Mixed-media work by Miguel Moreira e Silva. Courtesy Gallery Historia e Arte.
PARIS – The argument against calling a show the worse you’ve ever seen is that no one starts out intending to make a terrible dance, film, or piece of theater or music. But if one should be gentle with unintentional disasters, when it comes to works from laureated directors that disdain a whole segment of the population, are intellectually and artistically lazy, poorly-prepared and poorly-rehearsed, pointlessly abusive of audience comfort, and in the supposed guise of enlisting the participation of amateurs are simply amateurish, the informed critic who knows better needs to be merciless. Tiago Rodrigues’s “Ce soir ne se repetera jamais” or “This night will never be repeated” (let’s hope), seen May 24 at the Theatre de la Bastille, is, simply put, the worse piece of theater I have ever seen outside of those which involved images of animals or children being tortured, an abandoning of what the theater should and can stand for.
With his “Bovary,” raved by me elsewhere, Rodrigues, director of Lisbon’s national theater, had certainly set me up nicely. Performed in the rubric of the misleadingly named two-month long “Occupation Bastille,” which also includes “Bovary” and another piece under construction as we speak (I shudder), “Ce soir ne se repetera jamais” supposedly involved 90 amateurs as well as the (French) professionals from “Bovary.” (I specify (French) to underscore that ignorance of the terrain cannot be offered as an excuse for this debacle.) ‘Supposedly” because from what I saw on stage as well as the knowing chuckles from many in the audience, a good number of the “amateurs” were in fact employees of the Theatre de la Bastille, just that we don’t usually see onstage. Thus we got neither the precious (in the positive sense of that term) authenticity of the real non-professional and the innocence with which s/he approaches creation, nor the high standard of the professional. With the exception of a genuine cafe owner from across the street who was fetched to perform a touching rendition of a familiar Algerian folk song, with the audience chiming in for the chorus, most of the “amateurs’” speeches consisted of commenting on what they “saw” on the rue Roquette outside of the theater, Rodrigues opening the piece with what appears, in retrospect, as a pompous statement about there being no difference between the ‘rue’ and the theater, or the theater being an extension of the rue, or vice versa. But most of the amateurs as well as a professional commenting on the view of outside from inside seemed to see the same mundane things on the street (with the exception of one speaker’s mis-comparing Roquette to a street to New York) which, considering the repute of this particular Parisian street, suggests that they may be seeing but they’re not really observing.
From their opening in 1851 through 1899, the Roquette prisons, conveniently situated across the street from the cemetery Pere Lachaise, were the principal point of decapitation in Paris, with 69 people guillotined. Jean Genet would later be incarcerated there as a 15-year-old when the prison was reserved for young people, as would the abortionist Marie-Louise Giraud before she was killed, although by 1943 the heads were being cut off elsewhere. Currently, outside a charming 60s-style park with descending cascades (not always cascading), an elaborate contraption has been built which lures pigeons in with food and sends them out sterile. Closer to the Theatre de la Bastille, still on the rue Roquette, stands a synagogue now guarded by armed soldiers since an incident in 2014. And even closer to the theater, just outside an anarchist bookstore, an armed gendarme is posted (not necessarily to protect the anarchists). Now if these are the histories even an itinerant tourist can reconnoiter, you can’t tell me that the amateur performers occupying the stage of the theater they go to work at every day can’t do better than the equivalent of “There are people passing on the street, sometimes they look in at me,” although I did like one employee’s wishing that the angel on the nearby Place de la Bastille could uproot itself and fly away (as did I at various points during the performance, starting during the 15 minutes after scheduled curtain when I was trapped in an increasingly congested lobby as the spectators continued to pour in from the street but the theater doors remained closed, a disturbing lapse at a time when we’re living in an officially decreed State of Emergency under which crowds are discouraged).
