ÂŠ Kate Lacey and Alexandre Singh, Courtesy Witte de With and Performa_7
Alexandre Singh introducing his play at the Reception
Defne Ayas (Director Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art)
Franka Holtmann and Anne Vogt-Bordure, Le Meurice at the reception
Andreas Gegner (Sprueth Magers Berlin London) and Paola Capata (Monitor, Rome)
Tanja Elstgeest (Productiehuis Rotterdam), Amira Gad (Managing Curator Witte de With), Paul van Gennip (Deputy Director Witte de With), Defne Ayas (Director Witte de With), Alexandre Singh (Writer and director The Humans, Maaike Gouwenberg (Producer The Humans), Flora Sans (Choreographer and Assistant Director The Humans)
Paola Capata (Monitor, Rome), Philomene Magers (Sprueth Magers Berlin London), Defne Ayas, Alexandre Singh, Anne Vogt-Bordure (Le Meurice), Franka Holtmann (Le Meurice), Laurence Perrillat (Groupe Galeries Lafayette)
Defne Ayas, Alexandre Singh, RoseLee Goldberg (Director Performa)
De Erker, Rotterdamse Schouwburg, before the World Premiere
Audience for The Humans
The cast of The Humans bowing to standing ovation
Flowers for Alexandre Singh and his amazing cast and crew
Final bow for the cast and crew of The Humans
PERFORMA 13 IN REVIEW HTTP://MOBILE.NYTIMES.COM/2013/11/16/ARTS/DESIGN/PERFORMANCE-ART-THAT-LOOKS-A-LOT-LIKE-THEATER.HTML 15-11-2013
Performance Art That Looks a Lot Like Theater
The Humans at the Brooklyn Academy of Music is part of the Performa 13 festival. Richard Termine
• • By ROBERTA SMITH and SIOBHAN BURKE November 15, 2013 Alexandre Singh’s “The Humans” has its ups and downs, but it is still one of the outstanding achievements of the Performa 13 performance art biennial. Commissioned in collaboration with the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art in the Netherlands, it is less performance art than classical theater with all the benefits of a highly skilled, well-rehearsed cast. Mr. Singh, a young British artist, is known for arcane installations, but here he embraces accessibility, carefully timed slapstick and amusing wordplay as he explores his talent as a writer-director. And he is certainly not afraid to appropriate. Inspired by Aristophanes — whose “The Birds” its title echoes — the work melds numerous creation myths, starting out as Greek drama and seguing to commedia dell’arte and Mozartian opera, with a great deal of lubrication from Milton, Shakespeare, the Bible, Rabelais and Oscar Wilde. Mime and choreography (by Flora Sans) figure in, as well as a Greek chorus that turns increasingly musical. The composers working with Mr. Singh, the lyricist, are Gerry Arling, Rik Elstgeest and Bo Koek (in collaboration with Robbert Klein, Annelinde Bruijs and Amir Vahidi). There is even a cat goddess (Simona Bitmaté), who speaks and meows with equal effectiveness, and a sculptural set, by Mr. Singh and Jessica Tankard, that adds its own sense of play.
