Magazine article Artforum International

Mediating Circumstances: Steven Henry Madoff on the Festival d'Avignon

Magazine article Artforum International

Mediating Circumstances: Steven Henry Madoff on the Festival d'Avignon

Article excerpt

IT WAS ONLY DURING the brief rendition of a 1977 performance piece by Marina Abramovic, 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 Abramovic'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, Abramovic'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 Aneantis, 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 Abramovic's work did. In the broadest terms, as I watched Biography's old documentary footage of Abramovic 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.

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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 a 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. …

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