Editor’s Note: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage commissioned the following short, two-part interview between Tate Modern curator Catherine Wood and choreographer Jérôme Bel as part of the research for a book tentatively titled, “The Language of Contemporary Live Performance,” co-edited by Paula Marincola and Shannon Jackson (University of California, Berkeley). In Part I, Wood and Bel discuss the concept of “theatricality.” Part II is on “amateurism.”
Catherine Wood: Let’s start with the term “theatricality.” For me, from an art historical point of view, theatricality is primarily a term of complaint by Michael Fried about minimalist sculpture. It was seen as a negative for a long time, the opposite of the “pure presentness” of an encounter with high modernist art. What does the term mean for you, as someone who literally works in a theater?
Jérôme Bel: Interesting. First of all, I have a confession to make: I still haven’t recovered from my first “encounter” with minimalist sculpture and, more precisely, with a Carl Andre floor piece! It has been a revelation for me, a source of endless joy. If I would have to keep only one artist it would be Carl Andre!
Theatricality, or théâtricalité in French, is perfectly described by Roland Barthes:
What is theater? A cybernetic species (a machine that sends messages, that communicates). At rest, this machine is hidden behind a curtain. But once you discover it, it sends to your address a number of messages. These messages are unique, they are simultaneous, and yet they have different rhythms; at a single point in the show, you might receive at the same time six or seven communiques (coming from the décor, costume, lighting, the place of actors, their gestures, their facial expressions, their speech), but some of this information takes (in the case of setting) while others turn (speech, gestures); so we are dealing with a real informational polyphony, and this is the theatricality: a thickness of signs. — Roland Barthes, English translation of “Littérature et signification,” Essais critiques, Seuil/Points, 1981 (1963), p. 258
“A thickness of signs”!
In English, as théâtricalité doesn’t exist, the dictionary says: an artificial and mannered quality. I, too, complain about theatricality in contemporary theater or dance, but it can be fun in some performances sometimes. I accept and enjoy it in traditional theater or dance, like Kabuki or Bharatanatyam.
In my work, I would like to try to produce on stage a “pure presentness” of the performer! I would personally reduce the theatricality of the work in order to produce as few signs as I can. How confusing, no?
CW: So Barthes’ theatricality celebrates a polyphonic layering specific to the set-up of the theater—competing signs are part of its mode of presentation (and aspects such as the “revelation” by a curtain in turn fetishizing the fact that we know it is all faked!). His way of thinking about theater resonates with postmodern art, including minimalism, through its sense of openness, and its incorporation of duration and action, instead of this high modernist moment of suspended optical engagement.
But your dislike of theatricality in certain theater or dance is something else, isn’t it? It is about a mannerist, yet unselfconscious style of acting/performing that is somehow unnecessary? It thinks of itself as being-for-the-theater and acts accordingly? I can see that in the traditional types of theater you mention, it is solidified into tradition in such a way that this becomes interesting. But if you are working to reduce theatricality (of the mannered sort) are you aiming for authenticity? How does that co-exist with Barthes’ fetishization of theater’s polyphonic signs?
And with regard to Carl Andre, while he may deny it because he does not like the idea of his work in “performance,” he gave some of his sculptures as props to Yvonne Rainer for her 1960s dance work. So beyond the literal idea that we walk on the work, there is an implicit link for you to dance in the work as well, perhaps.
JB: Strangely enough, the most important experiences I have had as a theater spectator were the ones that revealed the truth—the truth against the fakeness on which theater is built. In those instances, I experienced the revelation of something more real in the theater than in life, where reality is hidden by social and cultural conventions and habits.
I can’t use the word authenticity, because as long you are on a stage you lose this authenticity. But let’s say that my belief, paradoxically, is that the stage can be the place where you could reach it, where there are no social rules. The stage should be like the Marquis de Sade’s Republic of Salò; or your room when you are alone—a place of freedom. (In the case of Salò, obviously, this is a place of freedom, but not for everybody, unfortunately!)
That’s why I don’t use the polyphony of tools that theater allows of me. On the contrary, I try to reduce them down to what theater is for me: the performer. Or I should say—as you have written, Catherine, a great book about Yvonne Rainer—the life of the performer. In a way, that is what I have done for the past 10 years with all the biographical solos. It is as if the performer was the only tool I could use to reach life.
The reduction of means to try to get at the core of what can be the theatrical experience is, I think, comparable to Carl Andre’s operations in the history of sculpture. Minimalism is interesting because it leaves a lot of space for the audience. The artistic experience is an encounter between a spectator and an art work. They share the energy. (Oops! I can’t find right now a better word…shall I ever find it? The closest idea to what I want to express here is probably “the art coefficient,” theorized by Marcel Duchamp in his text, “The Creative Act”). There is the energy of the work, the emission and the energy of the spectator, the reception. Most of the time, either the art work or the performance tries to over-power the spectator, it tries to impress him or her. In the case of minimalist sculpture, or in my pieces, they are deliberately weak in this relation to the spectator, in order to give more energy to the spectator in the experience of the encounter. This creates a kind of void (i.e. “there is nothing,” “nothing is happening,” “I can do it myself”). The spectator has to fill this void, the empty space, or the time left. That’s why people can walk on a Carl Andre piece, as some spectators came on stage during my performances! It leads again to Barthes, with his thesis of “the death of the author,” which is concluded by “the birth of the spectator.”
I am working right now on pieces that can be shown in museums, and one of them is a kind of living minimalistic sculpture. When I found it I knew it was a floor piece but with living bodies, bodies which are reduced to the most minimal action I could imagine. In a way, the recent invitations I have received to present my work in museums push me towards more reduction.
Writing this, it comes to my mind that this piece could be performed on one of the most minimalistic Andre’s sculpture like this one. The sculpture as a possible stage.