On the Road with Gert Hof
THE BIRTH OF AN IDEA FROM THE SPIRIT OF LIGHT
On working with Gert Hof
I first met Gert in 1998 at a Theodorakis project in Berlin. At the time he seemed both aloof and down to earth, arrogant, an earthy labourer, unfriendly, persuasive, very strict in his ideas, a bit of a prima donna, a genius. He impressed me with his inimitable talent for analysis and his consistent thought structures. Gert turned out to be a control freak, a seismograph for human behavioural patterns. No matter if it was negotiations with our various partners or the planning of an upcoming event - he taught me to clearly recognise the panoply of human inadequacies, and especially my own. His persistent and merciless questions on each and every detail, his analytical brain soon revealed the true abilities - and particularly inabilities - of many of our partners. I hated him for this bluntness and soon got used to being thrown back on myself in my work. The air in the world we were about to conquer, I soon realised, was very thin indeed. Spurred on by Gert I made many decisions that would change my later life. During the first few months of our collaboration I often thought of him as a megalomaniac - until I made his megalomania into my own. I literally surrendered to the creative potential of his anguished brain and its architectural visions of light.
The invitation to stage the Berlin millennium celebration came out of the blue and at very short notice. For us the period between September and December 1999 became a baptism of fire, especially on an interpersonal level. I physically found out that success is married to war, separation and complete exhaustion - and all of this right up to the limits of endurance. Gert behaved as if he cherished this grey area, as if he meant to take on the whole wide world. He directed his pent-up anger - most of the time unfairly - at anyone around him and often himself. But at the same time he managed to inspire complete dedication in everyone working on the event.
In Mike Oldfield I found the ideal musician for the project who, after intensive work together with Gert, composed a suitable musical backbone for our mega event. This was the birth of a new form of art. The international press named both the Berlin event and the simultaneous New Year's extravaganza on the Acropolis in Athens as two of the global Top 5 millennial events.
At the same time as the Berlin millennium celebration, Gert's second mega-event was taking place on the Acropolis, Europe's most important historical edifice. We had received this commission after many months of negotiations with the Greek Government. Greece wanted to make a statement both nationally and internationally - in this respect hiring a German director was both a courageous and, for those politically responsible, "risky" decision. But this wasn't the only reason why the Acropolis posed a very special challenge for Gert. He had the greatest respect for what the Parthenon symbolised for European civilisation, he wanted to create something truly special and unique. Gert had "moved" the Acropolis, showing it in a new light while at the same time paying homage to it. I remember how, two months before the event, he said to me on the holy hill: "here one has to practice humility." For months he was working day and night. The exertions were about to pay off: during the event the Acropolis was like a giant ship, gliding through a huge, dark Athens and time itself. GertÕs vision had become reality.
Ferropolis, Gert and Mikis: The best possible combination. This city of iron, this tiny island within a huge landscape torn apart by gigantic diggers, perfectly reflected the aesthetic and philosophical background of Theodorakis and Hof. On our first visit Gert was absorbed by Ferropolis, it was like an addiction that kept drawing him back to prepare the event. Here he had found something he had not experienced during the other events: He felt at home. Rusty monsters of steel, ubiquitous traces of hard human labour, the location's East German history, an all-pervasive melancholy, the fleeting loneliness - in July 2000 landscape, music and light formed an unrivalled unity.
Gert was immediately fascinated by Budapest, the Danube and the Parliament. In early 2000 we flew to Hungary for initial discussions and I noticed how, from day one, he began to "see" images. I was woken by his call at 2am and soon I was sitting in his hotel room, looking down onto the Chain Bridge and listening to his description of the future event. In moments like these Gert is lost in another world, until his "longing for prison" manifests itself again, this dark strife for a soothing yet painful loneliness. It is in moments like these that I think of something Theodorakis once said: ÒSomehow, we were freer in prison than we are now in our bourgeois everyday livesÓ. But such moods - hidden, invisible - never alter Gert's approach, characterised by strict discipline and a resolute rejection of compromise. Even if it seems to be a contradiction in terms: Gert Hof is a hermit who teaches the "art of warfare".
It turned out to be a long and winding road until the contract was finally signed with the Hungarian government. Diplomatic snares wherever we turned. The conflicts of interest overwhelming. We, the "foreigners", were constantly confronted with distrust, envy and scepticism. For on the 20th of August 2000 Hungary not only celebrated the turn of the millennium but also 1000 years since the inauguration of their first ever king - a millennium show twice over, in a way. Gert saw the event as a sign for Hungary's cultural entry into the European Union, symbolised by a Chain Bridge shrouded in blue neon light - a striking image that went all around the world.
To us, China was a foreign world, and we were a foreign world to China. The Chinese experience was that of a "positive nightmare". Our Chinese partners had to learn to overcome their yes-to-everything attitude, we our stubborn negativity. In the Chinese language "no" does not exist, and most high-level functionaries could not even fathom the idea of refusal. But China was on the verge of opening up, it wanted to get into the WTO and to stage the Summer Olympics 2008. Well, it has accomplished both. Our event was one of those "declarations of openness". Our collaboration was therefore similar to an arranged marriage, but I had the impression that the Chinese had to try a lot harder than us - which, in the end, they did, and I think they even did it gladly.
In China Gert suffered because he constantly had to adjust to changing circumstances. We often had to react quickly to new realities. It then paid off that Gert had managed to convey this pitiless yearning deep inside himself to his closest employees. I noticed that they possessed that little bit more than their usual professional motivation which enabled them to master such extreme situations as in China.
