Exploring Anglo-German histories, movement and migration, medial shifts and social change through the public research performance After Abstraction

‘After Abstraction’, video film of performance on 17 March 2023, The Robert Cripps Gallery, Magdalene College, Cambridge, edited by P. Romantowski. Please note the reduced quality of the sound in the recording due to the movement of the ensemble and limited technical equipment used in the performance. Download a partial transcript here.

 It was like dying but in the best possible way.

Peter McMurray, Assistant Professor of Music, University of Cambridge, audience feedback on After Abstraction, Robert Cripps Gallery, Cambridge, 25 February 2023.

The word that comes to my mind is enchantment. Academia keeps cutting up the world in pieces. Your performance, in turn, brought music and voice and painting together. I was fully immersed in it, and in awe of the beauty of the music, the painting and poetry, but also of the singers. I saw the joy on their faces; young people who are not constrained by convention. There was a freedom in their expression. And when it ended, I was content.

David Hall, audience feedback on After Abstraction, Robert Cripps Gallery, Cambridge, 17 March 2023.

I really felt quite privileged to be part of the experience on Saturday. The performance was very resonant with my work and an interest I have in shifting the location of curatorial practices and sites for social artistic practices into organisations. The sense of a whole space and connectedness through matter and spirit. It really did quite shake me up … in a good way.

Juliet Scott, Principal Consultant/Artist-in Residence at The Tavistock Institute for Human Relations, London, audience feedback on After Abstraction, Cambridge, 25 February 2023.

My memories seem a bit as if they’re held in a roughly assembled children’s kaleidoscope, like those I was constantly accumulating in melas in Kolkata, which could give you an exhilarating fix […] to which you could return, reanimating from the point where you last left off […] Akin to revisiting ‘After Abstraction’ in my minds-eye.

The performance must have begun but we were some beats behind, most of us, hurriedly, retrospectively concluding that sounds we may have heard earlier were perhaps […] the beginning. The initially indistinct clicking of tongues agglomerating and morphing into […] another phase.

At moments I felt transfixed as if I’d unexpectedly happened across a clearing in a forest […] like a scene from Tarkovsky’s ‘Stalker’ – a motif recurrent in Ruth Rix’s oeuvre […] and again […] and again stumbling across […] Constantly, intermittently becalmed in hazy liminal zones with assorted strangers and also a few known people gazing upon and suffused by the experience of both being scenery and also features and accomplices in a makeshift and shifting setting.

All around were abstractions, seemingly unconnected and exquisite musical forays, transcendental […] alluring […] ricocheting through us into and off our bodies, the walls […] brushing past, between, around and most remarkably of all alliterating with Rix’s works […] riveting, stunning moments of voices singularly and as an ensemble riffing off the scores strewn on sheets of paper and devices clutched by the musicians.

A deep, soulful – doleful? – actual beat broke out from a box sat upon and carefully poked and cajoled and […] we were as one in its hypnotic embrace […] which was the prelude or prologue depending where we thought things were heading to and from […] and soon the choir began slowly in concert to merge with the ground […] and there they lingered for a pause […] at knee height or less and in fact mainly recumbent […] they didn’t come back up […] and the spell had run its thrilling course.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

There was more to the séance […] more than enough to make and draw connections between the works on the walls and in vitrines, myriad intersectional cross-connections […] radical and beautiful.

Prof Eenasul Fateh, scholar-professional: social scientist, strategy consultant, artist-researcher, psychologist; Board Member, Tavistock Institute of Human Relations; Board Member Tavistock and Portman Charity; member of Trauma Service, Tavistock and Portman NHS Foundation Trust, audience feedback on After Abstraction, Cambridge, on 25 February 2023.

Always already placed, without ever being fully at home | Dr Annja Neumann

When I first stepped into Ruth Rix’s studio in Brighton, space expanded. This spatial expansion placed me on a proscenium, surrounded by the unfolding mise-en-scène, and invited me in; I entered a stage set built on ground that seemed to shift continually. The paintings and artworks on the walls of the studio transformed me into scenery as well as into an actor. The painted material arrangements and forays of colours positioned me in a visual drama that felt wholly environmental: the squares of sunlight floating across the studio floor and the wooden table – covered with crushed tubes, brushes and dried paint – became as much a part of the ‘stage’ as the windows and walls, huts and houses, trees, dogs and figures moving through Rix’s artworks.

