The Dancing Philosopher: Goshka Macuga’s Aby Warburg

I have spent today dipping into Philippe-Alain Michaud’s Aby Warburg and the Image in Motion and I have been startled by the way in which an attention to dance and movement transforms all that I thought I knew about this giant of art history, specifically in how it unites Warburg’s well-known revitalization of Greco-Roman antiquity with his less-known (to me at least) researches in the 1890s among Native American Pueblos, including the Oraibi settlement of Hopi in Arizona and other sites in New Mexico. Here is Warburg wearing a kachina dancer’s mask.

At the conclusion of Michaud’s discussion of Warburg’s Mnemosyne, he refers to the following anecdote preserved by Athenaeus about the philosopher dancer nicknamed Memphis (Deipn. 1. 20b-c):

This ‘Memphis’ explains the nature of the Pythagorean system, expounding in silent mimicry all its doctrines to us more clearly than they who profess to teach eloquence.

Michaud uses this image of the silent Pythagorean dancer to describe Aby Warburg’s attention to ‘the pure sequence of images’ in place of texts:

To attribute motion to a figure that is not moving, it is necessary to reawaken in oneself a series of experienced images following one from the other – not a single image: a loss of calm contemplation.

Warburg’s research into the movement of images brought him to compare ancient satyr drama with Native American ritual, specifically the kachina dances in Oraibi with its role for clown dancers. As Michaud puts it:

[O]ne must look for the origin of Mnemosyne not in tragedy and the aristocratic theatrical forms articulated in language but in pantomime and satyr drama, at the point where the commedia dell’arte and Native American ritual converge.

This convergence appears in the work of Polish-born, London-based artist Goshka Macuga who inserts a cut-out of the image of Warburg in the kachina dancer’s mask into a theatrical backdrop including the Laocoon and a Corinthian column as well as a range of snake-related imagery (which seems to build on the serpent iconography that combines the iconic sculpture with the symbol in Native American and contemporary culture).

This work, shown in 2014 at the Rüdiger Schöttle gallery in Munich as part of the artist’s solo exhibition Madness and Ritual, engages Warburg’s satyric pantomime as both collage and performance. A paragraph of the press release reads as follows:

Many of the works on view are closely connected to the performed play; the exhibition emphasizes the medium of collage, which takes on two- and three-dimensional forms and culminates in a multicolored tapestry. The exhibition shows sculptures of the protagonists and a new video work which emerged from recordings of the play. Goshka Macuga’s works cannot be pinned down to a single medium, but rather a method which is connected to thorough research and which, therefore, frequently corresponds to historical and curatorial approaches.

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