Julia Häusermann performing in “Disabled Theater,” featuring disabled Swiss actors, at New York Live Arts. Paula Lobo for The New York Times
“The Humans” is an extremely ambitious undertaking, built on the faith that older culture is always part of the new. It begins slowly, gains speed and vividness and then spins a bit out of control toward the end, at which point you begin to wish for a copy of the script, and lyrics, so you can keep up with the jokes and linguistic pyrotechnics. The complicated plot centers on a godlike figure named Charles Ray (after the American sculptor, and played by Phillip Edgerley) who often speaks in rhyming couplets and is tasked with creating humans in an Edenic studio. His plans for maintaining the new species in a state of eternal, if strictly dictated, reason (and also in togas), are wrecked by his apprentice and son, a fretful Woody-Allen type named Tophole (Sam Crane) conspiring with Tophole’s love interest, the funny, wordy and Wildean Pantalingua (Elizabeth Cadwallader). Inspired by N, Pantalingua’s mother and an instinct-is-all rabbit queen (Ms. Sans), they set out to free the humans, or more accurately, facilitate their fall from grace. To their horror, they end up with an irrational, mercurial mob subject to all the imperfections of human nature — hunger, lust, greed, power and, worst of all, death. While this transpires, the costumes (by Holly Waddington) mutate into hilarious ensembles redolent of Breughel, Hogarth and Otto Dix that make much use of Cindy Shermanesque prosthetic body parts. In the end, everyone realizes that it is better to be than not to be. ‘DISABLED THEATER’ In everyday life, it’s more common to look away from disability than directly at it. In “Disabled Theater,” the French choreographer Jérôme Bel and Theater Hora, a Swiss company of actors with learning and mental disabilities, turn that convention inside out: simply, matter-of-factly, as if it’s no big deal. Which really, it shouldn’t be. Seen on Wednesday at New York Live Arts (as a co-presentation with Performa 13), this candid collaboration smartly counters whatever it is — fear of difference, of the unknown, of political incorrectness, of looking too long — that might cause us to look away in the first place. It lets us see 10 individuals very clearly. In Mr. Bel’s typically minimalist fashion, the stage starts out empty except for 10 chairs and 10 water bottles (arranged as if for a panel discussion) and Simone Truong, the evening’s translator and sound operator, seated at a table. In her even tone, she tells us she was hired because the actors speak only Swiss German, and Mr. Bel does not. “The first thing Jérôme asked the actors,” Ms. Truong says, “was to enter the stage one by one and stand in front of the audience for one minute.” They do. We observe each person’s gait, carriage, demeanor: nonchalant walks and effortful walks, penetrating eyes and downcast eyes. They reappear to introduce themselves by name, age and profession (20 to 43, all actresses and actors; one wonders how much of what follows is “acted”), before taking a seat. “Then Jérôme asked the actors to name their handicap,” Ms. Truong says. Miranda Hossle, who wears a green hoodie and jeans, says, “I’m a little bit slower than the so-called normal.” She adds, “Most of the time I wish I didn’t have it, but I can live with it.” The bespectacled Damian Bright, who has Down syndrome, says: “It’s called as well trisomy 21. That means I have one chromosome more than you in the audience.” But at the heart of the work is dance: 10 self-choreographed solos, to self-chosen music, that expose facets of these performers that you could not have known from their introductions. (Mr. Bel, we’re told, first chose seven to show — we see these first — but eventually decided to present all 10. A commentary on exclusion?) Julia Häusermann, who initially seems painfully shy, dons a studded leather glove for a bold, transfixing, hair-tossing solo to Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Care About Us.“ Remo Beuggert reveals a droll sense of humor behind his hulking physique.
“Disabled Theater” is aware of its possible pitfalls. “My mother said that it’s some kind of freak show, but she liked it a lot,” says Mr. Bright, during a section in which “Jérôme asked the actors what they think about this piece.” (Sometimes, this piece could use less Jérôme.) Next week “Disabled Theater” heads to the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. After 90 minutes with the cast members, you almost wish you could go with them.