Photograph by Annja Neumann

The sense of spatial expansion and connection that characterises Rix’s Brighton studio is not limited to a single painting but reaches across several canvases. Connections between the interiors and materials of the paintings, and an unfolding space punctuated by staircases and painted houses, become palpable. My visit to Rix’s studio was an immersive experience that was formative to my idea for the After Abstraction performance: to create an environment that invited spectators to participate in the ‘theatre’ of the paintings, to perform what they perceived.

This post explores After Abstraction as an artistic intervention and marks the publication of its re-mediation on film, accessible in the video above. After Abstraction was a public participatory performance that responded to Cross-Connections, an exhibition of works by Ruth Rix and Helga Michie held at Magdalene College in Cambridge from January to March 2023. The exhibition was developed by Silke Mentchen (Magdalene College, Cambridge), Georgina Paul (St Hilda’s College, Oxford), and by Ruth Rix and Hugh Rix (Brighton). I started working on After Abstraction in January 2020, only a few months before the Covid-19 pandemic struck Britain. My role was to produce a participatory performance programme for the exhibition that engaged viewers with the paintings and their cultural, political, and historical settings. Developing the programme involved further visits to Ruth Rix’s studio in Brighton, continued conversations with Rix, Hugh Rix, her family, and those who study her and the work of Rix’s mother, Helga Michie.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

My practice as an artist-researcher draws on the re-staging of public spaces and the transformative power this arts-based method can exert on participants. I frequently use processes of theatricalisation to restage relationships and analyse new cultural configurations. Theatricalisation amplifies. Based on the doubling effect of performance and the fluid power dynamics it generates, theatricalisation redistributes agency. Thus re-staging always already involves a re-evaluation of a location or an institution across history and geography.

Ruth Rix’s paintings themselves constantly destabilise and reconfigure space. The theatrical nature of these spatial reconfigurations comes as no surprise, given that Rix studied stage design in the early 1960s at Chelsea School of Art and the Central School of Art and Design (for biographical context see the catalogue of the Cross-Connections exhibition of Ruth Rix’s and Helga Michie’s works). Crucially, Rix’s painted landscapes – or rather her ‘painting-theatres’ – invite the viewer to look behind the scenes. This effect is partly created by her use of the pentimento technique (see the painting Attersee below), where alterations to a composition made during the process of creation remain visible in the final piece – a key practice that will be discussed further below.

The After Abstraction performance enlivened the interconnectedness of past, present and future brought attention to in the Cross-Connections exhibition, by engaging the paintings through music, movement, and poetry in the space of the gallery. The idea to extend the visual drama stored within the paintings into the space of the gallery was informed by a conversation I had with Rix about her creative process: the music she listened to whilst painting contributed to the act of creation. Inspired by live immersive performance art – including Reich Richter Pärt (2019), which was conceived by composer Steve Reich, painter Gerhard Richter and composer Arvo Pärt – I co-created an experimental setting and dramaturgy where singers intermingled and interacted with visitors and artworks in the gallery.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

‘Make sure somebody sees you grow hair’

Composer Nat Jobbins responded to Rix’s paintings with the vocal piece It would take longer than this (so, so long), which was premiered in the first performance on 25 February 2023. Pairs of performers moved across the gallery in a choreographed pattern, singing ‘[m]ake sure somebody sees you grow hair’, a line which uses direct address to invite viewers into the movement. The repertoire of the After Abstraction performance, curated by Lea Luka Sikau and Syamala Roberts, also included the humming of Missa Criolla by Argentine composer Ariel Ramírez, choral music by Johann Sebastian Bach, and more experimental soundscapes by Austrian composers Peter Ablinger and Klaus Lang. It was interpreted by a diverse ensemble of singers, who responded to an open call led by Sikau and Roberts.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

(4)   Amid conversations falls the shadow of silence. It divides and binds; it dissolves and reconfigures as a haze. I look at drawings as if they were phonographies, at colours as if they were clusters of voices. A room of one’s own is meaningless without a voice of one’s own, a voice in search of the one and only sentence as a configuration of words dipped in colours lined up until the lines become part of a score, strings of instruments thereafter. Strange that galleries are silent. Should there not be a constant humming of viewers translating what they see into muted sounds, transforming themselves into hummingbirds before paintings, extracting their colours thus enriching their plumages further and further.

As we can no longer afford not to hear what we see.

