Hearing that Thomas Köner would be performing at this year’s edition of Denovali Swingfest in Essen, Germany, was certainly very good news, and made me that much more eager to start laying down plans to go visit it at last. However, not even in my craziest dreams could I have expected to see him performing in Belgrade beforehand, and not just as a musician, but with an entire audiovisual presentation of his. To make things worse (or better, depending on how you look at it), I learned of this exceptional occasion merely days before the actual performance was set to take place. Truth be told, Mr Köner is no stranger to Belgrade, as he already performed at our very own Dis-Patch festival back in 2008. However, I didn’t witness that event, the ignoramus that I was back at the time, and with the festival in question now sadly defunct, due to the complete and utter lack of understanding of the true nature of that event by the local authorities, the possibility of seeing Thomas in Belgrade was far from my thoughts. Yet due to the unexpected collaboration between our Museum of Contemporary Art and the local Goethe Institute, we were granted another chance to experience (in lack of a better word) the stimulation of senses that this German multimedia artist gladly provides.
The exhibition in question is entitled “In The Shadow Of Tabor”. As you may or may not know, Mount Tabor is a mountain in Lower Galilee, on the territory of today’s Israel, and the site where the Transfiguration of Jesus Christ supposedly took place, as believed by many Christians. Its relation to the exhibition in question is circumstantial – the myth surrounding Mount Tabor was used to coin the term “Tabor Light”, which is the type of light that was emitted by Jesus during the said event, and by extension represented in the background of all saints’ icons originating in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. This sheds significant light (if you’ll excuse the pun) on the title of the exhibition. What Mr Köner has done is manipulate the icons in question, creating their negatives of sorts. Instead of the shining, divine two-dimensional representations of saints, we’re greeted by three-dimensional faces emerging from (and falling back into) shadows; as stated by the artist himself, his desire was to use modern technology to create pseudo-living facial reproductions and offer a peek into what the saints being represented may have looked like back when they were still walking the Earth as mortal men/women.
To say that the artist achieved the effect he was striving for would be an understatement. The way that the 3D reproductions came to life was just strikingly credible. The audio background consisted of deep, minimal drones, darker than anything you might have heard on Köner’s CDs, with faded human voices scattered around the soundscape, as if searching for their own souls. Despite its minimal structure, the sound felt incredibly thick and layered, far from your standard 15-minutes-in-Ableton fare. One could even discern a very peculiar scent in the room housing the exhibition. It's clear that Mr Köner leaves no sense unattended, aiming for (and achieving) a highly synaesthetic experience. I know little of whether the artist was subjected to Nietzsche's proverbial gaze of the abyss, but it’s definitely something that I experienced during the performance. You know that the saints are artificial, but you can't escape the feeling that they're really looking into you... As if they're judging whether you're worthy of the very sight you're witnessing. It's not a warm, loving, Christian look, it's the look of a divine judge infinitely wiser than you may ever hope to be...
Unfortunately, the conditions in which the exhibition was held knew well how to keep me tied to the ground firmly and prevent me from truly wandering away. As one could expect, a museum’s salon is hardly the perfect acoustic environment for this type of sound, and the audio equipment wasn't quite up to the task either. The experienced Thomas knew well what to do to keep everything flowing, but he had to compromise quite a lot, especially concerning the volume levels. Furthermore, many of the attendees didn’t have the slightest idea of what to expect in terms of sound (understandably so), which caused a flurry of comments and sparked conversations during the performance itself, which is in turn an instant-killer to the atmosphere. With no intention of sounding elitist, it can be quite saddening to see what people are missing because of their inability to truly appreciate what’s being offered. Finally, and most painfully, there were no seats available at all, only standing places in a pitch dark room bursting at the seams with people. While other drawbacks can be understood and pardoned to a certain extent, this is a criminal flaw, one that seriously hamstrung the entire event. Many of us who had prepared for what we were about to see were forced to sit down on the carpet, backs against the walls, like beggars, if we were to relax and try to concentrate on the performance at all.
All things considered, after the twenty-or-so minutes the performance lasted for (perhaps slightly shorter than I’d hoped for), I felt ambiguous – on one hand, I was thrilled to have witnessed what I may freely deem a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but on the other, I was sad, and to a certain extent enraged, even, that an artist such as Thomas Köner didn’t get to perform in suitable conditions. Then again, I suppose that’s what being passionate about music (and art in general) means – utilising much too earthly tools as the only available means to portray an otherworldly experience for the rest of us who are able to appreciate it. And for that, I profoundly thank both Thomas Köner and the institutions who made this appearance of his a reality.