PRINT October 2005


the Festival d’Avignon

IT WAS ONLY DURING the brief rendition of a 1977 performance piece by Marina Abramović, in which five couples sat and slapped each other’s faces faster and harder over several minutes, that I began to understand the state of contemporary theater.

I was in Avignon for the annual theater festival, which has been held there each summer since 1947 and remains ground zero for the European theater world. The identity crisis under which theater strains, or so its critics say, was in ample evidence. Audiences booed, cursed, and awarded rapturous ovations for the twenty-three works presented, with opinions as diverse as the theatrical styles on view. And where breadth was a point of pride for festival directors Hortense Archambault and Vincent Baudriller—they extolled that the works attested to “the possibility of finding something that could ally with the universal or the sacred to, perhaps, re-enchant the world”—for others it was a failure of focus, a failure to either honor convention or find the truest theatrical form for the times. And then here Abramović’s couples sat, the sound of flesh hitting flesh growing more disturbing with each percussive slap. This was the opposite of enchantment. Part of Biography Remix, 2004, Abramović’s multimedia collaboration with Belgian director Michael Laub that serves as a highly selective anthology of her performance art from the last thirty years, the scene was piercingly, almost unbearably, present. It was coated so corrosively with reality that the other works I saw in Avignon were pushed into a different light.

These other works—from Jan Fabre’s History of Tears (2003) to Romeo Castellucci’s B.#03 Berlin (2003) to Anéantis, Thomas Ostermeier’s German version of Blasted, the 1995 play by the late English playwright Sarah Kane—now seemed to me invested in the boundaries of theater behind which theater happens. Symbolic or dreamlike, they packaged the real in theatrical artifice. They replaced reality with its simulation, instead of interacting with it, as Abramović’s work did. In the broadest terms, as I watched Biography’s old documentary footage of Abramović and her former partner Ulay screaming at each other until they were hoarse and crying, or the artist exposing her bare belly to an audience as she cut it with a razor blade, or her live performers hitting one another with real, unmediated force, I thought that, despite our daily ingestion of movie and TV special effects in a postliterary, visual world, it isn’t the seduction of the unreal, of Hollywood’s torrent of phantasms, that has changed us, but journalism’s documentary flood of reality. These linear, reportorial narratives—whether in newspapers, in blogs, on TV, in podcasts, on the radio, in streaming video, or in downloads to our cell phones—overwhelm any lingering Baudrillardian thought about the power of the simulacrum, and they contravene the commonplace of aesthetic modernism that the world is most truly represented as fragments. The deluge of these narratives washes over us, infiltrates us, and forms us. They are the dominant way that the world reveals itself today.

Nothing could have been further from this truth than Fabre’s anachronistic spectacle for actors, dancers, and musicians, which featured a noble savage in a barrel repeatedly crying out, in the spirit of Diogenes, “I’m looking for a man!” and ended with a philosopher who called himself the Knight of Despair sashaying in a simulated downpour à la Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain, pontificating on the eternal loneliness of Man. The matronly woman next to me, outfitted in pearls and a proper bourgeois dress, shouted “Stupid!” and “Thick!” amid a chorus of whistling and laughter as the words SAVE OUR SOULS were spelled out in white rags like monumental hankies affixed to the back wall of the stage.

More compelling was Castellucci’s theater of images. B.#03 Berlin is one of eleven pieces in his ambitious cycle Tragedia Endogonidia (2002–2005), each inspired by and named for a different city. Disjointed, dreamlike, and almost entirely wordless, B.#03 Berlin devotes itself to the symbolic interpretation of gestures and tableaux, from a woman masturbating with a child’s toy to hooded soldiers under a black crescent moon, from the historically freighted display of Hebrew and German signs to the resurrection of a dead child. Castellucci has said that “the most interesting experiences [in contemporary theater] are often those that, from a formal point of view, assimilate more from the visual arts,” and the piece, seen through two scrims that converted every scene into blurred abstractness, had the look of a two-tiered picture plane—flashing clouds above and the human world below. It was as if a Rothko came halfway toward figuration—anthropomorphized and terrifying.

Then there was Ostermeier’s staging of Blasted, a 1995 commentary in three scenes on the Bosnian war, set in a hotel room in Leeds, where every depravity you can think of squirrels down into humanity and debases it. In the first act, a girl is raped by her old lover. Act two brings delectable revenge when he is, in turn, raped by a soldier, who proceeds to gouge out the man’s eyes and eat them. After describing various orgies of mayhem that have been his Dante-esque pleasure, the soldier sticks a gun in his own mouth and suicides. In the final act, the raped girl returns to her blinded, sodomized, and starving lover with a baby she’s found. When the child dies, he chews a mouthful of its face, eating as he was eaten. Still, the girl stays with him as the lights go dark.

