Blog 7 // Traces the dramatist left behind

At first, the art work appears as it is. A second look reveals there is something odd. A muteness, stillness and absence starts filling the room. The art work has demands. The visitor the potential to mental activation. On the occasion of the retrospective exhibition Peter Friedl: Report 1964–2022 at KW Institute for Contemporary Art in Berlin, Hilde Van Gelder’s text Intermediality for the Sake of Radical Neutrality, in the work of Peter Friedl (2013) was re-published under the name of “An Act of Radical Neutrality” (2022). In this writing Ellen Van Driessche used a selection of parts from that text as focus points to reflect on his recent work Teatro (Report) (2016-2019).

Peter Friedl @ carré d’art, nimes, 2019

Peter Friedl, Teatro (Report), 2016-2019. © Mousse Magazine

About this creative mechanism of meaning production, Friedl has claimed that the discrepancy between the “concept” and the “realization” of a work of art is central to his research.  There is always a gap between the intended and the produced meaning of an artwork. But precisely that is a fascinating void. It is in the transitory, fragile space where the work of art produces its own meaning that new political insights, new philosophies, new ways of living together can be imagined. Critical intimacy between the work and the spectator, he argues, is a central triggering factor for the genesis of such a meaningful, reflexive image in the spectator’s cognitive imagination.

(This citation is an excerpt from Hilde Van Gelder,”An Act of Radical Neutrality,” in On Peter Friedl, ed. by Krist Gruijthuijsen, ex. cat., “Peter Friedl: Report 1964–2022” KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2022): 188-189.)

In his work Teatro (Report) (2016-2018) Peter Friedl recreated a seemingly exact mimesis on a smaller scale of the National Theatre in Athens, Greece, where his other work Report was recorded in 2016. However, the supposed mimesis is quickly broken by the people represented on stage who are slightly too big in comparison. On top of that, the model lacks a stand for the public.[1] The muteness, immobility and imperfectness of this scale model start asking something from the audience. It is but just a representation. The underlying concept of theatre as mnemotechnical systems or places of knowledge as defined by Giulio Camillo (ca. 1475-1544) and Robert Fludd (1574-1637) that Friedl uses, would suppose the stand as the most important part. The visitor of such a theatre stands on stage, looks at the stand which asks of him mental activation and causes a distortion of memory. It offers the possibility to undermine conventions around memory processes and create new meanings.[2] This part is not just missing in this work, Friedl seems to have made the exhibition hall the stand. Because of that, a blurring of the lines between audience and “stage” occurs. The lack, or better, replacement, of a stand here produces a free circulation of visitors and knowledge throughout the whole exhibition.[3]

This work can be observed both as a practical model or an aesthetic object. Moreover, although you can access the model from all sides and take on different positions as for example audience, actor or model builder, there is no interaction, movement or placement. It causes the visitor to activate their mental processes of imagination, interpretation and knowledge production.[4] Decontextualization, which Friedl uses as an artistic strategy, neutralizes any context brought in by him as an idiosyncratic collection through his simultaneous position in time and space.[5] This active mechanism is what I called theatre as museum based on what Friedl said in an interview with Claire Tancons; “I even like theatre as museum.”[6] Continuously, the audience can re-imagine, re-interpret and re-reproduce new meanings. This happens within “the gap between the intended and the produced meaning of an artwork” or that “fascinating void” Van Gelder writes about.[7] This void cannot be mistaken for being merely the silence present in the halls that Friedl uses as part of his decontextualization strategy. However, sound can and does play a role within that void. When walking through the exhibition one could hear the sound of the work Report from far away, touching and waving itself through the other artworks.

