A Theater without Theater
A Theater without Theater explored the ways in which the notion of theatre has transformed our perception of artistic practice and given the subject-spectator new stages for critical reflection and insurrection.
In the early twentieth century, the theoretical reformulations of playwrights and directors such as Vsevolod Meyerhold, Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett, Tadeusz Kantor and Jerzy Grotowski set up a prolific dialogue with some avant-garde movements (Dada, Futurism and Constructivism). This dialogue culminated in the mid-sixties, when theatre and theatricality came to be at the centre of artistic debate. Challenging the precepts based on the purity of artistic categories defended by art critics like Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried, time put down roots in the heart of artistic experience and artworks became events that can only be activated by the direct participation of spectators. Action, narration and orality took on a decisive role, and through them the artwork became profoundly discursive in nature. High and low culture merged into one, and the streets were conquered as a space of representation in which the boundaries between art and life evaporated and artistic forms recovered their capacity for political intervention.
The exhibition brought together over six hundred works, including paintings, sculptures, installations, drawings, photographs, videos, books, manuscripts and other documents.
A Theatre Without Theatre examines the relationships and interchanges between the theatre and the visual arts during the 20th century. Starting out from the theories expounded by Vsevolod Meyerhold, Antonin Artaud, Samuel Beckett and Tadeusz Kantor, among others, which profoundly transformed the classic theatre space, and their correspondence with historic avant-garde movements (Futurism, Dadaism and Constructivism), a story is structured that finds its point of inflection in the inventive fervour of the nineteen-sixties. This was a time in which numerous contrasts were formulated between the two disciplines that continued up to the late eighties. The exhibition presents a critical reading of the consequences of these contributions to art by highlighting paradigmatic moments and authors through itineraries that reconstruct a complex fabric going beyond the linear, chronological reading; from Hugo Ball and Dadaism to Mike Kelley, from Oskar Schlemmer to Dan Graham, from Minimalism to the post-Minimalist generations of artists such as Bruce Nauman and James Coleman.
Reflection on the influences of theatrical language in art is today revealed as an essential tool with which to interpret a wide range of artistic proposals and attitudes. In this sense, the works presented in the exhibition analyse the different degrees of evolution in the forms of relationship between actor and spectator, their role interchanges and spatial negotiations, the presence of narrative and thus of orality, and revision of the document statute. The exhibition reflects the constant mutual interaction between popular expressions and those originating in high culture, from cabaret to opera, rock and roll to dance, street theatre to performance and the carnival parade to ritual.
As the 20th century seems to have constructed a visual culture dominated by the paradigm of film, an appeal for the theatre to take centre stage may seem anachronistic. But it is the theatre, considered as a craft, which offers us a new prism through which to approach a rereading of the history of recent art.
The exhibition is organized along two essential lines. The first focuses on artistic attitudes that take the performative as a fundamental part of their practice. This requires the assimilation of "real time", the multiple aspects of action and the ephemeral, together with recovery of elements of event culture, street parties and popular music.
The second line addresses the debate arising out of criticism of the autonomy of the artwork and its perceptive conventions by Minimalist art – renunciation of "visuality" as the sole category of creation of meaning, and the notion of artwork as "instrument". The pieces confront each other over the notion of theatricality –the construction of space, the stage and the duration of the experience, the significance of text and the need for a new attitude on the part of the public, often addressed directly, always interrogated in the act of perceiving.
These two lines of investigation in no way set out to restrict the possible spectrum of effects in relation to the theatrical in contemporary art. Rather, they invite reflection on the place of the subject in contemporary society and on the links between sen-sitive experience and action, as one of the transversal lines that run through the entire exhibition.
The route begins with theoretical contributions that changed the concept of traditional theatre by questioning and transforming its essential components: presence of the body and a new conception of space. The figure of Antonin Artaud is fundamental in this respect. "In the first place, we should end the dictatorship of text." These are the words he used in The Theatre of Cruelty to protest at the inadequacy of text – understood as the theatrical script – and argue for a use of the voice comparable to that of any other element of representation. As a consequence, the word is incorporated into stage production as simply another element, interacting on an equal basis with all the others. This criticism of the power of discourse leads to a new definition of the body in its relationship with the word and space, notions that would be adopted by contemporary art, in particular by the "happening" and a variety of other action typologies.
In fact, the variety show, circus, pantomime and puppets – the types of theatre least associated with text – and recourse to the grotesque and the eccentric became the object of experimentation for artists in the twenties. From Marinetti's manifesto to Hugo Ball's Cabaret Voltaire, from Ramón Gomez de la Serna to Dada and contributions by the Russian constructivists… artists demanded theatrical exhibition, its provocative nature and condition as scenic space. Theatre's first stage, the city, the street as a space for representation, is another aspect adopted by those artistic attitudes that seek to blur the borders between art and life and use action to recover their political status. The exhibition encompasses from the Futurists' fascination with movement and masses, the actions of the Constructivists and Soviet agit prop, to contributions from the Provos, the Situationist drift, Daniel Buren's street actions, the Teatro Estudio Lebrijano company and the processional uses of Antoni Miralda.
From the nineteen-sixties, the opening up the definition of and limitations between disciplines, art and theatre, poetry, music and dance, led to multiple manifestations that took up the Dada legacy, both in the United States and Europe; from Lettrism to the art of Gutai, but above all the Fluxus. Fluxus is an international movement that originated in Wiesbaden (Germany) with a series of "new music" concerts organized by George Maciunas, featuring the radical scores of George Brecht and such other artists in his circle as Robert Filliou and Ben Vautier, among others.
