Introductory Notes on
‘Spirituality and Performance’

Reading the daily Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel on October 5, we find an interview with Robert Wilson where he confesses: “For me listening to Bach is a spiritual experience.” He does not give any further obvious explanation, as if this spiritual experience would be a matter of course not only for him but could be taken for granted in general.

Not that I want to talk about Robert Wilson, far more his special reference to spirituality could be taken as one of many actual artistic examples, which in a very broad way evolve around the subject in question. Somehow spirituality seems to pop up everywhere in the arts at the moment.

Starting from this observation I would like to ask quite fundamentally: What do we talk about when we talk about spirituality? Do we refer to a spiritual dimension in a performance, or rather a spiritual experience of an audience member? Are we talking about an artistic spiritual attitude and approach to art, to creative processes?

And what – above all – is spirituality? How do we define, conceive of the phenomenon? Is it religion? A believe system? Neither nor and both of it? What does it mean? What kind of approach does it need to communicate – either in written or oral way – what is at stake?

I am quite aware that the ground is slippery, uncertain, a vague terrain. So let me again refer to artists who – from my perspective – try to give a more or less precise answer to my above-mentioned questions.

First of all: there is John Cage. Poor John Cage has to serve as an example for so many theoretical statements… From a historical perspective – as far as performing arts are concerned – John Cage has been and still is for certain an outstanding representative as regards the close relationship between the arts and spirituality, as regards the life of an artist and a nurturing spiritual dimension. His search for silence, chance, indeterminacy, all this is closely related to his strong interest in Zen Buddhism: It does not exclusively arise from there but it all is flowing into it. As regards his apparently most cited work 4’33, he remarked that for him it was a statement of essence. In a rather late interview he said:

No day goes by without my making use of that piece in my life and in my work. I listen to it every day. […] I don’t sit down to do it; I turn my attention toward it. I realize that it’s going on continuously. So, more and more, my attention, as now, is on it. More than anything else; it’s the source of my enjoyment of life. [It’s importance] is that it leads out of the world of art into the whole of life.1

This very spirit of Cage we could perhaps find today in the installations of Berlin based Lose Combo – a loosely connected group of artist around Jörg Laue. Lose Combo’s installations create a space and a time where listening and viewing could be free floating without being arbitrary or meaningless.

Far more the audience would be released with questions like: How can you get an important insight as regards your existence, as regards your/our being in this world which is strictly limited to the arts and does not have any impact on your daily life?

One further example: acting, performing

In a conversation with acting instructor Niky Wolcz from Columbia University he mentioned that all actor trainings include three dimensions: a practical one, an esthetic one and a spiritual one. The latter is the place where the actor should try or better seek to get rid of the EGO (Cage talked about EGO Noise). This means to understand that there is a realm where doing is no longer deliberate but guided and performed by some force, which is bigger than ‘I’, bigger than intention and making individual plans. As an actor you then have to accept that there is a kind of energy to which you have to abandon yourself in order to be played by it – instead of willful playing or acting out your passions and desires.

In order to achieve this goal, for Niky Wolcz, the work with masks plays a crucial role. Wearing a mask takes the attention away from the face – the face being for sure one of the most particular features to show who I am, to present my identity – and is thus creating a focus on bodily means of expression. Not for the sake of virtuosity but in order to examine in an almost mathematical and abstract way all the possibilities and richness of expression the human body is putting at his/her disposal – apart from psychology, apart from the desire to cut a good figure and thus please the audience.

On the one hand, one might assume that this approach is old-fashioned, outdated. Contemporary performance art seems to start from the opposite, foster a new kind of realism, authenticity, to not draw a distinct line between performer/actor and his/her character onstage. On the other hand, we hear actors say that they are aiming at the opposite – Joachim Meyerhoff could be quoted here; or we could take a look at Susanne Kennedy’s work, at Ersan Mondtag, Vegard Vinge and, last not least, Herbert Fritsch – they all prefer their actors to wear either masks or perform in a kind of hyper-artificial style. A more profound research would be needed to see the subtleties and nuances in and of these seemingly ego-less performances.