RECENSIES THE HUMANS
ALEXANDRE SINGH / WITTE DE WITH CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
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MUZIEKTHEATER - 28 september 2013 - Rotterdamse Schouwburg, De Keuze - Speellijst
Vermakelijke vreemde eend tussen vernieuwend theater door Joost Ramaer gezien 28 september 2013 Theater dat de grenzen van het genre verlegt ontstaat vaak buiten de gevestigde theatrale orde. Muziektheater gemaakt door een beeldend kunstenaar past dan ook op een festival als De Keuze van de Rotterdamse Schouwburg, al jaren een feest van vernieuwend theater. Van zo’n buitenstaander verwacht je een nieuwe en verfrissende kijk op theater. Maar Alexandre Singh benut de ruimte die De Keuze hem geeft voor een soort van remake van The wizard of Oz uit 1939. Begrijp me goed: Singhs The humans is, op zichzelf beschouwd, onderhoudend genoeg. De tekortkomingen van het stuk zijn niet onbelangrijk. Het duurt drie uur en dat is minstens een half uur te lang. De actie is vaak te statisch, de fraaie set wordt te weinig gebruikt. De barokke Engelse tekst vol archaïsche woorden en uitdrukkingen wordt niet ondertiteld, waardoor het Nederlandse publiek veel van de subtiele taalgrappen ontgaat. Maar er valt nog genoeg te genieten. The humans is elegant, geestig, technisch verzorgd en mooi om naar te kijken. Alleen vraagt deze recensent zich af wat zo’n romantische throwback doet op een festival als De Keuze. Misschien ziet hij iets over het hoofd. Naar De Keuze komen veel directeuren en programmeurs van andere, vergelijkbare festivals. Sommige van deze professionals waren enthousiast over The humans. Zij zagen wel degelijk een interessante visie-van-buiten op theater. The humans is een sprookjesachtige once over lightly van het scheppingsverhaal. Gezien vanuit de zaal is de linkerkant van het toneel het domein van N, een konijn-koningin met een leuke en scherpzinnige dochter, Pantalingua. Zij vertegenwoordigen de Dionysische kant van de mens. Rechts heerst Charles Ray, een tirannieke geleerde die uit gips menselijke robots vervaardigt met hulp van zijn assistent Tophole, een intelligente jongen maar ook een bange wezel, die gebukt gaat onder de grillen van zijn meester. Tophole en Pantalingua worden verliefd op elkaar. Dat is de aanzet tot een confrontatie tussen Ray’s kille orde en N’s ondeugende chaos. Er vallen de nodige doden, maar uiteindelijk vinden de strijdende partijen een vergelijk. Intussen voeren de hoofdrolspelers even puntige als barokke dialogen, dansen en zingen de gipsen robots en strelen uitbundige kostuums en maskers de ogen van het publiek. Leerlingen van Codarts in Rotterdam spelen de robots, en dat doen zij met vuur en overgave. Onder de hoofdrolspelers vallen vooral Elizabeth Cadwallader op als Pantalingua, Flora Sans – tevens de choreografe van The humans – als N, Ryan Kiggell als robot 31 en Simona Bitmaté als Ms. Chief, de pratende poes die de voorstelling bijeenhoudt. Ms. Chief mag ook afsluiten met enkele wijze woorden, net zoals Puck aan het einde van Shakespeare’s Midsummer night’s dream. Dat is geen toeval, want The humans zit bomvol Shakespeare-citaten. Zo werkt Alexandre Singh nu eenmaal. Hij gebruikt de creatieve productie van eeuwen als een grabbelton voor zijn eigen werk. Darth Vader met een vogel op zijn hoofd, Pablo Picasso met een leguaan op zijn gezicht die de grote schilder iets in het oor fluistert – dat is het soort objecten dat hij maakt. Verder houdt hij vaak
ELDERS Nog geen andere recensies
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performances waarin hij tekstfragmenten herschikt tot een nieuw verhaal. Kennelijk is Singhs werk commercieel succesvol: hij heeft huizen in Londen en New York en wordt vertegenwoordigd door prestigieuze galerieën. Voor The pledge uit december 2012, een performance in opdracht van het Palais de Tokyo in Parijs, hield Singh interviews met kunstenaars, een bioloog en een criticus ‘om een weg te vinden in mijn eigen werk en wereld en de essentie van de ideeën daarachter uit te drukken’, zo vertelde hij aan The Huffington Post. Hij hield de gesprekken ‘bewust lichtvoetig’. ‘Ik ben dol op het idee van speelsheid, ik geloof niet dat dat ze minder diepgravend maakt.’ De gesprekken leverden de stof voor nieuwe, door Singh verzonnen dialogen. Hoe speels Singh zichzelf ook vindt, in het gesprek met de HufPost vallen vooral zijn cynisme en arrogantie op. Zijn toeschouwers ziet hij als de gevangenen van hun eigen ideeën en conventies. ‘Daar verschuilen ze zich achter. Ze bezien alles met een lepe knipoog.’ Hetzelfde geldt voor de anderen uit wier werk hij zo gretig knipt en plakt. Bestaande teksten zijn nooit ‘waar’, zegt hij. ‘In termen van feitelijke waarheden is de wereld een vage en betrekkelijke plek.’ De boodschap is duidelijk: Singhs fictieve collages zijn verre superieur aan de originele bronnen. Zeker naar Nederlandse maatstaven is er veel geïnvesteerd in The humans. Het stuk is de vrucht van een samenwerking tussen Singh en het Rotterdamse centrum voor hedendaagse beeldende kunst Witte de With. Liefst een half jaar lang mocht Singh in Witte de With bivakkeren om zijn voorstelling voor te bereiden en in te studeren. Decor, de begeleiding met live muziek en de omvangrijke cast deden de begroting verder uitdijen. Een imposante stoet sponsors uit binnen- en buitenland kwam dan ook aan deze productie te pas. In haar voorwoord in het – ook alweer – fraai uitgevoerde programmaboekje viert Defne Ayas, directeur van Witte de With, The humans als een artistieke mijlpaal. ‘Het was een inspirerende en uitzonderlijke ervaring voor alle betrokkenen,’ schrijft zij. ‘We hebben allemaal heel veel geleerd.’ Ayas dankt Singh ‘persoonlijk’ voor ‘het geschenk van zijn inzet’. De Codarts-studenten hebben zeker veel geleerd, en laten zich van hun beste kant zien. Maar er is ook die bijsmaak, dat een instituut als Witte de With zich te veel op sleeptouw heeft laten nemen door een handige jongen uit het circus van de artistieke commercie. Foto: Sanne Peper
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Meet the Artist
Alexandre Singh on Spinning Comedy Into Performance Art By Rachel Corbett http://www.artspace.com/magazine/interviews_features/meet_the_artist_alexandre_singh Nov. 8, 2013
The French-born artist Alexandre Singh first rose to prominence in the United States with his Assembly Instructions, a 2008 series using performative lectures and collages to invent complex relationships between figures like Lord Byron and Alexander Pushkin and fictional characters like Meredith Grey (from "Grey's Anatomy") and Carrie Bradshaw. For his latest
endeavor, The Humans, organized by Performa 13, Singh has once again added a dash of whimsy to the otherwise Big Idea themes of consciousness and the meaning of life with a weeklong comedic play that stars two characters plotting to prevent the creation of the world. We spoke to the artist about the themes behind his new
work, which will be performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from November 13-17. Whether you're working in sculpture, collage, or installation, your work tends to be grounded in narrative. Was it a natural leap, then, for you to turn to a more traditional theater production for your latest project? I’ve wanted to do a play for a long time. My intention has always been to work in that medium, so I began learning how to write and to work with actors to some extent. It was also my first time directing. I had an idea a long time ago to do a play in the style of Aristophanes: very visual, anarchic, and performative—and I enjoy comedy quite a lot. So a long time ago, around 2005 or 2006, I was working on a play about two forces in antipathy with each other, the sculptor Charles Ray and the Nesquik bunny, which is very Aristophanic. Then, about two years ago, the director of the Witte de With center asked if I was working on any projects, and I told her about this. We brought it to Rotterdam. Your two main characters are based on two entirely disparate figures, a real-life art legend and a cartoon character created to promote a chocolate-milk brand. Where did you get the idea to pair a contemporary artist with a corporate mascot? I'm a big fan of Charles Ray's work. I don't know if he'll appreciate my representation of him, although my character is quite removed from reality—it's more like the dream of the dream of Ray. His insights into sculpture are very platonic. They're about pure idealized sculpture, so the character is a platonic spirit, whereas the chocolate bunny is the dream of corporate mascots. She imbues everything with sexual energy, she cannot speak because she is sensual and irrational, and she shits