Erwartung/Expectancy: A Video Installation by Dara Birnbaum

September 5, 2003 - January 4, 2004

Contemporary artist Dara Birnbaum reflects on Arnold Schoenberg’s opera, Erwartung.

Contemporary artist Dara Birnbaum creates a multi-media work based upon Arnold Schoenberg’s 1909 opera, Erwartung. Directly linked to the study of psychoanalysis that was emerging at the beginning of the 20th century, Schoenberg’s opera is still considered to be radical for its musical composition and emotional investigation. By selecting specific tableaus from this opera, Birnbaum exposes the viewer to the metaphors associated with Freud’s theories that the opera first addressed over a century ago: that of fragmentation and the realm of the unconscious.

Erwartung, which means Expectancy in English, probes one woman’s condition as she moves through varying stages of isolation, alienation and uncertainty, in search of a lost lover. Birnbaum reinterprets the drama in her 1995/2001 installation by re-engaging the original libretto by Marie Pappenheim, a medical student in Schoenberg’s circle. The resulting work asks the viewer to contemplate if the contemporary woman is still trapped between finding self-identity and achieving a sense of completion through a male counterpart.

By utilizing a digital reproduction of one of Schoenberg’s original sketches for the set design of his opera, Birnbaum projects her contemporary female character onto this recreated stage, comprised of Plexiglass panels. These images, along with a new musical score—produced by electronically sampling and re-mixing selections of Schoenberg’s score—flood a darkened, yet increasingly reflective, environment. The result is a highly ephemeral treatment of Erwartung—a translation from one century to the next using sound, image and word.