As a work of art it offers no concrete answers, that being entirely fitting when one considers the act of vandalism that led to its creation. In her work Forge, UK-based theatre artist Rachel Mars invites audiences to watch her, over a couple of days, weld a replica of the gate that once marked the entrance to the Dachau concentration camp.
Featuring the words “Arbeit macht frei” (translation: “work sets you free”), the original gate stood for 60 years at Dachau, the first concentration set up by the Nazis. In 2014 it was stolen in the middle of the night, its disappearance a mystery, the theft seen as an attack on an important memorial. (The gate was eventually found in Norway after a tip-off, with zero clues as to the motivation behind the vandalism. The original is now exhibited in a museum.)
Following the theft in 2014, a welder built a replica.
That act provides the leaping-off point for Forge, which Mars is bringing to the Chutzpah! Festival in Vancouver this month.
Mars is the first to acknowledge that Forge has pushed her out of a world that she’s comfortable in. Most of her past work in theatre as a writer and performer has had her on stage in front of an audience, able to tell instantly when a line lands, and gauging the success of a night by the applause at the end of a show.
That’s not the case with Forge. She’s staged the work four times in the past, building the gate out of metal, and then disassembling it each time after she’s done. In the the piece, audiences enter a room to find her diligently at work on the replica gate, singularily focussed on the job at hand. That isolation, while in some ways being onstage, required some adjusting as a performer.
“I’m used to audience feedback, so that was a thing in the beginning that I had to get used to—the idea of just being there working,” Mars says. “If you’re being reviewed there’s always an element of performativity that you really can’t get rid of. So the first iteration was where I had to get used to the idea of, ‘This is enough. The whole thing is enough, so don’t worry about doing anything.’ I do know we’ve been really careful about the choices that we’ve made, and that nothing is arbitrary.”
Forge takes place in stages. The first part is an opening installation exhibition designed to provide context for the piece. Audience members then don protective gear—including a welding helmet—to spend time with Mars as she works on the gate, backed by the sound design of Dinah Mullen.
That leads to a space where, tied into Jewish tradition, people are invited to wash their hands and then read a booklet on Forge while ruminating on what they’ve just seen.
There are multiple ways one might come at the work, which Mars notes has moments of light and hopefulness even as we’re being asked to think about trauma. (Mullen’s sound design is a key component of that lightness, including songs that swing from Flashdance’s “What a Feeling” to works by female empowerment icon Tina Turner.)
A big goal of Forge is to raise the idea of how we look at monuments and their role in the world. Part of that is the way places like Dachau decay over time, which is mirrored by the reality that the materials Mars uses in Forge are already starting to break down from being welded, disassembled, and then welded again.
There are also issues of identity and how we’re seen by our fellow human beings. Mars—who is queer and Jewish—is replicating a gate from a place where unspeakable atrocities were committed against both queer and Jewish people. Then factor in that the gate she’s working on, with exacting precision, is based on an original emblazoned with the words “Arbeit macht frei”.
And, just as importantly, she’s doing the job silently, leaving people to come to their own conclusions about what Forge is trying to say. That’s entirely by design.
“There’s something about using language—as control and manipulation in a live context—that I adore,” Mars says. “I don’t think it’s a bad thing, but I’ve done that for a long, long time. The personal stuff, and the questions around this piece—that makes Forge something where the subject is not about language. It’s a piece that needed to be about body. That’s taken me a while to realize: that deep down, I just wanted to make the gate, and that I didn’t want to chat.
Chatting “makes things okay,” she continues. “Obviously people use language as something comforting. Historically my work has made people feel calm and at home before slightly pulling the rug out from under them. I didn’t want to play that game with this work.”
The reason for that?
“For me, I think there’s a cover-up that can happen with language. I can talk about things intellectually without feeling anything,” Mars opines. “But I shut up and let my body do that. With work, I’m more likely to engage with my feelings. And I hope that space is also true for audiences. The space that I’m making is one that translates as, ‘Just come and be quiet and listen.’ I’m not asking of you to do anything other than that—to just show up and sit with it.”
Based on the feedback she’s received on Forge, that’s happening.
“We don’t know when a performance has worked when no one is applauding. And people have been quite reticent to review it, which is interesting,” Mars notes. “So we introduced a big pink visitor’s book, because we felt that people wanted a space where the applause would have been. I don’t mean that in a, ‘Write how fucking great the show was’ kind of way. It was more that people wanted a place to talk about their experience.” She adds: “Sometimes the messages tell us the piece is landing the way we hoped it would. And sometimes they are a lesson that you have to let go of control of everything, because people have hugely different responses to it.”
Ultimately what Mars has liked about Forge is that people’s reactions to it are often a reflection of the mystery that is life, where things—like the stealing of a hugely symbolic gate—often make zero sense, no matter how many questions we might ask.
“I’m trying to learn that it’s none of my business,” she says of the reactions to Forge, “which feels respectful, actually. My place is not to intervene if you get something out of it. And if you can’t, none of my business. It’s all an exercise in letting go.”