everywhere. Think about it, the rabbit in pop culture is associated with Easter, the dying of a god, the resurrection of a god, with reproduction, and with shitting everywhere. So these two main characters are representing the dichotomy of the masculine, the enlightened rational man, and the female, full of hormones, representing the moon and nature. You've said that the work of Aristophanes, widely considered the father of comedy, was a major inspiration for this project. Did you worry at all about how his style would translate for a contemporary audience? The thing about his work is that it is often a pastiche of Euripides. He was avant-garde, but also a comedian, so my project is also a pastiche of historical references, including Shakespeare, aspects of kabuki, group theater, and drama. It's really much closer in spirit and sense of humor to Shakespeare's comedy, or to the Romantics. It all mixes into a strange universe that's principally theater but also involves songs and dances. There are points where the audience will laugh
out loud, but there are also poetic moments and, I hope, magical moments. I'm not a comedian, but I'm a big fan of Woody Allen, and it's written sort of in that way. Might corporate cartoons like the Nesquik bunny operate as kinds of mythological figures to the contemporary Western viewer? Corporate characters are a little empty and flat, but they're characters we all know, and naturally we're all familiar with the same Hollywood celebrities, but corporate mascots are more interesting because they're more ambiguous. It doesn't need to be Nesquik and Charles Ray—they're just pegs on which to hang more ancient and universal ideas. Take Tom Cruise, he's a great tragic hero: full of hubris, probably wants to do good, but does bad inadvertently. In Aristophanes's
work you often encounter real figures from society who are characters put on stage. It sounds odd, but it happens today with "Saturday Night Live"â€”and "South Park" is pure Aristophanes in that it's satirical, incredibly grotesque, and very funny. Woody Allen is another Aristophanic character because he makes these slapstick comedies that make fun of Bergman or Dostoevsky or other subjects that are quite removed from the style. You also had to become a writer during the realization of this project. Did that process come naturally to you ? I would never do that again. I had to write it while working on financing and getting venues. And I like knowing visually how something will look, but usually a writer writes and it gets handed over to a director to create the visual idea. But if you have a visual idea as you're writing you can really make it part of the bedrock. When you're the director yourself, you can plant the idea in the text as you go. But the process of writing while you're in production is very difficult. No piece of theater is really written until it's performed on stage with actors. All of the artists, choreographers, actors, and singers involved must have also made this a more collaborative process than you're used to. My collaborators would always say they never worked with someone more dictatorial. I think directors think they're collaboratorial, but they're not. The medium is inherently collaborative, but I like to put my finger in every single pie. How do you expect the American reception will differ from the original performances before a Dutch audience? It's being performed in a very small space in New York, and it was really designed for a big theater because there's a chorus and they sing and dance. But it was hard to convince them to give me any theater at all, much less at BAM, so while it may be to the detriment of the visual qualities, the audience will be much closer and it'll be better for storytelling and play. It'll also be better for native English speakers, because the language in the performance is so difficult and complex. Charles Ray, for example, speaks in iambic pentameter and an Elizabethan vocabulary, and the bunny is a character right out of Oscar Wilde, and so she speaks in an idiosyncratic idiom and linguistic puns. Do you have any plans for The Humans after Performa ends this month? I would love to show it more. I'm trying to organize some dates in Europe, a U.S. tour, and then in New York again. It took an enormous amount of production and it's a strong show.
