According to the model of ‘rites of passage’ developed by the anthropologist Arnold van Gennep, an individual moves through several stages of life. These become evident at points of transition, such as from adolescence to adulthood. To symbolically accompany these moments, ‘rites of passage’ must be performed. It is this passage to adulthood that Kerstin Cmelka’s video installation Mikrodrama #11 (2014) addresses. In one scene, the protagonist (played, as in all her videos, by the artist herself) lies next to an ex-lover, who talks to her openly about his 21-year-old girlfriend. Unlike women his own age, he says, she is spontaneous and carefree. The only downside is the stress of having to constantly educate her. (He recounts an annoying situation where he had to explain to her who Martin Kippenberger was.) The woman listens patiently, surprisingly interested in his new relationship, and responds without condemning his predilection for young students. This was just one description of the appeal of youth from an adult perspective that recurred in the Berlin-based artist’s solo exhibition at Kunstverein Langenhagen.
Visitors were led into the gallery by a 24-metre textile sculpture, in the form of a snake, twisting its way through the elongated space. The sculpture provided seating from which to watch the three videos and series of photographs that comprised the show. Each of the videos replicates an identical scene featuring three different actors in the same role. The protagonist meets a man, perhaps a close acquaintance, who, anxious and somewhat embarrassed, tells her that he, too, has a much younger girlfriend. Over the course of the three repetitions, each character presents his or her situation in a way that deliberately highlights the body language we adopt when faced with awkward or intimate conversations.
By restaging interpersonal exchanges, Cmelka analyzes contemporary behavioural patterns, emphasizing the subtle moments between spoken words. As the artist explains, she works exclusively with people she knows and uses dialogues generated through personal conversations. Our knowledge that the male actors are her friends generates a friction between the seemingly generic behaviour conveyed through their amateur performances, and their ‘authentic’ selves. Initially the dialogues seem artificial, but the actors’ obvious familiarity with one another adds an unexpected level of intimacy.
Accompanying the videos was a series of 11 black and white photographs of the artist’s friends and acquaintances in the 1980s, showing seemingly carefree punkish adolescents. Cmelka re-photographed these snapshots and reprinted them on Baryta paper, so they no longer look like images from a personal archive; instead, the restaging gives the protagonists the air of iconic pop or film stars, lending them a distance or aloofness not present in the originals.
Cmelka’s Mikrodrama #11 highlighted the ways in which contemporary ideas about maturity and the process of ageing are deeply connected to social rules and codes. Perhaps we’re not really getting older: it might just be social conventions that make us appear to be ageing.
First published in Issue 166