Another other, reinventing Ingmar Bergman’s film Persona by Chamber Made Opera
In an age of multiple identities, a new work draws on Ingmar Bergman to question ideas about who we are, writes Andrew Stephens.
by Andrew Stephens
In an essay he wrote almost 50 years ago, Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman compared art to a discarded snakeskin full of marauding ants – the empty shell of a dead and once-dangerous creature animated by busy scavengers. This was the man who made Persona (1966), the entrancing and intense classic beloved by art-cinema enthusiasts – a film that questioned the very idea of us having fixed personalities or egos.
In a basement performance space in an old country hospital, a quartet of Chamber Made Opera performers have been immersing themselves in both the film and the essay, The Snakeskin, making their own creative, challenging response to them. In effect, what they are sewing together is like another sort of snakeskin layered over the top of Bergman’s work.
Classic: Erkki Veltheim, Sabina Maselli, Anthony Pateras and Natasha Anderson work on Another Other. Photo: Jim Aldersey
Called Another Other, it is neither homage nor pastiche, but an entirely new work that grapples with Bergman’s ideas, relating them to 21st century life. With our own identities fragmented and reconstituted multiple times each day through online identities, avatars and the various “selves” we create, the question arises: Who are we?
Erkki Veltheim is a Finnish-born musician and composer whose Scandinavian heritage has made him especially enthusiastic about Bergman’s life and work. Veltheim, along with visual artist Sabina Maselli, and Berlin-based musicians Natasha Anderson and Anthony Pateras, have been developing Another Other in the old hospital basement in Castlemaine at an arts space called Punctum. The way audiences will inhabit the unusual space means they might feel as if they are the ants in the snakeskin.
Bibi Andersson (left) and Liv Ullman explore questions of identity in Persona.
Audience members will face each other amid two banks of seating, with four video screens and a 16mm projection of footage in front of and behind them. There will be a kinetic-sonic sculpture nearby, and the musicians will play live and pre-recorded music that moves, in unusual ways, in the same rhythms and pacing as Persona.
“Most people who see it would be hard pressed to see the correlation to Persona,” Veltheim says. “It is not an adaptation, interpretation or version, you cannot recognise it in relation to the film. We see it as a new work that we say cannibalises the linear structure of the original. We take the skin off the film, extract the content and fill it with our own content.”
The four artists have been through every scene in the film and discussed it, finding it all enmeshed with the Snakeskin essay and its potent imagery. “All of us are fascinated by that film and by Bergman’s work generally. For me he has always been a strong presence in Scandinavian culture, with his approach to a specific Lutheran existentialism and the bleakness and hardship of Scandinavian countries in nature.”
Veltheim says Persona sits uncomfortably between modernism and post-modernism, using formal methods and structure but at the same time being a deconstructed work. The group were intrigued by why, 50 years after being made, Persona still feels like a rich source material that remains of great interest to viewers and theorists, many of whom consider it a 20th century masterpiece.
“There have been countless books and essays written about it,” Veltheim says. “It speaks a lot about the 20th century … about art dealing with neuroses. To us, one of the [central] aspects of the film is that your ego and character, your innermost being, may not be an authentic thing, that maybe you can’t explain the human individual as defined by an intrinsic personality or a soul.”
The film includes a lot of mirroring, mask-wearing and strange merging of the two principal women characters (played by Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson). “There is this resonance of the idea that perhaps your personality is not fixed and even you do not know who you are.”
Veltheim relates this to contemporary culture and the way we project ourselves in multiple ways through various platforms and media – where we feel compelled to construct a self or series of selves with distinct attributes. “Perhaps we have got to the point where we do not define ourselves as a central, solid ego or personality. It feels like a prescient thing for Bergman to have dealt with this in such a great way in Persona.”
Bergman made the film during a period of great crisis and he is often quoted as saying that it saved his life. Before making it, he was director of the Swedish Royal Dramatic Theatre and his physical and mental health suddenly deteriorated: he suffered from double pneumonia and was hospitalised for nine weeks in 1965, during which time he wrote the screenplay.
We see it as a new work that we say cannibalises the linear structure of the original. We take the skin off the film, and extract the content and fill it with our own content.
Erkki Veltheim , musician and composer
“It was therapeutic for him,” Veltheim says. “For us [Chamber Made] a lot of these things are important in our creativity – that art is never a simple thing, to make a beautiful thing with a readymade role in society. This film is important to us because it talks about those problems and accepts that art is a contingent thing, just as personality is a contingent thing and that neither of them has a readymade role. In both you need to tease out the significance or role they can play in life.”
The Snakeskin essay, he says, is very revealing about Bergman’s mindset at the time and has a sense of crisis about it. Bergman could not help but make art, but the essay was his bleak assessment of what art had become in modern society.
As Veltheim sees it, art-making – in all its forms, but especially in music and the visual arts – once had specific roles and were very significant in cultures before the separation of church and state. The price of art’s freedom was that it became insignificant and was seen as an indulgence.
“Essentially what he is saying is the snake that art might have been, dangerous and with poison and possibly fatal, is being carved up from the inside and made safe and neutral by society. The potential danger and socially transformative quality of art has been lost in this age.”
Veltheim says many artists who try to do something transformative might “still wear a cloak of danger or iconoclasm” but often there is nothing inside. “That is the mask. Persona is all about masks and about an actress who wears these different masks. But none are effective as socially transformative gestures.”
For people who visit the basement of that old country hospital to experience Another Other, the imagined snakeskin of the performance arena might rattle – but it might also be full of life, wonderful and possibly transformative.
Another Other is at Punctum, Castlemaine, December 5 and 7.