Alexandre Singh Pleasing, Teaching, Moving
Photo: Sanne Peper, 2013, Actors: Gerty Van de Perre, Lucas Schilperoort, Annelinde Bruijs, Robbert Klein, Sam Crane, Sanna Elon Vrij, Amir Vahidi, Jesse Briton, Dook van Dijck. Courtesy of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art Coming weekend Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art is proud to present the world premiere of The Humans, by visual artist and writer Alexandre Singh. Metropolis M talked with Singh about this major enterprise, his ideas and ambitions. The French-British visual artist and writer Alexandre Singh was invited by the Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art to write, produce and direct a play entitled The Humans, to be performed in Rotterdam during the autumn of 2013. In a unique commitment from the institution to the artist, he was offered the opportunity to prepare this work on site for a whole year, and to accompany it with a groundbreaking series of talks with academics, authors and artists entitled Causeries, dealing with all major themes evoked in The Humans. In the following conversation, Singh discusses his passion for knowledge and creation, and unveils the background of both The Humans and the Causeries. Donatien Grau:
You’ve been working with performances for quite some time, but it seems that for a long while you’ve had the desire to move on and do a real play. Writing and directing your own play seems like a big step in your creative evolution. Is that true? Alexandre Singh: ‘Yes, as you rightly point out, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time and secretly, or not so secretly, desiring to do something in a much more traditionally dramatic or narrative medium, such as theatre or film or books.’ Donatien Grau: In a paper on your project published by Witte de With, you’re described as a writer and artist. Is this a way for you to leave the field of the visual arts, or to go back to it in another way? Alexandre Singh: ‘This is probably changing, but people just assume that if an artist creates a work that is a play, or something else that involves text, that they didn’t write it themselves, because we tend not to consider artists as being primarily literary. But I wanted to make it clear that the text is really important to me. It’s a bit difficult for people outside of the visual arts to understand that visual artists aren’t just painters and sculptors.’ Donatien Grau: Do you have a different idea of what an artist is than the art world itself? How do you define an artist? Alexandre Singh: ‘I was talking about the artist within the context of contemporary visual art – which in itself, what does that mean? I would say it’s the kind of people whose work is reviewed in Frieze or Artforum. And who makes up this system? The word “artist” is a broad term that means, especially in France, many more things than “visual art”, which is also limited in terms of expectations, of what you can do. That is what is disappointing. For such a supposedly “free” medium, we actually have rather prescribed expectations of visual artists.’ Donatien Grau: What do you want people to expect from you? Alexandre Singh: ‘That’s the problem. If you raise expectations too much, you’re going to disappoint, but I would hope that...’ Donatien Grau: What do you want people to expect from The Humans? Alexandre Singh: ‘That’s a good point. I don’t know what they’ll expect. I’ll hope, and there’s no reason at all that I will necessarily be able to deliver this, that it will be an entertaining, thought-provoking, rich theatre experience that doesn’t feel like a visual artist experimenting with the idea of theatre. If I were writing this in an email, I’d put quotation marks around “idea of theatre”. I hope that it comes across as something valuable that a visual artist has done within that field or within all fields. Rather than being seen as an experiment in the form, it would be just a successful instance of that form.’ Donatien Grau: You just mentioned something really interesting, which is the idea of ‘entertainment’. Alexandre Singh:
‘The thing is, we should define entertainment, because it’s a word just like “art”, or “love”, or “virtue”. It is a very broad word. People have often assumed or ascribed to Woody Allen’s films and intentions a very highbrow, very philosophical, intellectual bent. I don’t know if it’s false modesty, but he often says things along the lines of: “My work is already not very philosophically sophisticated. It’s not something in which I’m an expert. I just happen to be interested in questions of life, love and death, as we all are.” He also said that he has always felt that philosophy itself is entertainment for intellectuals. I agree with him quite strongly. It has a spiritual quality to it, but it is essentially a fun intellectual exercise that is more stimulating than a crossword puzzle, but on a similar bent. In that sense, a Woody Allen film is intellectually entertaining in the same way that a Ridley Scott film is viscerally entertaining. Would you agree or disagree with the idea that the philosophy of – I’ll pick two that I happen to like – Kierkegaard or Schopenhauer is entertaining? Is Socrates entertainment?’ Donatien Grau: Some of Plato’s dialogues are really filled with humour, and it’s quite obvious. For instance, there’s this moment in The Symposium when Alcibiades says something like, “I desperately wanted to have sex with him and he didn’t want to have sex with me.” You have to think, as a reader, that Socrates is an ugly, dirty old man who is broke... and Alcibiades is the most handsome, the wealthiest man in Athens. And all of the characters in The Symposium are totally drunk. Alexandre Singh: ‘We’re essentially praising the quality of the writer’s writing. Take someone like Heidegger, whose writing is often incomprehensible – at least to me. Is that a form of entertainment? Because it’s not practical or useful in the way that a scientific tract possibly might be. Unless the subject of a text is, “Here’s how to lift the world with a lever, but first you need a good place to stand!”, it’s intellectual entertainment. But don’t get me wrong. Entertainment is a wonderful thing.’ Donatien Grau: This goes back to what we were saying earlier about the definition of ‘entertainment’. In the 17th century French theatre, there was this idea that a play should achieve three goals: placere, docere, movere, to please, to teach, to move. Alexandre Singh: ‘This is interesting! In ancient Greek theatre, the director was called the didaskalos, which means “teacher”, from which we get “didactic”. In The Frogs, Aristophanes says that children have teachers and men have poets. There’s this idea that the tragedian is, in some sense, not moral but gives advice to the citizens of the city and to the city itself as a body. He instructs it on how to behave better. You get that sense also in the comedies: as much as they are about slaves falling on their backsides and farting and the requisite gags with the leather phallus, they are also very much about instructing the city to behave better, to pardon the people who participated in an earlier revolution, and so on and so forth, in order not to pay as much attention to hotheads like Cleon.’ Donatien Grau: Is this something you identify with? Alexandre Singh: ‘Not particularly. I don’t really have a strong political or moral message, but I feel like all artists and artworks are playing with different viewpoints and balancing them. Hopefully, a good artwork shows both sides to a question, but in the end, it has to advocate a position. Most narrative works are about ethical and moral choices, or, in other words: How do you live your life? What is life for? How do we get pleasure from it? What is true happiness?’
