Mediamatic Magazine Vol. 1#3 Pim Jonker 1 Jan 1987

Song of Songs

During the last two weeks of September artists who have extended elements of their work into performances made presentations in the SHAFFY THEATRE in Amsterdam. One of them was the artist MICHAL SHABTAY, born in Israel, who developed a performance Song of Songs, a nine-channel video work presented in such a way (the monitors are moving across the stage) that it becomes a stage-play.

PIM JONKER describes the performance which, in spite of the fact that it was not wholly convincing, made a very interesting link between video and theatre, ballet or even opera.


Song of Songs installation diagram - michal shabtay

The Song of Songs is one of the oldest extant collections of profane love-songs and epithalamia (wedding songs). They date from the fourth or fifth century BC and are usually attributed to King Solomon. The Song of Songs contains a number of descriptions of love, its ceremonies and rituals, and of nature as a symbol of love.

Because the Song of Songs describes physical love in a very straightforward way, it was difficult to accept it as an integral part of the Bible. Far into the first century AD it was only sung at profane festivals and in wine shops. Yet it was seen as a poetical work of such beauty that it was not allowed to disappear. The Song of Songs was said to be essentially an allegory, a song in praise of the love of God towards the land of Israël, and it was collected in the Old Testament.

Although the style is coherent, it is not easy to discover a plot in the songs, or to pin down the characters. Nevertheless two principal characters are always present: the lover or bridegroom, and the loved one or shulamith (bride). These two describe each other repeatedly, also metaphorically as plants, landscapes, or complete tableaus.

... His head is as the most fine gold,
his locks are bushy, and black as a raven.
His eyes are as doves by the rivers of the waters ...

... Thy navel is like a round goblet,
which wanteth not liquor;
thy belly is like an heap of wheat
set about with lilies.
Thy two breasts are like two young roes
that are twins ...

Such expressions of erotic feelings and passions are typical of the Mediterranean area and the Middle East and were already the key to SHABTAY's earlier video-work.

These feelings are reflected in a cryptical way, and are always present, though hidden, in daily life. In the cultures of the North almost the opposite is true nowadays. According to MICHAL SHABTAY, our exhibition and consumption of sex are emphasized by direct means and are public by nature. The combination of Eastern erotic symbolic language and the original intention of the Song of Songs, that is as a nonreligious cycle of love poems, inspired MICHAL SHABTAY to create her performance.

There is no intrigue or narrative. In each poem bride and bridegroom, or symbols referring to them, are put in different situations and on various locations. Panoramas, impressions of irrigation of the land, and a selection of subtropical vegetation become metaphors for the feelings of love. Some characteristics of our modern times, such as images of cars, tourists or soldiers, brusquely interrupt this poetic nature at regular intervals.

The images are shown by nine video-monitors placed on mobile consoles. Eight of these are manipulated by actors dressed in black. This phrasing of movements leads to a tight choreography of geometric pauerns. The monitors are manouvered in a V-shape, a straight line, or a circle, in accordance with the images shown.

A compilation of music and sound can be heard over the speakers in the auditorium, and each monitor produces its own specific audio-fragment in certain tableaus.

Throughout the performance a possible meeting of bride and bridegroom is suggested. Yet they are never present on the same monitor at the same time.

Michal Shabtay Song of Songs desert scene

The suspense created in this way reaches its climax when the monitors show the rituals of a marriage-ceremony. The marriage is celebrated according to old Jewish traditions, or traditions of other conservative societies that can be found in Arab countries such as Yemen. The fast and repetitive rhythm of the images and the dramatic action suggest the physical meeting of bride and bridegroom. Generally speaking, two monitors are reserved for the main characters, while six monitors function as decorative scenery, emphasizing the symbolic interactions. With these six monitors, SHABTAY suggests motion and standstill by means of synchronous and asynchronous images.

Now we come to the ninth monitor, which is fixed, and lights up from time to time. An old man in folkloristic dress is sitting on a stone staircase, and reads aloud the Song of Songs in a melodious Hebrew.

There is a clear relation with the Japanese Bunraku-theatre, where actors dressed in black manipulate puppets of about 1 metre high while a narrator explains the story. SHABTAY presents the old man as the connection between the narrative and the video-monitors. He announces the various stanzas and represents the universal value of communication.

The performance Song of Songs is of a very accomplished technical level. SHABTAY expresses her emotional relation with the erotic tradition of the East, especially where women are concerned, by means of cool video images and sometimes complex stage-directions. The result is not always easily accessible.

Nevertheless she has unravelled basic elements of the medium video, such as colour, light, sound, image, size, space, synchronity, and motion in an interesting way. These elements were then recombined and used in a different way. Video as it were, comes out of the box, and starts a more intensive relationship with the spectator.

If you'd like to quote something: Jonker, Pim. "Song of Songs." Mediamatic Magazine vol. 1 # 3 (1987).

Translation: Fokke Sluiter