Review: The Nature of Things ~ theatre notes

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Review: The Nature of Things

The Nature Of Things, Season 1: Relics and Time, directed by Renato Cuocolo. Concept by Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bosetti, media by Warwick Page, visual art by Andree Gersberck. With Roberta Bosetti. Undisclosed location (revealed at booking) until February 25. Bookings 9416 9447 or 0416 42 75 86.

The uncertain border between art and life permits art its special extremity, and life its proper respect. If it were true that, as George Steiner speculates, it is as morally culpable to murder a fictional character as it is to kill someone who exists in the "real" world, what novelist would dare to write the first page of a story?

But who polices this border, and where is it to be found? If the artist lives in the world, the world too lives in him; she, like everyone else, moves through quotidian existence. The artist is a human being like everybody else, neither above nor beneath the world, but simply in it. And if this is true, how can what an artist makes not be part of the world as well, how can an artist's work be separate from the materiality which is, in fact, the condition of its existence? How can there be, in fact, any border?

You see the lamentable effects of having a literal mind: it brings one bang up against contradiction. Art is literal, perhaps most literal in its ironies (as Hamlet says, "Madam, I know not seems") and The Nature of Things seems to me to be literal-minded to the point of the poetic. In this work, the duo who make up IRAA, Renato Cuocolo and Roberta Bosetti, draw as close as they can to the border between art and life; and the closer they come, the clearer it seems that a border does, in fact, exist: a shadowy border, to be sure, and open to constant dispute, but all the more perplexingly visible for its closeness.

Suppose that art is a formal frame that a number of people mutually agree to observe. Within this frame, everything becomes aestheticised. The more artless art seems, the more it becomes like art: and the more lifelike life is, the more it seems like art. The artful creation is the frame itself. The frame might be made of the 14 lines of a sonnet, or it might be the space of an installation. Or it could be, simply, a house in which two people have decided to put on a performance.

Is this tenable? Does this frame constitute the border between art and life? Because as I think along this line, I begin to think that the frame is in fact the artwork itself, which means the border between it and life (supposing life to be something different from art) exists beyond the frame. Perhaps art makes itself by defining itself against what is not art (which, as soon as it escapes the frame, becomes the rest of existence). But if there is a border - and at this moment I am agreeing with myself that there is - then, if the frame constitutes the artwork itself, that border cannot be the frame, and what the frame encloses - if it does enclose - cannot be art, either.

So what is this border, this discernible definition, that enables us to feel that something is a work of art? Is is simply the mutual agreement that something is a work of art? Or is it something else, an energy or vibrancy created by the formal relationships in the work, or an aura that the work emanates but that we, as witnesses, are complicit in creating? If one person agrees to perceive the framing but another doesn't, does it mean that the work is not art, after all, but life (or is it something else)? Or is the postulation of the frame enough?

This is intriguing, although, even as I write this, I am not sure that what I am writing is not very banal, trite observations of the merely obvious, or even arrant nonsense. But let me not stop here, with this doubt... Another proposition: it seems to me that art is, in even its most intricate or abstracted manifestations, a formal arrangement of reality. Its crucial aspect is that it is made, that certain things have been decided upon. The dimensions of the frame are purely arbitrary decisions of the artist: they may be almost nothing, barely visible, a mere breath; or they may occupy all perceptible space.

In all cases, without exception, this frame is a permeable thing, which life enters even when it appears to be banished entirely. This is because the life of the artwork exists in both those who make and those who witness it, and their lives are intrusive and messy. Art is not autobiography, and many artists, myself included, may vehemently reject autobiographical readings as misleading; but the artist can never, all the same, ignore the imprint of her specific time and place, his life.

And what of the audience? They may not pay attention: they may throw the book away, or forget the beginning of the sentence; they might walk past the painting without looking at it or fall asleep in the middle of the performance. One can never tell. This is why people are always disagreeing about art. And if it were not so, art would be the fascism it sometimes threatens to be, pure aesthetic air in which it would be impossible to breathe. I am at least quite certain that art is not possible without life. I am almost sure that life is not possible without art, although that is quite a different question.

So: we arrive at the designated suburban house, as if we were arriving for dinner at the home of a distant acquaintance. We are late, after a series of small misadventures, and anxious: in such an intimate piece, it is a solecism to be late. It is a hot night, already dark, and the house is no different from its neighbours, an unassuming weatherboard with a picket fence. The front door is opened by Renato Cuocolo, who welcomes us, assigns us tickets with numbers on them and ushers us into a front room, where he offers us wine or water to drink. Ah, we are guests, not members of an audience.