How Theory of Justice’s radically neutral presentation of photographs brings about this ethical call for human responsibility is a matter of artistic methodology. At all times, the totality of Friedl’s artistic production should be kept in mind when looking at a single work or reading a single text. Allan Sekula has called this “a larger montage principle” that is always operative within his entire body of work as well, and which exceeds any montage principle internal to a single work, or even one of his books. As with Sekula, an attentive observer of Friedl’s works can allow that larger montage to emerge within their imagination. Thus, spectators can understand his radically neutral approach as one marked by the greatest possible, egalitarian social engagement that art can take. (Van Gelder, 2022: 202-203)

At this point, the “larger montage principle” that Hilde Van Gelder writes about comes into play. When considering work by Friedl one should take into account his whole body of work.[8] Taken into account, Teatro (Report) reaches much further than itself. For that particular exhibition called Teatro (2019-2020), where this work was presented, the museum worked as a memory theatre in which the hierarchical division between audience and stage was blurred. The absence of labels or information boards created a continuous stream of images within a certain thinking space.[9] Visitors were put on stage of this mnemotechnical theatre or museum as theater for which in some cases the museum almost literally took on the role of theatre space.[10] An example of this can be found in the work No Prey, No Pay (2018-2019). Some circus pedestals with costumes and a Jolly Roger flag are found whereby the museum took on the role of circus and silence and absence that of audience and performance.

Like in the previous work, a certain muteness, stillness and absence rules through the exhibition halls. Look at for example the still standing radically mute fabricated dolls in The Dramatist (Black Hamlet, Crazy Henry, Giulia, Toussaint) (2013) or the motionless “baraccas” and character dolls in the work Teatro Popular (2016-2017). While wandering visitors are confronted with different decontextualised concepts and ideas through time and space ready for continuous re-interpretation. The use of the museum as a means to decontextualize is essential for Friedl’s practice in that it creates distance and “verfremdung” in the sense of Brechtian theatre. In its turn this causes a necessary critical intimacy between visitor and artwork.[11] As Van Gelder writes “Critical intimacy between the work and the spectator, he argues, is a central triggering factor for the genesis of such a meaningful, reflexive image in the spectator’s cognitive imagination”.[12]

Important is that the present stillness doesn’t cause passivity as the works demand mental activation from the visitors. Thus, a will to activate permeated the rooms.[13] The visitors walking through the exhibition, found themselves within that “fascinating void” characterized by a critical intimacy and an urge towards activation of mental processes.[14] For Friedl, the exhibition functions a medium “where art spins its own web”.[15] This could be interpreted as the art works having the power to demand activation in combination with the continuous re-imagination and re-interpretation the activated visitors cause. The reflexive images that arise on the visitor’s wandering through the exhibition halls live on long after the visit and influence mental processes of memory and creation of meaning.[16] Visitors become the active performers of their own memory and thinking processes by taking on the roles of audience, actor and possible dramatist.[17] The audience thus counts as a possible or potential activator of the radical neutral and mute traces that the dramatist left behind.[18]


[1] Ellen Van Driessche, Theater als museum en museum als theater, bachelor paper (KU Leuven), 12.

[2] Ibid., 13.

[3] Ibid., 14.

[4] Ibid., 14.

[5] Ibid., 28.

[6] Claire Tancons, “Portrait of the Artist as a Dramatist: A Conversation with Peter Friedl,” e-flux journal No 103 (2019), laatste toegang 5 mei 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/journal/103/289590/portrait-of-the-artist-as-a%5B6%5Ddramatist-a-conversation-with-peter-friedl/.; In my bachelor’s thesis I theorized this principle and applied it to the discussed works. Van Driessche, Theater als museum en museum als theater, 2.

[7] Hilde Van Gelder,”An Act of Radical Neutrality,” in On Peter Friedl, ed. by Krist Gruijthuijsen, ex. cat., “Peter Friedl: Report 1964–2022” KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin (Cologne: Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther und Franz König, 2022): 188-189.

[8] Ibid., 202-203.

[9] Van Driessche, Theater als museum, 26.

[10] Ibid., 26.

[11] Ibid., 9.

[12] Van Gelder, An Act of Radical Neutrality,” 188-189.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Van Gelder, “An Act of Radical Neutrality,”188-189.

[15] Van Gelder, “Intermediality for the sake of radical neutrality,” 192.

[16] Van Driessche, Theater als museum, 28.

[17] Van Driessche, museum als theater en theater als museum, 26.

[18] Ibid., 29.