Klaus Schulze (the former member of Tangerine Dream) wrote the music for Gert's production. The Chinese delegates accepted the Schulze-Soundtrack without further ado. This was important to Gert because he kept an eye on his cooperation with the "official China", but I think he also acknowledged the complete artistic freedom he had been given and considered himself a living proof of the world's largest country's will to finally open up. After the Chinese event I realised that Gert had accomplished something that no-one had expected to work out and that had only existed in the back of his mind. The birth of an entirely new event from the spirit of light.
Athens was cold and inhospitable. Gert was obsessed with the idea of a "Euro-Monument". A steely structure, more than 40 metres in height, topped by the Euro symbol and swathed in blue neon light. It was to become a symbol for the new, united Europe. For days and nights on end Gert was out there on the windy Constitution Square, right in the heart of Athens, to supervise construction - without sleep, without rest, just hungry for the finished result. The Greek, German and Hungarian technicians, engineers and construction workers were toiling around the clock. Gert, whose religion is perfection, had his eye on every detail. He smoked his hundredth cigarette and drank the fiftieth coffee, if only to keep warm. Gert was in a trance state where seconds, minutes, hours and days curdle into a fleeting Fata Morgana, chased to no avail. He was beyond help. The one thing that had stayed with him - who grew up in a dark East German prison cell - from childhood was the craving for LIGHT. Athens was the place where he was given a little of that. And where he took a little of it back.
More than at any of the other events, in Dresden Gert could be himself. He tore out his soul and constructed images from silence. He didn't have to show any consideration - and this turned out to be a great benefit. Worlds collided. On one side, the imposing and historical Semper Opera, on the other the rock'n'roll deep down in his heart. Hate and tenderness mingling. During the preparations for Dresden I suddenly understood what I already felt during our first ever meeting - Hof is an artist who, besides opposing experiences, is incapable of losing confidence that the future will come to something. Whatever this "something" might be, I never managed to find out.
After the event, Hof said: "Today we have achieved almost 30% of what I had planned". He mentioned this without remorse, almost congratulatory and surprised that "besides everything" so much had worked out. And this "besides everything" exists at all his events. Because for Gert the kick, the challenge starts when the event is agreed on, a long time before it actually happens. The hours and days spent imagining after the contract has been signed are his truly artistic and "blissful" (in the Schopenhauerian sense). Whatever follows, the weeks and months of preparation, writing the score, endless work, non-stop construction of the installation, fighting for every detail - all this is only to get the result as close to his ideal as possible. Born from his mind for the nightly sky.
Dresden became a great moment for Gert. The Old Castle, the Semper buildings, the Zwinger, the Opera at the centre. And Johann Sebastian Bach. A cathedral made of music and light, rising up into the icy cold sky above Dresden. When we said goodbye hours after the event, Gert said: "Lets call each other tomorrow". But - to borrow a line from his friend Till Lindemann - it sounded like: "I am waiting for you at the end of night". And, it seems to me, for Gert Hof it is always night.
© Asteris Kutulas, 2003
Too close for comfort
About Gert Hof
And if there is a tongue, hidden deep down in the throat of space? Ready to jump out and snatch little earth children. Three… two… one….zero. A kiss by the whole, wide world. Whoever craves a taste of the coarse loaf of truth, must have devoured fairy tales. It was years ago when the boy with the white face startled from his sleep to conspicuous scratching and dragging sounds. Outdoors, the mountains of night were surely growing. Underneath the bed, as we all know, no mayflies lurk. That’s when an itch tickled down the child’s spine. Unheeding the dark it ran through the room and tore at the window. Right then, the sweet cherry tree’s crown was shattered by the storm and a prong of the darkest star tore out one of the boy’s eyes. A crow flew to him and spoke, until it was old and emptied out from speech, then it was sucked right up by the colour of night.
The boy with the white face slipped back into bed, just close enough to the window. And so the child slid into the ether and found a gaping wound in the world. From now on the angels of a higher order knew about him. When in a good mood, they called out his name. But when ill-tempered, they came to demand impossible deeds. Go and find the untiring water, they told the boy with the white face and the reptile eye. And, on discovery, carry a pitcher through all parts of the world, careful not to spill a single drop. On the high mount of humility, reaching over the bottom of the primeval ocean, he himself should empty the pitcher, to be deprived of sleep and tortured by all the dreams that now would find no other soul to haunt. Because the untiring water is a fiery elixir, far too close for comfort.
Gert Hof’s art is born out of daydreams. And what is dreamt while awake is, as we know, even more unspeakable than what is seen during sleep. The outer space folds all the way in, the innermost stretches out over the self. Is this a sea, guarded by heavenly mirrors. Diver from Taucha – chased by the Titanic’s corpse, from Venus to Saturn. Music becomes the stuff you breathe. Dazzle is eyesight. Is this how you harden steel and light up the roof of the world.
And yet again, the tribulations of the gods. And the trials of humanity. With gleaming beams you shall plough the heavenly fields and sow effervescent stars, water the fields of ember with molten sun and spin straw into gold.
That I can only laugh about, says the boy with the snowy-white face. And climbs on the stairs to the stars. And opens the door to the room, where the sun burns up in the oven. And takes a draught of water and light, to die, to earth himself and become again, to lose his self for once. Because he knows of a crow that hacks out eyes, and an eagle that devours livers and a winged dragon whose fiery tongue gets too close for comfort to the guards of the Iron Turret.
© Ina Kutulas, 2005
(English translations by Sonja Commentz)