Home Arts How a turn-of-the-century Dvořák opera resonates with contemporary art

How a turn-of-the-century Dvořák opera resonates with contemporary art

by godlove4241
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On March 11, the Staatsoper Hanover opened its thrilling new production of Czech composer Antonín Dvořák’s 1901 opera. Rusalka (in the directory until May 27). Directed by Tatjana Gürbaca, Rusalka tells the story of a water nymph who, having fallen in love with a prince, aspires to be human. The human world is brutal and the prince rejects her. In her production, designed by Klaus Grünberg with costumes by Barbara Drosihn, Tatjana’s Rusalka is an idealistic young woman who is mocked and abused by humans, and by her sisters who don’t understand why she aspires to be part of the humanity. In the most famous aria, taught to generations of Czech schoolchildren, Rusalka prays for the moon to shine its light on her beloved and tell him that she is waiting.

Grünberg’s setting is filled with hard, moon-like rocks on which nymphs play in their long silk nightgowns. In the human realm, these rocks are kept in display cases, and at the party the prince throws for Rusalka, his guests throw them around while drinking cocktails and dancing nightmarish choreography. The prince finds a new lover, and he takes her away wrapped in their bed sheet, and even proposes marriage to her in front of the confused Rusalka who can only express herself by trying to kiss her. He pushes her away more and more violently.

Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák at the Staatsoper Hannover © Sandra So

Gürbaca’s production obliterates any kitsch suggestion of an opera inspired by fairy tales. Love is cruel and ruthless, and the final image is identical to the first: a young woman rising to the skies, still full of hope. Is happiness always out of reach, or does Rusalka see that life’s possibilities are greater than she imagined?

The day after the opera, I visited the Kestner Gesellschaft, a gallery in a converted women’s pool in the city. There I found more than just this watery connection with Rusalka. To infinity (until June 4) is the first solo exhibition of another Czech artist, Klára Hosnedlová (b. 1990) and it’s a fantastic start.

In the two galleries that made up the main basin, Hosnedlová, who recently joined the White Cube gallery, presents a pair of installations. On the ground floor, large suspended organic sculptures with apparent tapestry structures like skeletons of ossified pupae hang like animal carcasses in a slaughterhouse. At the center of each is a small, exquisite fragment of a sculpted woman, housed in a stainless steel container reminiscent of a surgical kidney dish. The images are embroidered and their ultra-fine silk threads give the painterly impression of brushstrokes. The wool and linen sculptures are thick and sensual, and the piece smells strongly of organic matter. In the corners and on the stairs leading to the upper gallery are heaps of wool, as if thrown away by those who displayed the once living objects, or lost by the cocoons themselves. A single, small image of a snake is hidden at the end of a long hallway lit by yellow fluorescent tubes.

An installation view of Klára Hosnedlová To infinity To Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover © Courtesy of the artist, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin, White Cube, London, Photo: Zdeněk Porcal – Studio Flusser

Upstairs, the hanging sculptures are made of hard, cold resin, and smell of wax or soap, rendered – like the windows through which visitors once viewed bathers – an opaque milky white. They also house embroidered fragments, but in these images female figures present parts of their bodies through futuristic magnifying glasses. The linoleum floor is printed with a repeated pattern of industrial stencil sheets. The two galleries are in strong contrast: below, the female body is revealed through thick layers of protective heat; upstairs, the images are contained in crystallized but seemingly delicate shells.

An installation view of Klára Hosnedlová To infinity To Kestner Gesellschaft in Hannover © Courtesy of the artist, Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler, Berlin, White Cube, London, Photo: Zdeněk Porcal – Studio Flusser

Although the upper and lower installations are linked, it is unclear whether one is an echo or foreshadowing of the other, or whether they are somehow reflected through a distorted mirror. . I was struck mightily by the connection (as far as I know, a coincidence) with the Rusalka. The organic life of Dvořák’s naive Rusalka, who cherishes bits of plastic and a broken pair of glasses abandoned by humans as if they were precious treasures, against the cruel human society that joylessly consumes all that is in sight. In Hosnedlová’s bedrooms, our glimpses of femininity are alternately swaddled and imprisoned in their womb nests, the contrast here being between the soft warmth of organic wool and the brittle, impenetrable shells of resin.

Downstairs, I felt like we were being offered to peek into a safe space, and the sheathed women inside mostly ignored our gaze; upstairs, I felt an uncomfortable voyeuristic sensation – that these sketchy women were held still and addressed the viewer directly, offering us close-ups of their bodies. Have their safe, warm beds become prisons because of our non-consensual inspection?

Rusalka by Antonin Dvořák at the Staatsoper Hannover © Sandra So

What ultimately interests the two artists is the female body in space: how it is held, how it is observed, and how it constantly struggles to find its own way and its own destiny. Rusalka, like the women of Hosnedlová, is held in a seemingly safe space. She longs to escape for otherworldly adventure, but this world is a cruel and brutal place where she must tread rather than swim in the hot water below. Her long-awaited freedom is actually another form of imprisonment, and she trades an overbearing father and contemptuous sisters for a fickle, loveless prince and his society that mocks her for being different. The freedom denied to him is the freedom to choose his own destiny. The context of both works is also striking: the seeming incompatibility of the natural organic world to survive with our endless desire to consume it out of existence.

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