May be on a more general level one could say that both spiritual direction and acting classes both seek a kind of transformation of the self in the sense of doing away with long-established habits, widen the realm of perspectives, support receptiveness and thus keep ones identity in a state of flux or conceive of ones being in the world on a certain level as uncontrollable and indeterminate.

What about the audience?

Spiritual experience versus esthetic experience – what do they have in common? Do they have something in common?

First: How to define the subject of a spiritual/esthetic experience?
Is he or she primarily creating something? Listening to something? Seeing something? Doing away with what s/he knows, with what s/he loves, is used to? Has it something to do with a fresh look at ordinary life? A sudden insight, which proves to be irrevocable?

Let me go back to history again, to Duchamp’s Fountain, its first appearance in the US at the beginning of the 20th century. In a magazine called The Blind Man which then had been edited by Duchamp together with some of his friends, the fountain would be described as ‘Buddha of the Bathroom’ or – depending on the light it appeared in on photography – also ‘Madonna of the Bathroom’. Its shape and pictorial appearance turned it for the viewer of those days into a spiritual or religious subject. For a Buddhist it would be nothing but a fountain. For the artist informed or animated by Buddhism and its respective audience the fountain would create a spiritual experience – saying for example, that with whatever you choose to become an art object, new thoughts might arise. Following Kay Larson: with Fountain Duchamp proposed a view of the human mind that perfectly resonates with Buddhism.

The shocked outrage that greeted the urinal – what was it? As the BLIND MAN essay was quick to point out, there is nothing immoral in the urinal itself. The eruptions of violated sensibility were coming from human beings, whose unexamined expectations, habitual beliefs, moral rigidity, squeamishness about the body, conditioned responses, and exalted sense of propriety were causing howls of anguish. This raging cyclone of emotion is a succinct definition of dukkha – the Sanskrit word that sums up the suffering of cyclic existence, brought on by our ego fixations. Buddhists call this realm ‘samsara’, the troubled world created by our rigid ego habits: our clinging to the categories we invent, investing them with reality, punishing those who don’t agree. Had the spectators been able to rise to the challenge Duchamp set for them, they would have seen their own minds reflected back at them, as though in a perfect mirror.2

The spiritual experience, a moment of insight or enlightenment thus would need a great amount of self-reflection, self-awareness, openness and receptiveness and be ready to welcome emptiness as something valuable.

If we would be ready for that – then may be we could understand that what is going on onstage would be about us and not about us at the same time. We would live by the truth that taste, fashion, judgment are but partly true and far from being eternal or universal. I dare say that to feel oneself as part of a Lose Combo performative installation might well create such an insight.

Different from the US Beat Generation and Duchamp at the beginning of the 20th century today’s artists and their respective communities might not adhere to one spiritual system exclusively – for example Zen Buddhism – but rather interweave a variety of practices, mix and mingle many techniques, approaches. They do this also of course on a different background, with different knowledge (consumer society, digital overflow, search for relaxation, healing, silence, orientation, structure). Also here close examination and research would be needed to make a difference between what sells and what counts.

Talking about spirituality

To come back to my initial questions: What are we talking about? – I would like to take spirituality, spiritual direction as a system of self-cultivation, a means or a way to transform your self, i.e. conceive of spirituality as a practice, a behaviour which needs a special surrounding and does not get by without our body and our senses. That means it involves hearing, seeing, tasting, thinking, feeling, moving, speaking, singing, dancing – short and sweet: all our life or in other words: our liveliness.

In addition: All systems of self-cultivation are based on repetition, i.e. on continuous practice. A spiritual direction finds its range of application everywhere, as we could see with John Cage. It is neither restricted to a special time nor special place.

As regards to that: Actor training, dance training might nevertheless be showing and exemplary fields. They both draw from / are nurtured by many sources, they are based on daily bodily exercises and they aim at transformation – at least as regards bodily structures. It would be for sure a spiritual achievement if this would be accompanied by heart and mind as well.

  1. Larson, Kay. Where the heart beats. John Cage, Zen Buddhism and the inner life of artists. New York, 2012, p. Vii ff. []
  2. Op. cit. p. 49 []