The above are just omissions. It’s in its commissions that “Ce soir…” is truly honteuse, or disgraceful. At one point David Geselsen — who earlier gave his own excruciatingly long riff about what he sees on the street, which went something like, “And sometimes I wonder if the people on the street can see me watching them seeing me seeing them,” for which he still, like most of the performers ‘amateur’ and professional, relied upon scripts, or maybe this was just meant as another anti-theater signifier – at one point Geselson recounts meeting an old high-school girlfriend on the subway. The part of the ex-girlfriend is soon taken up by an apparently (but not really, judging by the professional-level performance that he delivers) homeless man who seems to have wandered onto the stage. When, asked what she’s doing these days, the ex-girlfriend responds, “I’ve been working at Carrefour for seven years,” referring to the international supermarket chain, many snobby and superior Parisians in the audience start sniggering. For these (not all in the audience) artsy Parisians, working at a supermarket all day is worthy of contemptuous chuckles. Well, when I’m not reviewing theater and theater audiences in Paris, I live in a small town in the Southwest of France. My friend and neighbor S. has worked for Carrefour or other super-markets for most of her life. At 57 years old she loads groceries onto shelves, which often means pushing around a heavily charted cart. I say this not to disdain her job but to reinforce that my friend probably works harder than most of the smug Parisians who were sniggering at those in her situation. With her husband P., a stone-mason, she has been able to have a nice home made of old medieval stone, like mine, and they’ve built an even nicer house for their retirement in a nearby county. Next to my other neighbors – a retired plumber and a retired factory worker who no doubt would also merit the contempt of the Parisian sniggerers – they are the most generous people I know. I would trade their wisdom and sense for that of the Parisian cognoscenti any day. They are also among the tax-payers who help make possible the unique unemployment regime of France’s Intermittents, or freelance artists and technicians. (Essentially, it allows them to accumulate the 507 hours over 10 or 10.5 months which qualify them for unemployment compensation from multiple employers.) I am all for this system, and I am aware that to qualify for the unemployment, these artists are not just taking glory jobs; even entertaining for children’s parties counts. But I think a little more respect and a little less contempt for those whose tax money in part supports them (no doubt Geselson and his professional colleagues are themselves intermittents), and who don’t have the chance to be on stage, would be le moin des choses.
…And – much less significant but important to note, as it’s an indicator of a general contempt for the spectator which I felt during this show and from Rodrigues in particular – a bit more attention to audience comfort would also be appreciated. Besides the uncomfortable and unsafe sardine situation created by the delayed opening of the theater doors, once we were finally permitted to enter , I (and others) endured for the next 90 minutes a photographer perched practically on my shoulder, with his shutter constantly going off and a very bright spotlight regularly illuminating the entire aisle. Most professional photographers, where they must shoot during a performance, do their best to be unobtrusive and rely on just the stage lighting. And/or they shoot the final dress. I would not be surprised if there was no final dress here, especially as what we were subjected to seemed more like a first rehearsal than a finished evening of work. Finally, it should be added that despite all the hullabaloo about “Occupation Bastille” being a grand experiment in bringing democracy to the theater (an urge that resonates these days in France), in sum this read like a piece mostly (and badly) prepared by the clever director and his acolytes, with rudimentary and unoriginal audience-participation like moments interjected here and there, and the ‘professionals’ often talking over these already scattered speeches.
Just so you know that not everything that comes from Portugal is fatuous, two Thursdays ago, in the gallery of the Artists Ateliers of Belleville association on the rue Francis Picabia, I had the chance to chat with Emilia Nogueiro, a galleriste from the Portuguese border village of Braganca, and one of her artists, Miguel Moreira e Silva, who by his profile might also merit the contempt of David Geselson and Tiego Rodrigues. Silva is a farmer. “Worse,” his work is earnest, without the least touch of post-modern irony or detachment. The open-faced boxes I saw reminded me variously of Joseph Cornell’s treasure boxes, the Surrealist collaborative boxes created by (justement) Picabia and his colleagues, and even Day of the Dead cigar-box shrines. All of these multi-dimensional works featured door keys among their pot-pourri, evoking the medieval Unicorn tapestries housed at New York’s Cloisters museum. Peering out of sepia photos from most of them were family members; in one, Silva pointed out to me, a lone child is separated from the larger group photo. Skulls and other skeleton parts figure prominently, as do gargoyle-like sculpted heads the artist made himself. Sharp objects like knives add an element of peril which only make the sum more precious. A U.S. quarter even lurks in one. When I spoke to the artist at the opening, he said the religiosity was important to him, but the boxes were so densely packed with other elements that this didn’t alienate me as it usually does.
