Towel Art Performance
Folding Europe

Towel Art by Hen & Mai
© Quast & Knoblich

In a basement room of the Lancaster Gate Hotel in central London, people are settling down for the ‘Folding Europe’ towel art convention. Elevator music is playing in the background and attendees are offered copious amounts of fruit and water. There are towels resting on the backs of chairs, all in the blue and yellow colours of the EU flag. Over the next hour or so, we’ll learn the art of folding towels into interesting shapes as a way to get through any crisis. “A towel says more than 1,000 words,” guests are told.

By Naomi Larsson

The immersive theatre performance is created by the two Berlin-based artists, Hendrik Quast and Maika Knoblich. Their characters Hen and Mai, two experts in towel folding, are for the first time introducing towel art to the British hospitality industry. Their main expertise? Dealing with difficult emotions in times of political change.

At the end of the day we all use towels

The show was commissioned as part of the Goethe-Institut London’s Europe Actually programme, a series of events focusing on the European common identity. When there’s political uncertainty and tension, cultural relations and the idea of crossing borders is even more important. Quast and Knoblich’s work was inspired by Brexit, and it brings some humour – albeit through an unusual concept – to the crisis. The performance is especially pertinent as it takes place on the weekend of the original leave date.
And how do towels fit into all this? “At the end of the day we all use towels,” Mai explains. Hen and Mai want to share their folding techniques with the world as a way to get through any crisis. Britain is a “traumatised society at the moment”, Mai says, so the answer is to make towel art. Towel art is a way to express emotions, release tension, feel more connected with one another, they say. Towel art is the way we can get over Brexit. If only that were true.
“Every separation feels the same: like a kick in the stomach,” says Hen in his opening speech, while carrying a bird-shaped towel on his shoulder. “The solution is not to complain about Brexit. It’s to start feeling again.” Hen and Mai, both wearing matching blue blazers, start with a PowerPoint presentation and narrate the (fake) history of towel artistry, dating back to the time of Cleopatra.
They tell the audience about their pre-Brexit tour back in November, where they travelled to leave-voting areas of the UK to get a sense of how they were feeling. I’m later told this was true, and the artists did visit these areas to grasp the political climate in the UK as inspiration for their work. On this trip, Hen & Mai realized that Britain became such a divided society because a lot of people felt disconnected and left behind. For some people, voting Leave was more of a statement than anything else.
After a dramatic towel art demonstration by Hen in a dimly lit room, the audience is taught how to make the turtle shape. Indeed, folding towels is surprisingly soothing – the two artists might actually be on to something. Maybe towel art can help us all.   
In the third sequence, we find Mai tucked up in a hotel room bed with towel art displaced across the room. She’s surrounded by towel swans, and there are towel snakes coming out of the draw, a towel lobster in the toilet.

When the performance is over, the general feeling among audience members seems to be confusion and wondering what just happened. But when connecting this performance to Brexit, then general confusion is a perfect reflection of the whole situation, and indeed much of the consensus among Britons. Riccardo, one of the attendees, said it was “refreshing” to have something like this about Brexit because there’s “so much doom and gloom. It’s nice to smile about it for once.”
  • Folding Europe Towel Art Performance Foto: Rupert Hitchcox © Goethe-Institut London

  • Folding Europe Towel Art Performance - interaction Photo: Rupert Hitchcox © Goethe-Institut London

  • Folding Europe Towel Art Performance - bed Photo: Rupert Hitchcox © Goethe-Institut London

  • Folding Europe Towel Art Performance - bed Photo: Rupert Hitchcox © Goethe-Institut London

  • Folding Europe Towel Art Performance - bathroom Photo: Rupert Hitchcox © Goethe-Institut London