Rituals of Care is an extension of BTS’ “Love Yourself” message
Global public art project, Connect, BTS, brings queer reimaginings and indigenous perspectives to Berlin’s historic Gropius Bau.
Never before has a pop-group gifted their fans, and the world, a global public art exhibition spanning five countries. South Korean group BTS launched Connect, BTS in early 2020 as a gift to their ARMY. The Gropius Bau in Berlin was one of five locations participating in Connect, BTS, with Director Stephanie Rosenthal curating Rituals of Care with Noémie Solomon. Rituals of Care featured over 13 installations, performances and events which provided healing through somatic techniques, queer reimaginings and indigenous perspectives. These three concepts are not usually in the same sentence as BTS, let alone the same realm of thought. Bringing into play the name of connect, showing that this idol group is by no means idle — they are offering radical acts of healing to the world, for free. An exhibition of such scale and importance cannot be done justice in so few words, just four exhibits and performances of Rituals of Care will be discussed and examined here in the specific context of the article. However, it’s important to note that each of these exhibits and performances are profoundly significant and will be explored in future articles.
Rituals of Care provided radical acts of healing through art, place, space and connection
When Rosenthal took over as a new director of Gropius Bau museum in Berlin in February 2018, she clearly had a good idea about the future concept of the museum. Drawing on the history of the place and its reflection and heritage for all generations, she announced a number of changes. There was to be a change to ticketing, and the atrium was to be open to the public after decades. This strengthened the power of Gropius Bau to deliver its message of inclusion instead of division. Instead of being compartmentalised, the new concept allowed for both its guests and presented artwork to coexist as one entity, creating an atmosphere of inner connection. Although the building never served to the horrifying powers related to past regimes, the same can hardly be said about surrounding areas which include former Prussian parliament, former Nazi headquarters and remains of the Berlin Wall. As Rosenthal said: “Extreme ideology may have surrounded it, but it was never occupied.” She suggested the historical Gropius Bau was to be a place of rescue, a sentiment she would continue to weave throughout and reflect in future programming. “In my view the institution’s unique history and location — right next to the former Berlin Wall — challenges us to engage with our own historical position,” Rosenthal says in her statement upon being named a director. “I take my own inspiration and guidance from artists and I will work with them as we continue to build an institution that is an ‘agency for action’ in our turbulent times, aiming always to be more inventive and more inclusive.”
Rituals of Care stayed faithful to these ideas of safe space and inclusivity but also challenged the idea of connectivity as present in the term Connect, BTS. As proved in the media, joining a global event organised by a pop act was seen as perplexing by some who assumed that ‘serious’ art and popular culture are, and perhaps even need to be, two different unrelated things. Yet again, challenging this narrative corresponds with Rosenthal’s intentions with Gropius Bau, strengthening the inclusive approach to all aspects of human lives, history and culture. Additionally, as diverse and inclusive as this connection seems, equally diverse and inclusive was the choice of artists and artwork featured in the museum during January and February.
On January 15, two white banners, one with a big letter L, another with a big letter R, appeared on the entrance of Gropius Bau museum to welcome everyone. Created specifically for Rituals of Care as part of installation Left Right: Stereo by Turkish artist Cevdet Erek, they marked the beginning of the whole event and remained in their place until its conclusion on February 2. Along with stereo installation in foyer, the artwork invited guests to “shift their perception of the place as they enter,” creating a new ritual, challenging the old one. On the following day, Landscape Soundings from American composer Bill Fontana who specialises in using sound as sculptural medium, joined in the discussion. Originally designed as a commission for Vienna festival in 1990, this version consists of two works: Landscape Soundings Revisited, reflecting the 1990 event and also marking the ground-breaking changes in Berlin, and Landscape Soundings River Echoes rooted in Sequoia National Park in California. Guests were encouraged to indulge in calming and truly magical sounds of nature, letting them create sculptures accessible only through the auditory system. These two exhibits were the only pure installations during the Rituals of Care and helped create the right atmosphere for the rest of the event.