Fluxus contains two aspects that are widely developed in the following Halls. In contrast to the immediacy of the "happening", Fluxus' actions are characterised by having a prior structure which often prioritizes poetic and musical language. On the other hand, in Fluxus, high and popular culture, art and play and the insignificant are mixed. Öyvind Fahlström's work highlights this convergence of images of mass culture (comics, magazines, documentaries, and newspapers), poetry and the relationship between artwork, spectator and space.
The exhibition shows the work of a subsequent generation of artists which includes Mike Kelley and Tony Oursler, who together constitute a clear exponent of an artistic tradition originating on the West Coast and marked by the contrast and coexistence between underground subcultures and Hollywood film industry fictions. Most of the works from Kelley's first period were performances with corrosive language which included the manipulation of different scenographic supports. Together with Tony Oursler, among others, he founded a band called The Poetics, an ironic, self-referential rock group. Mike Kelley has also taken an interest in the critical analysis of certain religious, psychic and economic conventions on which Western civilization is supported. In popular culture, its symbols, milestones, and mechanisms of seduction, this artist finds subjects and materials to develop a syncretic discourse where such concepts as psychoanalysis, the history of visual culture and the communications media converge.
The second floor investigates changes in the conditions of perception as regards consideration of subject/object relationships and their subsequent failures, above all by the generation that emerged after Minimalism and included such artists as Dan Graham, Isidoro Valcárcel Medina, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Broodthaers and James Coleman.
In 1967 the American critic Michael Fried published Art and Objecthood, an essay which attacked a group of artists gathered together under the umbrella of Minimalist art – Robert Morris, Donald Judd and Carl Andre – whom he accused of employing theatrical techniques. Through this derogatory concept of the theatre Fried illustrated the classic opposition existing between the spatial arts – painting and sculpture – and the temporal arts. In contrast to the notion of visuality historically characteristic of modern art expression from its very foundations, in which the spectator is absorbed in a pure and non-corporeal visual experience, the notion of theatricality meant works presented by the Minimalists could not be autonomous, as they depended on their relationship with the surrounding space – the setting – and on the duration of the experience, in other words, on time and the spectator. Fried's criticism however is used to categorize the new statute – objectuality before formality, appearance rather than permanence – bestowed on the artwork by this generation of artists (visual poetry, pop art, performance, "happening", etc.) as from the late sixties.
The formal precedents of Minimalism, ignored by Fried, may be examined historically in the work of Meyerhold and the Russian Constructivists. This focuses on the demarcation of stage space and the new ideas about visuality, composition, movement and design developed by Oskar Schlemmer from the Bauhaus. Meyerhold rebelled against the illusion of naturalist space, proposing that actors employ bio-mechanics in their movements and that Constructivist stage design be used – structures made from scaffolding, ladders and inclined planes, as well as mobile devices – which was intended to grant the actor a functional space for action and, at the same time, suggest the Futurist tension of the technological idea by means of formal (abstract-geometric) qualities. For his part, Schlemmer proposed an opening up of the stage concept on the basis of a geometrical analysis of corporeal forms and actors' movements in space together with the use of new materials and designs for wardrobe, in which art appears as a direct way of influencing life in both the everyday as well as in prevailing social structures.
Fried's text emerges precisely from a time in the mid-sixties when a change in aesthetic paradigm was produced which enabled reintroduction of narrative, figuration and theatricality as repressed aspects of modern art. A number of artists with links to conceptual art reacted against the literality of Minimalism by extending the scope of these theatre-model devices to constitute a nucleus from which the fundamentals of the contemporary would radiate –simultaneous action and perception in the space of the arts, and the constant interchange of roles between actor and spectator.
Thus, the role of the spectator is transformed into a structural element of the work. Dan Graham displaces the question about the place, limitations and social and institutional conditions of the work towards a question about the audience. His work is a reflection on the communicative capability and individual and collective perception of art. For his part, Bruce Nauman's works from the nineteen-eighties onwards in which he experiments with the spectator's emotional and physical response to stage production represent a translation of the influence of Samuel Beckett's thinking.
Recognition of the discursive nature of art implies the possibility that not necessarily artistic elements can be converted into a place of intervention. In the shift from understanding art as object to understanding it as institution the possibility arises for a self-critical dimension in artistic practice, as occurs in the works on display by Daniel Buren, or in Michelangelo Pistoletto's los oggeti in meno [Minus Objects]. Documentation on Pistoletto's theatrical and musical experiences with his band Lo Zoo, made between 1968 and 1970, includes forms of collective representation and action in harmony with the communitarian utopias of the nineteen-sixties, which found that recreational action and ritual could be vehicles for public expression and social interaction with aspirations of political transformation.
Theatergarden bestiarium, an exhibition first organized by PS1 in New York in 1989 in which these theatrical aspects in the constitution of contemporary art were officially recognised, marks the chronological conclusion of A Theatre Without Theatre. That exhibition featured The Prompter by Juan Muñoz, a clear exponent of certain artists' attitude from the nineteen-eighties onwards. The piece is a dramatization of his own presentation in the exhibition space and recovers the tradition of the trompe l'oil and baroque semantics as vehicular elements for criticism of modern visuality.
Finally, So Different… and Yet, 1980, by James Coleman, summarises the consequences and paradoxes of the vitality of the theatrical paradigm. Coleman's work is a refined exploration of perception processes and their institutional conditions. It synthesizes the way certain artists recompose aspects of modern art while refusing to relinquish the legacy of conceptualism or the criticism of representation derived from the explosion of post-1968 experimental practices and seems to ease the historically profound tensions between cinema and theatre.
Curators: Bernard Blistène and Yann Chateigné, with the collaboration of Pedro G. Romero.
Production: Exhibition organized by the Museu d'Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA) and co-produced with the Museo Berardo in Lisbon
25 MAY - 11 SEP. 2007 Museum galleries
16 NOV. 2007 - 17 FEB. 2008 Museu Berardo, Lisboa