KAMP, Dublin

Written by:
Harvey O'Brien
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by Hotel Modern
Dublin: Samuel Beckett Theatre
September 29th – October 4th, 2009
Presented as part of the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival
Devised and performed by Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker, Arlène  
Hoornweg, Ruud van der Pluijm
Touring: Tokyo, Japan: February 2010


KAMP is a presentation involving some 3000 hand-crafted puppets on a  
miniature set depicting the Auschwitz concentration camp in the  
latter days of Word War II. It depicts without dialogue the day-to-
day physical activities at the camp, from the mundanities of sweeping  
and digging to the equally routine operations of the gas chambers and  
crematoria. There are no individual characters, no narrative to speak  
of, and neither a sense of closure or redemption. Events are seen  
both in the physical manipulation of the puppets and the set by  
puppet makers and performers Herman Helle, Pauline Kalker, and Arlène  
Hoornweg, who are in full view, but also through the lens of a set of  
live miniature cameras used to focus in on detail, the images of  
which are projected onto the rear wall of the set.

The great Czech animator Jan Svankmajer once said that animation  
isn’t about making objects move, it’s about bringing them to life,  
and this statement seems especially apt in the context of the  
representation of the Holocaust. This has become our most elemental  
symbolic evocation of the experience of life and death, and it has  
increasingly become symbolic and semiotic in function as history has  
created great distance between the events themselves and those now  
receiving images of them second, third, and even fourth hand. The  
programme notes for KAMP quote Adorno’s famous proclamation that  
after Auschwitz there could be no more poetry, but also, less  
characteristically, his recanting of that aphorism and recognition  
that a suffering has a right to expression. The problem remains  
though, what form should that expression take?

To any student of history, let alone art, the Holocaust is both 
wholly concievable and eminently imaginable, in spite of a critical 
proclivity to declare to the contrary with some sanctimony. It 
happened then, it had happened before, and it has happened sense 
insofar as what it is about is an act of genocide and ethnic 
cleansing based upon a perception of superiority or entitlement by 
one group of people to the cost of another. Is the 1940s Holocaust 
really just about scale? About the number who died? Or about the
particulars of race in the context of an even longer historical 
framework? The overriding commonality of all acts of genocide 
throughout human history and projecting to the future is that all 
have been carried out by human beings against other human beings. It 
is humanity that is at stake, and empathy between humans that 
continues to be lacking.

The genius of KAMP is its stripping of the element of humanity from  
the representation of human suffering by is projection of pain,  
torture, suffering, and death onto wholly inanimate objects. In the  
sense of Svankmajer’s use of the term it ‘brings them to life’, but a  
very specific kind of life, active on a level of signification that  
demands both attention and an emotional response. The startling  
violence of a beating inflicted upon an exhausted prisoner by a camp  
guard evokes the childhood comic terror of Mr. Punch beating his wife  
senseless with a stick, reminding us that nothing is ever wholly  
innocent when in a state of signification. The struggles of another  
puppet to scoop granules representing Zyklon B into a small hole in  
the top of the gas chamber built from corrugated cardboard becomes,  
on one level, a technical challenge as the tiny, jointed hand is  
manipulated to accomplish the action; but on another level, the  
implied banality and physicality of the action brings with it an  
accumulation of sober fear. Even the issue of scale is brilliantly  
evoked by the perspective of the audience seated so far away from and  
above the ‘action’ of the large set and the occasional interpolations  
of the camera, which draws us closer from time to time and yet  
continues to reinforce the sense of uncanny dissociation that turns  
the moral mind away from ‘mere’ representation and towards its meaning.

KAMP is a truly marvellous achievement, proving the continuing  
marvels of the tradition of puppet theatre that has documented and  
interpreted human myth and history for thousands of years. The  
overlay of contemporary technology (video feedback) is unobtrusive  
and appropriate, and there is both much to admire here in terms of  
skill and technique and also much to stimulate and provoke in the  
challenge it presents to its audience.

Harvey O’Brien

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