Marlene Dumas

Improvise. Lalala and Halloo

Marlene Dumas on Keren Cytter

‘When I cry, do you want the tears to run all the way or shall I stop halfway down?’
Child actress Margaret O’Brien

‘They used to photograph Shirley Temple through gauze, they should photograph me through linoleum.’
Actress Tallulah Bankhead

Where shall I start, knowing that where one starts is crucial to the meaning of a story, because the end is already there, determined by the beginning.

How shall I start, in what way, knowing that the tone will color all the rest that follows. She said to me ‘just improvise’, so I thought, yes, let’s do it as she does it. Improvisation is the key.

Once upon a time … . My father was a farmer who liked to play the violin, although one of the strings was missing, he would accompany anyone’s song, even if he did not know it. He would say ‘I’ll just improvise’. (Apart from that, his other favorite sayings were, ‘you can fool some of the people some of the time but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time’ and ‘never trust anyone, not even your own father’).

I was born in South Africa in 1953. Keren in Tel Aviv in 1977. Maybe that is one of the reasons why we have sympathy for one another. We met in Amsterdam when she came to study there in 2003. I was (supposed to be) one of her tutors. Never really taught her anything. Never really thought she wanted to be taught. She was accepted at the institute because of her films, her writings, dialogues and scripts. Not really because of her drawings.

Did I like the work? Was it nice, like Warhol would use the word ‘nice’? No it was not and she wasn’t nice either. She was beautiful however, although she did not use that word much. As Diana Vreeland of Harpers Bazaar and Vogue said, ‘There is no elegance without very good humour’. And yes Keren’s got humour. Sophisticated as hell. She doesn’t tell jokes. People who try to crack jokes all the time are not very attractive. It is not about laughter. It’s not a ‘hahaha’ funny humour, nor a sour humour. It is a humour that understands the insult. It is a cruelty that comes from a keen intelligence, mixed with an extreme emotional vulnerability and a cute awareness of one’s own stupidity and inability to understand one another. And yet that’s all we’ve got, We don’t play the fool. We are fools, not clowns.

Laurence Olivier called Marilyn Monroe ‘A professional amateur’. Keren is one too. She uses the artificial characteristics of her medium quite naturally. She is an “‘and’ and ‘and’” girl supreme. She deconstructs, superimposes, leaves out, jumps, mixes, subtitles, in videos like television, like films, like movies, like soaps, like cinema, like theater … Like multi-layeredness was her middle name.

I even found some Fellini that made me think of her. Federico Fellini was talking about how he needs an elastic scenario, and how actors who learn their part by heart, made him feel uncomfortable. ‘What if I want to change the text? What if a new scene comes to mind? What if I feel like improvising a completely different movie? Or taking up another profession?’

He watches his actors offscreen eating and talking about soccer or ordinary things. So, in the movie when the actor has to say, to his love or his son, ‘Get out of this house’, Fellini can say to him ‘Please do it like the day you told the waiter “You have brought me overcooked rice”. Indeed, I sometimes go as far as making the actor actually say “You have brought me overcooked rice”, instead of “Get out of this house”. Later on when dubbing you can always get that line back in.’[1] Maybe Keren would just leave the food sentence in there, in a manner of speaking, but it would probably be spagetti instead of rice.

Things keep on going wrong, yet they never totally collapse. Tragedy is postponed. When, before the deadline, Keren sent me the pictures of her drawings by email I ended up in a slight state of panic. Lets call it (con)fusion. Me not being so computer friendly yet and not being used to handling the world of digital information overflow, getting lost in abreviations and non-existent attachments. A world of blunt assumptions and messages. I couldn’t find her messages. Our communication went somewhat like this.

Keren: ‘Soon three strange emails will be sent …
The subject is lala. The subject is lalala. The subject is halloo’.
Many mails later I at last I found what I should.
The titles of the drawings were: Patttern of Violence 1 2 3; Chair; Vertigo; 2 Lobby Cards; Untitled; Ovgu; A Bag on the Floor Camouflaged.
The titles were not: Explore the Seven Wonders of the World Learn More; Get better answers from some who knows. Try it now; Get news entertainment and everything you care about in Check it out. (These were the hotmail texts that were on the same pages that I read as information relevant to Keren.)

I found the images. Keren’s drawings are terrible. They are drawn and colored in with a marker. Hard and ‘insensitive’ like the voices of her friends playing her actors, with unnecessary decorative patterning that reminds one of the impersonal drawings of the insane.The Pattern of Violence drawings remind me of the publicity line for the film made of the play Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolf, ‘You are cordially invited to George and Martha’s for an evening of fun and games’. … Her drawings do not please me. Because she does not want to please me, or you. That is what makes them so good.

[1] Federico Fellini, Faces, 1981.

Keren Cytter | Improvise. Lalala and Halloo. First published as ‘On the drawings of Keren Cytter’ in Keren Cytter, (cat.), MUMOK Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2007; and included in Marlene Dumas, Sweet Nothings. Notes and Texts | On Others, second edition (revised and expanded) Koenig Books London, 2014.