Nevertheless, this is a waiting room: ten chairs are arranged around the walls, and a television squats beneath a mantelpiece. Eight people are inside, with the uncomfortable expressions everyone wears in waiting rooms; it is too intimate for private conversation, and yet here we all are, close together, expectant, perhaps already impatient. People murmur, or attempt to strike up conversations with each other that are doomed to stutter into silence. Some are watching the television with close attention, although you feel that is more to avoid the slight discomfort than out of interest in what it is showing.

The television is playing a video of a house. A plaque next to it tells us the film was taken last year, in Vercelli, Italy, and that it is a childhood home. The camera wanders through the different rooms to the accompaniement of some kitsch music. We sip our drinks. Time passes.

Eventually, the door opens and Roberta Bosetti enters. She is a slim woman, with dark gold hair, smartly and casually dressed. Her voice is compelling, low and musical. After speaking about waiting ("life is waiting") she tells us to take note of the numbers on our tickets and leaves. More time passes. Eventually Cuocolo enters and calls some numbers, and those people leave the room. Then some more. One person is left behind. Is he being punished?

We are shown the rest of the house, which has been turned into an art exhibit, even the housemate sitting in her bedroom attempting to work on her computer. In the loungeroom is a lamp of a kind that used to be popular in children's bedrooms. It revolves, throwing patterns of shadow onto the walls. A brass plaque embedded in the table tells us what it is. In the dining room is a place setting, with a placemat, a knife and fork, which is also notated by a plaque. We move into the kitchen, and Roberta (she has introduced herself to all of us, and asked our names) asks us what we remember about our childhood homes.

I have too many childhood homes, so I remain silent. In any case, I have already made art out of my childhood, and this kind of contemplation is familiar to me; for me, a childhood home is not a place of continuity, but of fracture, a place that was always contingent and now no longer exists. Roberta is speaking of continuities: a home that she still visits, that still remains in the present.

A few people volunteer their own memories. The atmosphere has warmed: the impulse is suddenly to exchange, possibly to talk all night. Something, at last, seems to be happening, something rewards our curiosity. Is it enough? Some people appear to be doubtful...

But this is a performance after all, and the focus remains on Roberta, who moves easily and gracefully about the kitchen, a hostess attending to her guests. She is not quite casual, although she appears to be casual; she is speaking a remembered text, however it is improvised in the present. She makes coffee for those who want it and begins to speak about a single image that has imprinted itself as the primary memory of her own childhood home. It is puzzlingly trivial: it is about the texture of a tablecloth, the texture of a placemat, a plate with something in it. Why is it significant? She begins to tease it out, as it prompts the memories that surround it. "What we forget," she says, " is as important as what we remember".

When the coffee is made, we move outside, into the backyard. It is a beautiful night; a birch tree is spotlit in the background. We seat ourselves at a round table, and Roberta lights a candle that she cups in her hand, so that it illuminates her face. She has a beautiful face, classically Italian, like the face of a Madonna in a Renaissance painting, and now we can watch her closely, as one never watches someone across a table. Her remembered image multiplies, links to other memories, becomes a narrative, and bit by bit, in an irresistible spiral, we enter deeper and deeper into the drama of her childhood.

We glimpse her parents, we glimpse the lonely, precocious child who invents an imaginary friend. We are silent now: our task is to listen. And we do. It is no punishment to listen to this bewitching voice, to this poetic text which patiently unravels from the simplest materials something of the shadows that inhabit every life, that draws from the memories that mask our sadnesses some of their inner truth.

Then it is finished, and we stir, as if awakening, and are politely shown down the sideway and take our leave at the front gate. I talk about my childhood for the next half hour. The Nature of Things is, after all, as much about the fertilities it gently loosens in our own minds as it is about the experience of being there. It generously invites such meditations. Step by step, it imperceptibly draws us into the particular intimacy of theatre, disrupting our expectations so that we might listen, might pay attention in a way that becomes fruitful for our own memories, our own imaginings.

It seems almost nothing, almost artless. Perhaps it is no more than an invitation and a question: invitations may be refused, questions may be ignored. Yet the further away you are from the experience, the more formal you understand it is. It takes the conventions of social encounter and makes theatre from them; and as with all theatre, each audience member will have his or her private relationship with this event that is, after all, a public act. It is, in the most subtle and undramatic way, profoundly stirring. And, finally, profoundly beautiful.

IRAA Theatre

1 comment:

George Hunka said...

A notice as lovely, and as evocative, as the show that provoked it. Beautifully put, Alison.