Kim Schoen
Cracking walnuts: nonsense and repetition in video art
05.08.2021, Volume 23 Number 2, online:

Artist and theater director Marta Górnicka mixes multiple musical forms that involve the voice, including the lament. Her video MAGNIFICAT(2013), based on a performance of the same title, desacralizes the biblical Canticle of Mary using Górnicka’s additions and mutations, including Bible verses, culinary recipes, texts by Elfriede Jelinek and Adam Mickiewicz, and excerpts from Euripides’s Bacchae (405 BC). The work recalls an Ancient Greek chorus but without the rest of the play. The subject is Poland’s obsession with the Holy Virgin Mary. Poland, Górnicka asserts through the piece’s lyrics, is a country “so Catholic that even the atheists here are mostly Catholics.” The chorus is made up of twenty-five women of all ages, clad in comfortable T-shirts and sweatpants in varying hues of blue, perhaps a reference to Mary’s blue cloak, a color symbolizing the Virgin’s purity.

In many oral traditions, both early and modern, the lament has been a genre performed by women. Olivia Dunham argues that, in these songs of mourning, women were “empowered through their pain to address publicly issues of social importance; the most successful performers skillfully [wove] sometimes abrasive, often persuasive, and always highly charged judicial and political language into their lament.”6 A lament is a passionate expression of grief and anger, and it often takes shape through repetition. In MAGNIFICAT, Górnicka uses repetition to a different end: language is broken down by it and then built up again. She fractures sentences into words, syllables, and finally sounds, disarticulating meaning into nonsense. The lyric “for fear of insulting religious feelings the chorus will keep silent” is reduced to a repetition of the single word silent. The chorus is not silent. They sing it. The word then reduces down further into sharp intakes of breath and their exhalations, performed with repetitive vehemence. The breath behind the language is made visible.

Górnicka continues sharpening repetition into a weapon. At another point, the chorus spits out the word amen in thundering unity over and over again. Rather than expressing the word’s “solemn ratification” (so be it), the women reroute this assent toward something other than deference to the word, their deafening repetition lamenting the unvoiced collective experiences that are often buried under it.

Almost any text—a liturgy, a grocery list—can be brought into this strange realm through unexpected modulations of the voice and collective vocalizations as erratic as they are forceful. However, this surefire affect is less interesting than the moments that escape it, a surplus to intention via repetition. For example, the repeating voice itself—with its own fullness and excessiveness—makes Górnicka’s ironic intentions of meaning secondary. Sounds made by mouths as intense and ferocious as Beckett’s Not I (1972) vibrate into a full-body complaint with electrifying power for viewers. Claire Colebrook asserts that power, viewed positively, should be considered “‘the power to . . .’ actualize certain events, rather than power over, where the self would be nothing other than its force of will.”7  Religion asserts its power over women’s bodies via repetition—in the repetitions of ritual, liturgy, and the word. Górnicka also uses repetition, not as the power over but as the power to—using sound to shatter and reroute the circular flow of dogma. She uses repetition to break down language into nonsense, both destroying previous meanings and building up new ones.
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