Donatien Grau: Do you know if the play is going to change the way you produce visual art, and if so, how? Alexandre Singh: ‘Yes it has, although it’s very hard to speak now about what I will do in the future. In one of Tom Stoppard’s plays, a character says that the future perfect is an oxymoron. But speaking about the future in an impossible way, I’ve been quite drawn lately to the idea of making visual artworks that are very traditional in the sense that they work within very conventional frameworks, such as busts, for example. I’m making a few busts that are related to the play. I also started making some works that are essentially prints, coloured in with watercolours. I don’t know if the audience will feel the same, but for me they’re inspired by the tradition of 17th, 18th, 19th century European printmaking, of which there are many examples. People like Daumier, Hogarth, Gilray and countless others. Not that my works are in any way as rich or complex, but they operate within a convention. We understand that this thing framed behind glass is speaking to and attempting to interrogate this tradition, allowing the plays and these other works to be rich and complex and letting the visual artworks be, in a sense, very conservative.’ Donatien Grau: I’ve noticed that several times in this conversation you’ve used the word ‘tradition’. It seems that you actually want to integrate that, to enter in a dialog with a tradition. It seems also that this tradition with which you are entering a dialogue is broader than just the contemporary or the modernist tradition. Alexandre Singh: ‘Other people might disagree, but I think that the simplest, and perhaps only, way to really create a work of art is to work within a tradition, because otherwise you are expending all of your efforts in reinventing the wheel. It’s like an architect who decides “I’m going to build a house, but I’m not going to use brick, concrete or glass because I want to push the envelope on this one”. I would argue that it will be easier to push the envelope if you use bricks and glass. There are many less problems that you have to fix or solutions that you have to come up with. What’s more, you already have a starting point. I’ll continue my analogy. The architect is asked to make a sports hall, or a stadium. Right away, the building has a function and there’s a tradition. So there’s a visual repertoire to draw upon. He will be able to make an interesting choice based on accepting or rejecting previous decisions made for instance when building the Stade de France in Paris. I think that analogy holds true for most works of art. I’ve actually found lately that I don’t really read any art criticism or art history criticism, or for that matter, criticism of architecture. Now, I find poetry criticism to be very valuable, because I think poetry and the way people were thinking about poetry at the beginning of the 20th century is very similar to the questions one has when making art in the early 21st century. Especially the work of T. S. Eliot, but all poets really. There was a moment, I guess, in the early 20th century where poetry had many strong traditions that had lasted for thousands of years. Basic formal structures such as meter, rhyme, verse, and then traditions such as the sonnet, pastoral poetry, love poetry, elegiac poetry, the epic, which was wonderfully subverted by Alexander Pope. And then, in the early 20th century, many new possibilities opened up, so people had the opportunity of using free verse, of not rhyming, of not using a verse structure. There was a question as well: If you can do anything, what is the value, what is the point of doing something?