All other work presented focused mostly on performance art, however the form itself generally incorporated a vast palette of artistic disciplines from visual art through music to dance. While there can be no doubt about the consistency of the exhibition’s concept, the topics and how they were approached proved to be rich in variety and perhaps even intensity. Some performances and installations offered safe space and shelter, the way Rosenthal described Gropius Bau as a place for rescue. Others used quite aggressive instruments to invoke more intensive experiences and hopefully, even changes in perceptions of the world. Some allowed the guests to remain in a rather passive position as an audience while others directly engaged them. It is important to point out that it would be more appropriate to imagine these performances as a spectrum instead of contrasting forces. In the end, there was a clear intent in the generally dramaturgical choices made for the exhibit. Looking closely at the artwork, most of the truly public engaging artwork was presented right at the beginning. The point being rather simple, in order for Gropius Bau to function as a shelter, it needs to be safe first and hence cleansed from its past. Rituals of Care, in fact, truly followed the concept of healing in this sense and Gropius Bau used this opportunity to ‘heal’ itself. In both psychology and medicine, the beginning of a healing process can not start without discovering and fully understanding the condition.
This understanding came from the first performance, A Invenção da Maldade which translates to “The Invention of Evilness”, choreographed by Brazil-born artist Marcelo Evelin and performed by his company Demolition Incorporada on January 16 and 17. The seven performers, all from different backgrounds, immersed the visitors, engaged them in their meditation which contemplates current global situations of violence, intolerance and uncertainty. In a manner, the performance itself took on rather ritual form, something deeply rooted in human existence and identity. In relation to a healing process, addressing the issue people need to heal from involves inspecting the wound, which this performance served to do. Now, Gropius Bau could start its healing process.
Following Demolition Incorporada, Nigerian multimedia artist Jelili Atiku took the lead and invited guests to actively join in a public procession through the streets of Berlin. His artwork The Night Has Ears was conceived in order to heal Gropius Bau and its surroundings. The audience took an active part by becoming part of the procession, carrying little wooden statues and joining the concluding healing ritual. It was not only about witnessing but experiencing the pain hidden in the memories of the place. And through understanding this pain, feeling it, the participants can join in a change. By releasing the pain from the past we can use the experience to stop this pain being inflicted upon others.
The process of healing was concluded with spiritual blessings. On January 19, the building had the honour to serve as a location of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religious tradition. This time too, the purpose was closely linked with the history of the building itself. In the hands of Baba Murah, spiritual leader of the only Candomblé temple in Berlin, Gropius Bau was purified by conducting a ritual in honor of the goddess of disease and healing Orixá Obaluaiê. When Gropius Bau was purified, it became a safe space for other topics, for all the artwork that needs its own shelter to offer shelter to people of the world.
Overcoming the pain of division through rituals of self-love
The public response in articles on Rituals of Care has been focused on the Gropius Bau being able to offer the performances for free through taking part in Connect, BTS and therefore reaching a wider audience. However, BTS sponsoring Rituals of Care has not solely been received positively. In an interview with TRT World, it was suggested Rosenthal partnered with Connect, BTS for financial reasons and was playing into BTS’ broader marketing ploy. You can watch the interview here.
While TRT World and other media outlets have struggled to see a connection between BTS’ work and Rituals of Care (or perhaps art in general), BTS’ fan base, ARMY were able to make the connection with ease. Connect, BTS did not come as a surprise for their fans as they have been joining BTS in exploring and creating art for years. ARMY have been watching the members discuss art and museum visits in livestreams and been discovering references to art in their lyrics, music videos, performances — and the WINGS Short Films, termed ‘Online Installation Videos‘ by Jiyoung Lee in her book BTS, Art Revolution. This insider knowledge on BTS — though readily available through a keyword search — and their relation to art is something that many journalists who reported on Rituals of Care seemed to lack. Perhaps the division in opinion between fans and public might be due to the lack of projects of comparison. A global art cooperation of this scale has not been initiated by a music act before.
