Joachim Koester



Not on display

Joachim Koester born 1962
Film, 16 mm, projection, black and white
Duration: 6min, 9sec
Purchased with funds provided by the New Carlsberg Foundation and an anonymous donor 2021


Tarantism is a silent, black-and-white 16mm film that depicts a group of six men and women performing frenetic movements against a black background. The film, which lasts just over six minutes, was made in Brussels in 2007 with a group of performers, one of whom is the Greek-Swiss artist and choreographer Alexandra Bachzetsis (born 1974). The work exists in an edition of five plus two artist’s proofs; Tate’s copy is the first of the two artist’s proofs. The five other copies in the edition are held in the collections of Kadist Foundation, Paris; CNAP Centre National des Arts Plastiques, Paris; Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; and a private collection.

Tarantism is representative of Koester’s ability to mine past histories to create works that resonate with a contemporary experience of late modernity. The title of the work refers to a condition first evidenced in Southern Italy in the Middle Ages believed to result from the bite of the wolf spider, known as the tarantula. If bitten, the body was supposedly seized by convulsions and delirious symptoms including nausea, difficulties in speech, delirium, heightened excitability and restlessness. It was believed that the cure for so-called Tarantism was a form of frenzied dancing. This ‘dancing-cure’, known as the Tarantella, emerged during the fifteenth century as a local phenomenon in and around the Italian city of Galatina and was widespread in the region up until the middle of the twentieth century. A form of uncoordinated movement, the Tarantella involved people quivering, hurling their heads, shaking their knees and grinding their teeth. It has subsequently evolved into a stylised folk dance for couples. A common thread running through Koester’s practice is an interest in the ecstatic and the Dionysian, including drug-induced mental states – themes evident in the trance-like convulsions the actor-dancers in Tarantism perform as though ‘possessed’. Describing his interest in this now obsolete dance, Koester has said:

My interest in tarantism is tied to its original form: a dance of uncontrolled and compulsive movements, spasms and convulsions. In the film I have utilized this idea to generate the movements of the dancers. In six individually choreographed parts, the dancers attempt to explore a type of grey zone: the fringes of the body or what we might call the body’s terra incognita.
(Quoted in Caron 2014, p.132.)

Central to Tarantism is the notion that shared social histories can be embedded in our nervous and muscular systems as forgotten memories that might be awakened through movements of the body. This concept forms the basis of a number of Koester’s works including The Place of Dead Roads 2013, a video in which the Western film genre is deconstructed through a focus on ritualised gesture. Koester’s work can be situated within a tendency in contemporary art internationally in the 2000s described by art historian Hal Foster as the ‘archival approach’, in which artists have sought to make historical information, often lost or displaced, physically present (Hal Foster, ‘An Archival Impulse’, October, vol.110, Autumn 2004, pp.3–22).

Koester pictures the bodies of his performers as an archive of ritualised movement. On the boundary between body and outer body experience, the compulsive choreography recalls the repetitive pedestrian movements characteristic of post-modern dance yet, Tate Curator Catherine Wood has argued, Tarantism is one of several works by Koester in which he pushes ‘minimalist-style repetition towards a desire for a loss of self, or loss of authorial control’ (Catherine Wood, ‘The Ghost Grid’, in Caron 2014, p.36). Wood continued, ‘The hidden interior … is flagrantly manifest by Koester as surface exterior, and so his vision of post-modern dance’s “relationality” is reimagined as communally obsessional, neurotic, repetitive and shot through with the prosthetic matrices of technologies and machines.’ (Wood, ‘The Ghost Grid’, 2014, p.39.)

Further reading
Thomas Caron (ed.) Joachim Koester: Of Spirits and Empty Spaces, Milan 2014.

Isabella Maidment
October 2018
Updated by Andrea Lissoni, June 2019

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