Framed Performance – The Innocence of the Piano
In our engagement with contemporary political Ukrainian art we were confronted with an abundance of artistic material which needed to be sorted, categorized and analyzed. I myself decided to concentrate on performance art – and among the variety of different kinds of performances on Majdan, the Majdan Piano Player attracted my interest. In order to find a striking and appropriate title for the presentation I chose Framed Performance – The Innocence of the Piano because on the one hand the performance did not attract attention in itself, but as a photograph and on the other hand I wanted to point out the political potential, meaning and message of the Piano Man. Why this political meaning is marked by innocence, is illustrated below.
On December 8th 2013 Markiyan Matsekh, a student from Lviv, took a piano to Kiev’s Bankova Street after protesters had been beaten by riot police forces during the beginning of the Majdan movement. The musical instrument was coloured in the national colours of the Ukraine and the music was played directly to the police. According to the characterization of performance art the audience is an immediate part of it and thus the student’s concert would have just been a simple musical performance without the officers. But in this case the performer interacted with his unusual audience in an extraordinary time and space which further characterizes this as a performance art piece. The play was entitled Piano for Berkut and witnesses gave conflicting reports about what music was actually played.
As intended, this performance was recorded photographically and quickly went viral through social media. It was passed on via Twitter and finally won the 1st prize in the category “The Look of Freedom and Repression” in the Freedom House annual photo contest. Consequently it became a key-image of the Majdan protests. Soon there were plenty of piano flash mobs all over Kiev and other cities which imitated the performance in new places and under different circumstances. The authorship became extended – female and very old players participated as well and often the piano was played by protesters returning directly from the battles on the barricades.
Analyzing the imagery of the picture we see a single, fragile figure confronted with an overwhelming dark power, yet still willing to conquer it. This pictorial language is not utterly new, but has many traces in art and cultural history. As cultural theorist Aby Warburg pointed out in his theory of The Pathos Formula, similar iconic metaphors appear over and over again throughout art history, beginning with antique art. So the imagery of the piano man and the police can be compared with ancient depictions of the biblical combat between David and Goliath, where the initially outmatched and meager power can eventually triumph over brutality and strength.
Photography and Soviet cinema also seized this idea and shifted it to the context of World War II. Soldiers were playing the piano in devastated surroundings in order to distract themselves from the impressions of war and to regain some enjoyment and humanity again.
Besides, the Majdan movement is not the first protest using this Pathos Formula. There have been similar key images of protest using it throughout history. Here it is worth mentioning the so-called “Tank Man” who stood in front of military tanks carrying his plastic shopping bags during the Tiananmen Massacre in China in 1989, where hundreds of people were killed. And another contemporary political struggle made use of performance and the imagery of it: During the protests of Gezi-Park in Turkey 2013 a single man kept on standing in front of the government’s building day by day for several hours – stoically doing nothing and just being there and showing presence. He soon found imitators and was of course captured on photo as the “Standing Man” which was passed on via social media. Both the photos of the Tank Man and the Standing Man were adopted in creative pop culture and were visually transformed in many ways. So the symbolic pictorial language of the performance was established.
The photography of the Piano Man was also correspondingly transformed and finally found itself even as a print on T-shirts or cases for mobile phones.
What these three protest heroes have in common is their stoical pacifism. They show courage and remain peaceful at all times. In the case of the Piano Man the piano serves as a symbol of intellectuality and cultural power. By the time the Ukrainian politicians criminalized the protesters by depicting all of them as fascist extremists, all the pianos proved them wrong – playing classical music and peacefully bringing the people together. Here the above-mentioned innocence of the piano becomes clear. Playing classical music there adds a clearly intellectual note to the protests of the Majdan and shows the protesters as sophisticated people struggling for peace. One could often hear Western pop music (i.e. The Beatles) as well, which can be seen as signal towards the European Union.
Thus the political potential of the performance of the Piano Man and its photo can be read as a double-message. On the one hand as the rejection of the corrupt Ukrainian government and on the other hand as a purposeful announcement towards the EU, in order to prove one’s own democratic and cultural values. The pianos and music did not only serve for decorative means but were clearly defined as a political gesture and were also conceived as such:
“2004 Eurovision Song Contest winner Ruslana Lyzhychko and activists took to a piano perched on a barricade in Kiev’s Independence Square Monday, playing Chopin, the national anthem and the Beatles’ ‘Let it Be.’ Stationed across the square, riot police performed their own musical offensive, blasting Russian pop songs from a sound system.”
It becomes clear that aesthetics can carry political meaning and images can act through their visual language and thereby generate agency. The initial performance is carried on and is transformed creatively – so the political potential can grow stronger and can be truly used for democratic purposes, as has been the case throughout history.
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