This is not the first time that a musical act has collaborated with visual contemporary artists (Lady Gaga’s ARTPOP being one such popular example) but as previously mentioned, Connect, BTS is the first of its kind in terms of purpose and scale. As public figures with a massive social presence, BTS could simply use their star power to maintain their collaborations with commercial entities like FILA, Samsung, or any number of other brands. To do this, however, would contradict the group’s philosophy to use their presence for global good. It is the recognition of mass influence, and the ability to execute change on such a wide scale, that sets the group and Connect, BTS as a project apart from others. The mobilization of fandom into fields outside of those such as sales and mass media is the defining factor, and perhaps this is the reason that the general public has shown such a mixed response to Connect, BTS. The importance of Connect, BTS lies in its role as a gift to ARMY, as an effort to return the support from fans. The relationship between BTS and its fanbase is uniquely bilateral, with the band constantly showing just as much love and support to its fans as the reverse. This would not be the first time that BTS has become unlikely partners with a group for change (i.e. the UNICEF “Love Myself” campaign, which led to the UN General Assembly speech). Thus, they are familiar with being at the forefront of unlikely movements. This is just another chapter in the group’s ongoing narrative based on social awareness through art and music.
In her interview with BTS, Rosenthal highlights the importance of a practice of healing not just for the artists and the audience, but also for the building. The Gropius Bau, opened as a Museum of Decorative Arts in 1881, was damaged during World War II and stood on the border between East and West Berlin in the post-war era.
In this sense the cooperation between BTS and the Gropius Bau serves as a continuation of the connections between Germany and Korea as noted by BTS leader RM at the Love Yourself concert in Berlin in 2018:
We share the same pain, and it’s called division. […] Someday I wish that our piece of Berlin Wall in Korea could be displayed in the city of Berlin. Some day, maybe when we’re not divided, in our country.
At the time of the Love Yourself concert in Berlin the first exhibition that was curated by Rosenthal at the Gropius Bau took place. Crash documents the performance and installation art of South Korean artist Lee Bul and aims to “uncover the parallels between German and Korean history […] with regard to their division, the national trauma related to this, as well as the question of reunification.” Through Rituals of Care and the help of BTS, Rosenthal and the Gropius Bau continue to explore the implications of Lee’s solo exhibition in 2018.
Rituals of Care emphasizes acts of healing and repair, which plays directly into BTS’ “love yourself” message. There is a direct link to the concepts presented in “Magic Shop.” “‘Magic Shop’ is a psychodramatic technique that exchanges fear for a positive attitude” (from the first teaser of “Fake Love”). The term “psychodrama” refers to a method of therapy where patients will role play past events from their lives, as if acting in a play. This is an immediate bridge between performance as art and the psychological consequences of engagement, which is precisely what is occurring in performance series like Rituals of Care. Though the viewer may not be directly participating in a performance (at least not consciously, in most cases), they still maintain an active role in giving meaning to a work. The definition of “performance art” can easily be extended into what BTS does as musicians. The roles of performers and concert-goers become equally important in maintaining the significance of musical work, just as the meaning of art is created only when interacted with and interpreted by an audience.
BTS’ purpose as musicians has always been to provide a platform for youth and public issues. Though it may not have always been explicitly stated as in the case of the “Love Yourself” series, that underlying theme was consistently present in the group’s discography. This idea has proven to transcend the limits of just one medium, and into the realms of other artforms as a way of increasing tangibility. Fine art has an innately mysterious way of provoking spiritual and mental response, which is fully being tapped into through a project on the scale of Rituals of Care. BTS has recognized this ability and employed it to further their message for self-care and personal growth.
Of the five Connect, BTS projects, Rituals of Care offers a unique perspective of the human condition through performance. What makes performance so powerful is that it is physically demonstrative, and thus highly confrontational. As the audience, it is impossible for us to fully disconnect from a narrative when the story is unfolding directly in front of us. This idea extends beyond performance art, and into our roles as people living our everyday lives. It’s a provocative experience with themes that are meant to make you feel discomfort, all to promote thought and introspection. Radical, queer and indigenous acts of healing are BTS’ gift to us, so that we may take away a ritual to practice in our everyday lives. For most of us, this ritual looks a lot like learning to love ourselves, as demonstrated by the group themselves. Here we see Rituals of Care as the extension of BTS’ most well-known message. They have given us more tools, rituals, to heal and love ourselves better, so that we may work towards a future free of violence and division. So that we may not only love ourselves, but have a love for all beings. A love through connection.