Fourth movement of a prose poem by Rüdiger Görner, Professor of German with Comparative Literature (Queen Mary University of London), especially written for the ‘After Abstraction’ performance and based on Görner’s talk, ‘After Abstraction: The Soundscape of Shapes in Works by Ruth Rix and Helga Michie’, Cripps Auditorium, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 25 February 2023.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

Another four ‘configurations of words’ were interlaced with music and movement and spoken by a performer in interaction with the paintings. The fourth movement of the prose poem ‘After Abstraction’ by Rüdiger Görner (see above) articulated a key principle of Rix’s and Michie’s works as well as the After Abstraction performance. The line that concludes the fourth movement – ‘[a]s we can no longer afford not to hear what we see’ – emphasised how the paintings and prints re-mediated the viewer’s experience, transforming colour into sound and into words, ‘in search of the one and only sentence’.

In this way, Görner’s reflections on The Soundscape of Shapes in Works by Ruth Rix and Helga Michie, which preceded the performance on 25 February 2023, continued in the gallery in poetic form, alliterating with the paintings, music and movement.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

Influenced by Expressionism and Cubism, Ruth Rix’s works display a mix of the abstract and the figural. Most notably, Rix uses the pentimento technique, the partial overpainting of earlier layers of the painting either to draw the spectator into the painting or to spill the colour into the gallery. Rix’s radical use of pentimento creates ‘see-through houses’, shifting frame-structures, a Zoom or a set of windows that open up a series of different spaces. This performative logic is reminiscent of the ways pop-up windows and portals direct users’ attention in digital spaces. As much as Ruth Rix’s landscapes ask questions about augmentation, they are also about re-mediation and the material effects of migration.

Ruth Rix, Attersee, 2020, oil on canvas, 152x92cm

The lines of Rix’s painting Attersee direct the viewer’s attention to the bare canvas held in the centre of the painting, extending the mediation process into the gallery. Attersee depicts a blue-green landscape with hills, a hut, a lake, a red fire moment and its reflections in the water as well as a square drawn by bare and pulsating lines, which acts like a proscenium; perhaps this scene is being viewed from a train window. Perhaps it shows, as one of my students suggested during a visit to the exhibition, a landscape submerged under water.

What connects both readings is the waterfall or the drips of paint that link the white canvas with spectators’ perceptions. Attersee’s ‘fluidity of structure’ (Hugh Rix, Cross-Connections catalogue, Magdalene College, 2023, p. 9) enables viewers to look ‘behind the scenes’. The sense of movement in the painting is produced by lines that cross through rolling hills and the overdrawn window structure centre stage. Moreover, the use of pentimento in Attersee – particularly the overdrawing of the square – resonates with the etymology of ‘theatre’, or the theatron, meaning a ‘place for viewing’. This makeshift proscenium asks: who is the actor and who is the viewer in this drama? Who is the subject and who materialises as the object?

Philosopher and theatre director Samuel Weber has suggested that ‘[p]erhaps the stage can come to stand for a place in which one is always already placed, without ever being fully at home or definitely positioned’ (Samuel Weber (2009), Theatricality as Medium, p. 68). I’d argue that we are never simply placed once and for all in a theatrical structure. Rix’s paintings work with this effect: they constitute a holding space as much as they have a destabilising effect. In so doing, the artworks are not only relational, but also re-evaluate how we are positioned in a particular moment. Jobbins’ line ‘Make sure somebody sees you grow hair’ emphasises the importance of paying attention to change, urging participants to pay witness to their everyday lives. The paintings destabilise traditional subject positions, enabling participants to inhabit the position of actor as well as viewer, spectated as well as spectator.

Attersee enables these role-changes and re-positionings, as Rix noted herself in conversation with Georgina Paul, one in a series of public events associated with the Cross-Connections exhibition. ‘The white space with the drips holds everything together’, Rix told Paul. Emphasising the fluidity of her paintings, Rix suggested that a painting can be transformed into a viewer and that spectators, in turn, can become the painting. Drawing on the staging principles of Rix’s paintings, After Abstraction re-staged the gallery so that participants could become the painting and paintings could become the viewers also. To do this, I used throughlines that cross, role-changes, and extended drama, as well as a constellation of the three figures that move through Rix’s paintings, in the dramaturgy of the performance.

Photograph by Faruk Kara

The intention was to explore how the paintings appealed to, and sedimented in, the participants during a theatrical encounter which constantly placed and displaced them. What did the paintings see when they transformed into viewers? At the first performance, it was telling that the production team repeatedly had to remind participants not to lean against the paintings. Artist-Researcher Rebecca Swift, who participated in the performance, observed that through this movement of ‘leaning in’, viewers appeared as if they were re-emerging and stepping out of the paintings.