For all their tellings of death, sexual brutality, grief, moral decay, and humanist longings for hope, these various theatrical works are defined by the ways in which they devote themselves to aesthetic tact, in which reality is filtered, overdetermined, and annexed. In their predilections for the artificial and symbolic over the haptic exigencies of reality, they aren’t permeable enough; they don’t let in enough real life. It may seem perverse to call Anéantis’s depravities tactful, but our continuous exposure to the reportorial representation of the real makes this theater seem dwarfed and socially attenuated. Theater improves when it’s at least self-reflexive, when it heightens its sense of theatricality so that it is about the experience of itself (very much a modernist preoccupation), and that accounts for some of the appeal of Castellucci’s work. But the theater that excels now rejects the exclusively theatrical, incorporating reality within its frame.

The choreographer William Forsythe found a coolly calibrated balance between the theatrical and the real in You Made Me a Monster (2005), his performance piece in Avignon for three dancers and audience. Telling the story of his wife’s death by cancer, he selected a moment in the narrative—the odd gift by a friend of a “do-it-yourself cardboard model of a human skeleton”—and turned this into a participatory element for the audience. Ten tables were put around a large, long room with just such skeletal kits in random stacks, and the audience happily constructed femurs topped by ribs, etc. . . . making monsters. But then his wife’s story started scrolling across the screen at one end of the room and a surge of awful sounds began: Low moans and guttural yelps were slowed, or heard in reverse, as if time were running backwards. (At the other end of the room, a technician sat with computers and a sound deck, manipulating the audio.) Singly, then together, two men and a woman danced among the tables. Their imploring gestures and anguished voices called out, unintelligible but entirely legible with grief. And yet the various elements (audience participation, choreographed movement, processed sound, streaming text) commented elegantly on one another, offering an artifice of intrinsic ironic construction, an authorial distance that separated sentiment from sentimentality—like a god “paring his fingernails,” as James Joyce said about the role of modernist artists in keeping a suitable distance from their subjects.

Forsythe’s piece came far closer to a theater of the real, with its exquisite bodily presence and audience interaction. Yet it still held an ironic distance from the full frontal force of a theater of the real, which is focused on actions that are less literary or referential and more about and for themselves, done in real time and unvarnished—or at least only slightly varnished. In Avignon, only Abramović’s performance art pushed theater into the active space of the real, though of course her work and performance of this physical kind have their lineage. This talk about action and breaking the boundaries of the theater should sound familiar to anyone who knows the history of the Happenings, of Joseph Beuys and Fluxus, of Judson Church in New York, of the influence of Jerzy Grotowski’s “poor” theater, and their collective indebtedness to Antonin Artaud, who sat in Marseille, not far from Avignon, some seventy years earlier and imagined his “Theater of Cruelty” in which the “means of direct action are used in their totality.”

I don't mean to suggest that theater should only replicate the world with direct action (or that performance art is entirely seamless with reality, that it doesn't seek the power of spectatorship). To define the theater narrowly like this would be a poverty of the imagination; it sounds like aesthetic cleansing. But performance as the theater of the real seems like the most powerful mirror of our society. The coverage of Iraq and Hurricane Katrina in blogs and online video only reinforces how much the raw presentation of reality is with us. In its own presentation of the real, performance art (at least of Abramović’s ilk) is congruent with our acclimation to that newness, to that endless stream of reportage whose sheer mass amounts to the frontal onslaught of experience, of what it means every day to live in this world. If irony was the single most important rhetorical means of expression in art's modernist past, performance now replaces irony's disjunction between apparent and intended meaning with its opposite: There is no disjunction but instead immediacy and transparency, the full correspondence of statement and feeling as expressed in action.

This tendency away from the ironic and toward the force of the real has only been pushed further in recent years by the events of terrorism. We're just beginning to comprehend the effects on our psyches of the confluence of media culture and terrorism that are the transformative hallmarks of early twenty-first-century life. But there should be no mistake that the changes to the way we see the world are now clarifying themselves in the “everywhere-always” of omnipresent media reportage and the “everywhere-always” of terrorism that make us understand life as the total visibility of action, as a revived existentialism that's based on the visual and physical, in place of the aesthetic and abstract, as ways of expressing ideologies and truths.

In theater this means that an art represented through physical action, that isn't ironic but in this sense is physically sincere, has the greatest significance to give voice to the zeitgeist. That evolved theater, at least for the moment, is performance art.

Steven Henry Madoff is a frequent contributor to Artforum.