Soma or imagining the body
Université libre de Bruxelles, Universiteit Antwerpen
Oona Libens’ Scientific Shadow Theatre
Soma is the final work in Oona Libens’ trilogy of poetic-scientific performances. With Nausea (2014), the artist uses primitive projection techniques to explore the wonderful and mysterious underwater world. In an episode reminiscent of a dated nature documentary, a radio voice leads the audience along the glistening water surface to the dark ocean floor. Along the way, we are informed about the most bizarre of marine lifestyles. Celeste (2012) offers a journey through the universe. In this work, Libens’ shadow theatre is an observatory in which suns, moons, planets and other celestial bodies pass in review before the telescope. The foundation of this work is at once simple and ultimately refined. In a type of exaggerated marionette theatre, she crafts a fairy universe held together with wires and projection. The result is a complex construction of fragile mechanisms, wheels, ropes, shells, fish hooks and pieces of paper and cardboard. The soundtrack is provided by an old-fashioned tape recorder. In doing so, she breaks away from the two-dimensional screen to create an analogue virtual reality that occupies the middle ground between an educational documentary and an abstract animation film.
In Soma, the object of study is the micro-cosmos of the human body. The anatomical lecture opens with the skin – ‘that touch screen of the human body’ – the boundary between inside and outside. She visualises the sense of touch literally through the magnified projection of her own hand. Together with her assistant, the shadow actor then dives into the self-made theatre machinery – a team of engineers descending gradually deeper into the human body. We follow the path of a piece of cake that is brought to the mouth by her projected hand, thus beginning its descent through the ‘digestive system’ – in the laconic words of the artist, ‘a live stream through the blood stream’. In several episodes, the eloquent radio narrator informs us about the respiratory system, the immune system, the nervous system and the cognitive system.
The various stages are visualised in real time, based on historical and more recent projection mechanisms, from shadow theatre (as the most primitive form of moving images) to many other analogue projection media: home-made lamps and several primitive and analogue projection techniques, including 16mm film, slide projections and episcopes, which she manipulates on stage. The techniques that she uses include a self-made magic lantern, an early form of image projection that was particularly popular in the nineteenth century. It was an exceptionally important instrument in education and entertainment, and historians regard it as the first visual mass medium in Europe and far beyond. Hand-painted and, later, printed images on glass plates were projected for curious audiences. These types of early visual media constitute an important source of inspiration for Libens, who uses them once again in dialogue with modern visual techniques and integrates them into her live theatre.
We see this imagery emerge in the combination of analogue techniques. It is at once poetic and instructive, like Libens’ nineteenth-century predecessors: scientific theatre that was both educational and particularly spectacular. It is no coincidence that Libens’ company is named Teatro Dondolo, a reference to a travelling company of puppeteers from the nineteenth century. Libens thus positions herself within a longer tradition of travelling artists whose spectacles introduced scientific experiments, new technologies and a changing visual culture on their routes along towns and cities.
Just consider the many anatomical cabinets that travelled along European fairs, informing audiences about human anatomy and its deviations.1 These wax-figure cabinets were initially intended as instruments to be used in the education of medical students. In the second half of the nineteenth century, however, anatomical museums became a popular attraction at fairs. In these museums, cross-sections and parts of the human body introduced visitors to the development of new life, childbirth, operations and diseases, as well as the terrible consequences of sexual promiscuity (e.g. syphilis).2 In the 1830s, microscopy was also continuing to attract great public admiration. Tiny insects and the vermin in a drop of water were magnified to monstrous proportions with a projection microscope, to the horrified amazement of the audience. For the first time, people could see things that were invisible to the naked eye.3
These scientific instruments provide a spectacular display of what we cannot see with the naked eye: from the movements of the celestial bodies to the interior of the body. They provide access to invisible knowledge about the world. Oona Libens’ performance series appears to be a cheerful variation on this theme. The young artist’s media-archaeological work is indeed inspired by scientific experiments and findings, but with a unique twist. The focus in this regard is not so much on the dissemination of knowledge as it is on the relativity and absurdity of scientific knowledge and the representations of such knowledge. Libens’ shadow theatre is literally a viewing device: observer see the masterful manner in which the images are constructed with light, shadow, paper and cardboard, as well as how they are brought to life in the projection. She shows ‘the messy process’ through which images are created. Thus, we are reminded that scientific knowledge about reality is always mediated by the instruments that are available to science at a given moment in time.
Libens’ performances literally unveil how images are produced, thus reminding the audience that the knowledge that we think to have regarding anatomy, our natural world and the universe is always a representation, brought about through the mediation of scientific instruments. The performance thus draws attention to the entanglement of humans and technology in historical and contemporary practices of producing and sharing knowledge about the universe. At the same time, it points to parallels between the development of the interaction between scientists and their instruments throughout the history of science and the interaction between humans and media technology.
Oona Libens’ performance thus demonstrates that what we encounter is not a transparent window that opens to outer space, the underwater world or the inside of the human body, but technologically produced ways of imagining what these natural worlds must be like. The performance reminds us of how our understanding of the world (in various historical periods) is based on what is available to human perception, in combination with what various tools and technologies have helped us to discover.
In Libens’ case, this material intertwining of humans and devices can be taken quite literally. Like a puppeteer in a mechanical theatre – historically know as a Theatrum mundum – she disappears from the centre of the scene as a human actor. As a human, she dissociates herself from the central perspective and disappears into the machinery, which she operates at the same time. This machinery is slow and fragile, and it falters at times, leaving the members of the audience to hold their breath. These are the best moments of the performance, when the only thing that can be seen is the silhouette of Libens at work, like a puppeteer overlapping with the marionette show. This playful twist on the format of the lecture performance invites us to take a new look at representations of knowledge through the looking glass of media-archaeology, in order to excavate alternative visualisations of the world we think that we know.
Université libre de Bruxelles and University of Antwerp
- See: Tinne Claes and Veronique Deblon, ‘Van panoramisch naar preventief. Populariserende anatomische musea in de Lage Landen (From panoramic to preventive: Popularising museums in the Low Countries) (1850-1880)’. De Negentiende Eeuw, 39 (2015), pp. 287-306. Onghena, Sofie. ‘Spektakelstukken: de mise-en-scène van de wetenschap in de Belgische stad (Spectacle pieces: The mise-en-scène of science in the Belgian city), 1860-1914’. In: Tussen beleving en verbeelding: de stad in de negentiende-eeuwse literatuur (Between perception and imagination: The city in 19th-century literature), Bertels, Inge et al. (eds) Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013, pp. 43-69. ↩
- Vanden Berghe, Patrick. 800 jaar Meifoor Brugge (800th anniversary of the Meifoor street fair in Bruges). Zwevezele: Gevaert Graphics NV, pp. 55-56. For photographs of the wax figures, see Van Genechten, ibid. pp. 169-186. ↩
- See: ‘Mediated Visions of Life: An Archaeology of Microscopic Theatre.’ Media Archaeology and Intermedial Performance: Deep Time of the Theatre, edited by Nele Wynants, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2019, pp. 253-272. ↩