte stock is familiar by ankle length, figure-denying cloak with ghostly billows and avian or bird-beaked mask (Crick and Rudlin 64). A symbol of death, then, the commedia costume may well have informed the non-theatrical seventeenth-century plague doctors who have so caught our popular imaginings; that famous beak, (supposedly) housing sweet smelling herbs, flowers or tonics, to ward off the diseases which lurked in the foul smells on the other side of the fused leathers or skins (figs. 12–13).
My costume design for the Preacher as Bird Bride, thus, conveyed the movement of the arc of a raptor’s talons and beaks without overt reference. Piles of ruffles and pleats of georgette turned the Preacher’s figure into a decadent mountain (fig. 14). Musky pinks and fauns and golds flounced and flew around the figure as though blown by zephyrs. Il Medico della Peste may have flashed in the consciousness of the audience and maybe not. But the portentousness of those shapes and their nasty evocations, lodged deep in the subconsciousness of my audience was the aim.
Warburg’s Palazzo Schifanoia study emerged from observing the costume of the First Decan of Aries (563–91), and he dedicated an entire essay to the Theatrical Costumes for the Intermedi of Fifteen eight-nine (349–401). Legacy of costume, the movement or animation of garments and the iconographic types made therein are fundamental in his research. It is extremely alive in mine. Beak, talons and feathers appear in costuming in myriad ideologies, cross-epoch and cross-cultural. When hunting this emotive formula, I found myself walking amongst archangels and deities, thousands of repeated image-memories inhabiting the space between earth and sky.
Engram Chasing 3: The Unreal Conical Helix
The third yield from the hunt became the geometry splashed across the dais revolve, expertly painted onto the stage deck by Emelia Simcox and Tim Madden (figs. 15–16). Conical-like, helix-like, denoting the tendril perversions found in the coils of nature. Although the circles followed their own axis and were concentric, not spiraling as a nautilus might, the physical rotation of the dais on stage created something of a Fraser-effect. The engram I was chasing here orbits altered states of consciousness; transcendental or metaphysical hypnosis, suggestion, ideas explored in writings of Ibn Sina or Avicenna from the eleventh century and countlessly since.
The graphic discs of the hypnotists are recognizable and evocative enough, but to spin and to spiral are not the same thing. Our scenography appeared to do both. The radius of rotational movement looked to shift and increase, yet it was optical illusion, tricky in the style of works by Victor Vasarely, Jesús Rafael Soto and Bridget Riley. Paul’s character, like Dante, spirals into an abyss, iterations of both uncanny familiarity and dangerous distinction. The scenography is emotional, not literal, as his world, like the theatre itself, is rendered untrustworthy. To spin and to spiral out of control can seem alike, but one would logically do the greater damage. A spiral may grow larger with momentum, be more reckless, compound in mathematical terms. Nick’s real time camera relay caught Paul on the revolve, sent vision data as a plan view of the rotation, so as the audience could watch both reality and footage circling contrarywise in real time. Moving like sickening cogs in concert, all to the heavy, haunting thrums of Jethro Woodward’s adaptation of The Pretender’s I Go to Sleep. A template offered for the kind of picture I—and we—were making was Dürer’s Melencolia I from 1513–14, one of his Meisterstiche, master engravings. Melencolia I is an exploration of the dually rational and irrational situation of the subject and, by extension, Dürer (fig. 17). Via symbols drawn from the realms of magic, numerology, astrology, art history, alchemy and, importantly, geometry, it communicates an intricate narrative. His polyhedron was the hook for my revolve.
In a single gesture, the conical helix of the revolve painted a fraught untruth and pointed to a dangerously distorted state of being. Somewhere between magical practice and cosmological mathematics, geometry and image became siren and state.
The design for Rapture comprised one revolve, one chair and one titanic screen upstage of the performance space, which offered both live and manipulated (mediated) images. Two lateral screens side of stage presented the wide-angle live footage for those placed furthest away from stage. The central performers, Capsis and iOTA, prowled the space alongside their accompanying musicians. The characters flew through myriad costumes and far more images still piled into the data feed, all offering degrees of abstraction and evocation. Traces of metamorphic animality as expressed in a scream were seeded throughout, evocations of the avian type Il Medico della Peste and loops of the unreal conical helix were all woven into our scenography, witnessed in the first and last row.