The pain in the paintings

I moved as a performer myself, alongside the singers and participants. I felt grounded and held through the spatial relationships set up between the paintings and the gallery, yet simultaneously experienced the destabilising effects of ‘shape-shifting’ between different states: a feature of the scenery, a viewer, and an actor. Meanwhile, the figures, staircases, huts and trees in Rix’s paintings constantly kept moving themselves. The painted ‘landscapes’ were en route, moving across canvases on different scales and across Anglo-German histories. Eventually, I started to move with them. Later, I approached Ruth and asked: ‘What is it that your paintings and the people who participate in them are moving towards?’

‘The paintings’, Rix responded, ‘want you to engage; they are all about a single moment, a fulcrum. This moment can converge with your presence if you follow them. The paintings, or sometimes it is me, who wants to know where you are and what you do. They ask a lot of you. The paintings are demanding’.

Capturing Ruth Rix’s painting Traces II (2010, mixed media & collage on paper 110x71cm) with intentional camera movement, photograph by Faruk Kara

‘It is a moment that lies beyond language’, Ruth added, ‘a state of grace. The spatial element in the paintings seemingly breaks through the two-dimensional space but is kept poised at a point where it is not quite one or the other and so it attempts to play with something beyond’. Engaging with Rix’s paintings is an existential experience: uncompromising, radical, and always embodied. It is tempting to link this moment of mediation or medial shift, where space is neither two-dimensional nor three-dimensional, to the unconscious or more so – to draw on a term by Austrian doctor-writer Arthur Schnitzler – to the ‘Mittelbewußtsein’, an ‘intermediary consciousness’. Crucially, it is a realm that holds the viewer accountable. The trauma re-performed by Rix’s paintings is marked by its individual and historical specificity. And yet, displacement through war and persecution continues to be shared by many in the twenty-first century. As silence approached in our conversation, Rix’s gaze wandered across a painting that we faced. With its see-through houses, stairways, and bleak clearings, the work created a material arrangement that was reminiscent of movement and migration.

Cross-Connections exhibited paintings and prints from mother and daughter. In so doing, it teased out the resonances and dissonances between the two artists’ works. Helga Michie, Rix’s mother, escaped from Nazi Austria and came to Great Britain with one of the last Kindertransport in 1939. Michie came to England alongside 10,000 child refugees (between 1938-39), most of them Jewish. The Kindertransport is part of the Anglo-German histories and lines that run through both works. Rix’s paintings work through this traumatic experience. As I write this text, in a time of war and deep conflict that confronts many Jewish and Muslim communities with their histories – events and responses that lie beyond the scope of this post – the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht and the Kindertransport and their complex histories were commemorated in Germany as well as in the United Kingdom. After Abstraction, staged in February and March 2023, created a safe space to re-evaluate social change not only concerning the trauma of the Kindertransport, but also the experience of displacement and migration more generally.

Trauma is commonly defined as the fear of annihilation. First- and second-generation relatives of the refugee children who came to the UK in 1938-39 were among the participants and ensemble of After Abstraction; some of the singers were in their twenties and queer. What mattered in the two performances was their voices and vitality, and the new cultural configurations that were created. The visual drama that flowed into the gallery was constituted through paintings and participants, music and movement, words and walls – a pattern of relationships which created a space open to the future. At the same time, the visual drama actively witnessed the trauma of displacement through a contrapuntal dramaturgy of role-changes that asked the singers to slowly merge with the ground. My counterpart and I finished the performance with closing words borrowed from a poem by Michie’s twin sister, Ilse Aichinger, who survived Nazi persecution in Vienna: ‘kein Untergang’ / ‘no downfall’.

And yet, alongside the displacement and pain, Rix’s works reach through historical lines. Her bright green landscapes are soothing and generate a space of psychological safety that welcomes viewers to enter their own inner landscape or psycho-topography. This performative space invites self-discovery, but always in relation to the environment that surrounds the listener, viewer, and actor. After Abstraction sought to respond to this relational self-discovery through different media. The clicks and nasal gliss sounds that washed through the paintings and participants drew attention to medial shifts, and forged connections between participants and their positionings in the performative space of the paintings, paintings that asked ‘Where are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’.


Photograph by Faruk Kara


Experiment to capture the process of re-mediation with intentional camera movement, After Abstraction, The Robert Cripps Gallery, Magdalene College, Cambridge, 25 February, 2023, photograph by Faruk Kara


Photograph by Faruk Kara


Photograph by Faruk Kara

Annja Neumann is the Isaac Newton Trust Research Fellow at Cambridge Digital Humanities, a cultural theorist and media arts practitioner. Previous research performances include the mixed-reality performance Faust Shop: New Lands (2022), Waiting Room (2021) and Dr Tulp and the Theatre of Zoom (2021).

Cambridge Digital Humanities

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