When I spoke with Nogueiro, the galleriste, a pedigreed specialist who speaks at least three languages fluently, she agreed that attracting paysans (my word choice) into a gallery in a small village isn’t evident. (For a brief time, I ran a gallery in a village in the Languedoc; our biggest success was a giant and real bird’s nest that a friend found in the woods.) Then somehow – perhaps in discussing the ready appeal of Silva’s work – we got onto the subject of art accessibility. (My word choice again.) Perversely (ibid), Nogueiro said, the ‘60s conceptualists, who started out wanting to make art more accessible, locked it up when they spiraled into hyper-conceptualism; no one could understand it any more. I argued, and she agreed, that it’s possible for art to do both: to please the non-studied eye and to offer something extra for those looking for more (symbols, references, historical tie-ins, and other meat for intellectuals or quasi-intellectuals like me) to chew on.
Perhaps it was because it had me thinking of the Spanish border (not far from Nogueiro’s gallery, Historia e Arte), but the artist who most comes to mind as meeting these criteria is Joan Miro. Like Silva’s boxes, Miro’s oeuvres, as much as they can deliver pleasure contemplated as is, frequently include a decoder, often delivered in a cloying title. I’ve just opened up the special issue no. 58 of Opus International, from 1976, entirely dedicated to the “Poetique de Miro,” to a page featuring the reproduction of a tableau full of spheres, eyeball/targets, circles, four-pronged stars, red and black Chinese lanterns, and myriad hourglasses. That’s a basic suggestion of what you might see on the surface of the work. But the title, “Women encircled by the flight of a bird,” can also send you in more analytical directions.
Joan Miro (1893-1983), “The lady playing checkers.” Lithograph, 1969, printed on red and white checked cloth laid on Mandeure chiffon (as issued), signed and numbered 34/75, published by Maeght, Paris, the full sheet, in good condition. Image & Sheet 850 x 603 mm. Christie’s pre-sale estimate: 1,500 – 2,500 pounds. Price realized in Christie’s May 19 sale: 2,000. Image courtesy and coyright Christies Images Ltd. 1016.
In this sense, Miro was a populist or an artist of the people – not in the cynical sense of a Tiago Rodrigues, who employs false, but in the sense of someone emerged from the popular class who hasn’t forgotten this. As a former exile – from Spain to France during the Spanish Civil War – he also appreciated the plight of refugees. Thus for his grandson, Joan Punyet Miro, it made sense to donate the entirety of the proceeds of Christie’s London’s May 19 sale of 28 Miro multiples, or $69,122, to the Red Cross’s efforts to help those fleeing Syria. “This is a way to remember that life is not always easy for everybody,” Miro the grandson told the Agence France Presse, as quoted by Hyperallergic’s Carey Dunne. “My grandfather would have done the same thing. He always wanted to help the most disadvantaged, the refugees and those in exile, and would be aware that what is happening today in Syria could happen tomorrow in Spain.”
What do both these stories have to do with the debacle of Tiego Rodrigues’s “Ce soir…”? Silva’s art, like Nogueiro’s mission of promoting art in the nether-reaches of the Portuguese provinces, like Miro’s art and like his grandson’s decision to sell it to help Syrian refugees – all of these are consequential. These are consequential times. Artists can play a vital role in *mitigating* what the real world is meting out. That doesn’t mean their work always has to be political, or even serious, but that it needs to be substantial, it needs to be considered, and that time on a stage or in an atelier or gallery cannot be squandered.
On the night of the attacks, in this same theater – the Bastille – a different troupe was performing a comic take on unemployment, a huge issue in France and in Europe. The four comedians took turns sending responses to job announcements in which they explained why, alas, they would not be able to accept the job (which had not yet been offered to them). The show was mostly comedic but it was meticulously prepared and flawlessly enacted and invested. Today in France, the main union and its acolytes are violently responding to a proposed work law which many don’t like; they are blocking and shutting down refineries, with the apparent goal of bringing France to its knees. It is clear that the union leader is manipulating the issue to regain credibility lost when its previous chief resigned after questions were raised about his spending. The union is even promoting antagonism against the police (never mind how over-worked and under stress the police have been since the Charlie Hebdo killings) with posters showing police beating protestors down.
Art shows another way.
— Paul Ben-Itzak