Combined, synoptics, analytics and empathy allowed Warburg a study of extraordinary relationships, at times dangerous and unsettling, a “collision of heterogeneous temporalities” (Didi-Huberman 12). The same ambitions held true in Rapture, and I suspect that unlikely, stirring and powerful discourses came to pass in the interstices between the pictures I adduced and those put forth by my fellow creatives. Didi-Huberman discusses the artistic imagination as a form of knowledge, “a way to be sensible to forms of nature and to make connections when connections are not obvious” (Didi-Huberman).
Our unobvious connections enabled still more engrams to surface, but Rapture’s greater, unexpected lesson for me was in recognising the meta-application of each synoptics, analytics and empathy. I had presumed that these guiding principles could aid the development of my own scenography, but Rapture demonstrated that it is the seamless integration of these tri-focal fundamentals within a collaboration that most recommends it as a method in live performance. The expressions, idiosyncrasies and desires of all collaborating departments are encouraged by the “together-vision,” the synoptic lens. The analytic lens permitted my inner-focussed deeper dive, my engram chase, my obsessive unravelling of some detail or other at opportunistic points within and throughout the work. For Warburg, the empathy imbued in his method combined a knowledge of suffering with an embodied “activity of feeling.” Our embodied “activity of feeling” was articulated in the mania of Roux’s vision design, the precarity of Paul Jackson’s lighting, the hounds hidden in Tom Wright’s song lyrics and the pathos of Kantor’s direction. When I consider Maharaj’s labelling of the “chaotic, impromptu think-feel-know,” I wonder if the intuited decisions of my collaborators were not also grasping at that same principle.
At the beginning of this study, I posited that practicing scenographers are prone to amassing their images and references based on a potential underlying sensitivity to pathos, but that their sensitivity is likely to be subliminal rather than based on a knowledge of Warburg’s methodologies. Given that, it is fair to ask what the value of adducing Warburg’s emotive formulas might be, when there is already an embodied sensibility at play which heads in the same direction. My answer is that the two processes are not the same thing. The entirely intuited path stands apart from the iconological rigor of Warburg’s approach. One is inattentive and operates on its own time, while the other a discipline. The incorporation of Warburg’s theories and principles provides structure and can drive a design forward. Compellingly, it is an approach that develops along with the knowledge and experience of the designer, offering constant expansion and promise. The value of adducing Warburg’s emotive formulas to Rapture was the razor-sharp focus they offered me; potency and expediency when moving through visual material. Focus, potency and expediency were all required of me and of the design in that moment. And focus, potency and expediency are not typical attributes of intuitive research.
This article emphasises that Warburg’s emotive formulas and engrams have a significant contribution to make in evolving scenographic methodologies and design processes. That synoptic, analytic and empathic principles can aid the integration of a methodology within a broader collaboration and can assist in achieving focus, potency and expediency of a design. This is particularly pertinent when conditions for live performance are so altered from the standard, as in these during- and post-pandemic times.
Illustration is not the job of the scenographer. Our tools are inference, proposition, transmissions and hauntings. Sparking ideas in our audience and allowing them the space to think and feel. Designing with a consciousness of emotive formulas and offering gestures, fragments and inferences gave Rapture its set and costume identity and, by extension, its scenographic identity. Warburg’s reflections held the clues for Rapture, and I believe many scenographers could benefit from his mysterious methods, especially scenographers interested in evolving their practice and their collaborations with empathy and openness. On this occasion, Warburg’s tri-focal principles empowered poignant visions to be carried across the beautiful Barangaroo headland in the disrupted time and space of post-pandemic.
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*Anna Cordingley APDG is an award-winning set and costume designer, whose designs have been seen throughout Australia, Europe, Britain and the United States. A current PhD Candidate, Anna is a Senior Lecturer in Design at The University of Melbourne.
Copyright © 2022 Anna Cordingley
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