The Swiss Federal Council ordered that schools be closed, no events take place with 100 or more and restaurants accommodate no more than 50 people, staff included.
I came in from a jittery city; the streets were emptier than they should have been, but a few tourists still wandered through Niederdorf. In the Cabaret Voltaire, bamboo in pots punctuated the performance space and a few people were seated around the edges of the room. Isabel Lewis was weaving around, unhurriedly, twisting her hands and her body as she went. There was a soundtrack, a low-key, repeated utterance. At some point Lewis stopped, and addressed us. She welcomed us and thanked us for coming out. This moment, she said, clarified that the idea of individuality is hard to sustain. We share environments and we share biological matter. What is the appropriate rational and bodily response to it? Lewis spoke, and moved. Periodically she paused, changed the music, reset the mood and continued.
She navigated us around the idea of eudaimonia, an aspirational state of happiness in doing things as well and virtuously as we can. She explored classical and Christian virtues. Approaching her audience, involving us, she sounded out kinds of love, taking us through Plato’s Symposium and the models of love the philosophers proposed there. Of Alcibiades’ unruly entrance and declaration of love for Socrates, (who, like Lewis, ‘transported, completely possessed’ those that listened to him).
And as we listened, we smelt. Smells concocted in collaboration with Sissel Tolaas, one representing the intellect, the other a quintessence of the bodily experience of Berlin’s Berghain club. We were given something to eat – some cheese on rye bread, I think, a scrap of roast onion hiding a little spike of lemon zest. The mood and music broke, Lewis’ movements became more fractured, violent. She shocked us, elicited concern. Throughout, I wanted to take notes, but more urgently I wanted to be mentally and physically, rationally and emotionally as present as I could be. We were Lewis’ audience and her guests, encountering a generosity I would scarcely have thought possible in a public venue.
Lewis words had a narrative arch, an arrow into the air, but I left after more than an hour, before it hit the ground. Back into the real world of a squabble with the people I love, the kind we’ll have lots of as we navigate these extraordinary circumstances.
The Swiss Federal Council ordered all restaurants, bars, fitness studios and places of entertainment, including museums and galleries, to close.
We planned to open Isabel Lewis' exhibition at Kunsthalle Zürich on 3 September, but in the meantime everything changed and it will happen in December. Nonetheless, you can experience her performance art during this summer’s Theaterspektakel, where she is appearing in the context of a collaboration between Kunsthalle Zürich and Theaterspektakel Zürich.
Images: Isabel Lewis, Occasion on the Topic of Love in the Time of Corona, Cabaret Voltaire 2020, photograph: Cabaret Voltaire, Gunnar Meier