To some extent, we have that in visual art now. What’s attractive to me about plays and films is that they have their own conventions. Take cinema, for example. Usually a film lasts 90 to 120 minutes. It doesn’t have to, but it often has a three-act emotional arc. And it usually has, but not always, characters that are human beings: they walk around, sounds come out of their mouths. They have problems, and the problems are either resolved or not resolved by the end of the film. But when you walk into any artist’s studio anywhere in the world, there’s no expectation of anything. That’s a lot of pressure. So, like Archimedes said, give me a lever and I will move the whole world. But first I’ve got to find somewhere to stand.’ Alexandre Singh - The Humans World premiere Stadsschouwburg, Rotterdam, 28 & 29 September 2013
THIS ARTICLE WAS PUBLISHED IN METROPOLIS M NO 6-2012
Alexandre Singh: The Humans By Amira Gad http://performamagazine.tumblr.com/post/66897354062/alexandre-singh-the-humans
The Humans tells the story of two spirits named Tophole and Pantalingua, who would rather see the Earth not created. The work is modeled on the comic writings of Aristophanes and set during the dawn of time and space. In a battle against the egomaniacal Creator, Tophole and Pantalingua conspire their way to an accidental Paradise Lost, ultimately corrupting the eponymous humans—portrayed as a vast, songful, and statuesque Greek chorus—into the flawed mortals we are today. That’s the story behind The Humans, a theatrical production imagined, written, and directed by visual artist and writer Alexandre Singh. While the story is one that would already incite us to go see the play, it surely offers us more: from the sensational visual aesthetics of the set design true to the work of an artist to many more surprises in the music, dances, costumes and more. Though The Humans has all the ingredients of conventional theatrical play, it is somewhat atypical. The structure of the play is one of a Greek comedy, but its style is not: The servants try to upset their masters, but no matter what plan they come up with, it never works out. In a way, each character in the play embodies its own theatrical style, as with the character of MsChief, a reference to kabuki theater. The character of Charles Ray, on the other hand, is quite Aristophanic and makes use of Shakespearean verse. The masks that the Humans wear are inspired by Commedia dell’ arte. The story in general, but in particular the character of Tophole, makes the play as a whole quite “Woody Allenesque.”
Contributing to the dynamic visual nature of the play are the costumes designed by Holly Waddington. The costumes of the statues (consisting of the Chorus, who later become the Humans) are a mixture of images of Hellenic bas-reliefs and traditional classical Greek costumes, and later on in the play, the costumes of the chorus-turned-human are inspired by James Gilray, Daumier for their masks, and 1830s-style Parisian dress. The identity of each character is strengthened by their costumes: Charles Ray, N and MsChief are inspired from the Elizabethan era; Pantaligua from 1920s artistocrats; Vernon is vaguely inspired by characters such as Dottore from Commedia Dell’Arte and Tartouffe by Molière. The play starts with Gregorian music, then has a 19th-century waltz, followed by some Baroque references, and continues into the swinging thirties, big band, barbershop and Rameau as the final song. Not to be dismissed is the live (folly) sound element to assist the story throughout the play. The play includes nine songs in total, all lyrics are written by Singh (the music is composed and arranged by Gerry Arling, Touki Delphine (Rik Elstgeest and Bo Koek) in collaboration with Annelinde Bruijs, Robbert Klein, and Amir Vahidi)—and each one of them remain buzzing in your ear, making you wish you had them on record. The choreography of the play is conceived by Flora Sans and is mainly based on three styles: Baroque, Contemporary, and Lindy Hop. Throughout the play, there is a visible evolution in styles, but also within each dance there is an evolution between the beginning and the end of that dance. During the first part of the play, the choreography focuses on Baroque dance and poses of Greek statues. There is an obvious switch (during the Toilet song), a key moment when the statues become human, for which the style used is Lindy Hop. In each scene, Flora Sans creates a subtext by complementing the story with gestural and dance moves.
There are more than 50 people involved in the play, and this excludes the crucial work of a dozens more volunteers, production and technical assistants. The Humans counts seven principles, 12 chorus members, a choreographer, 11 persons on the creative team, two in makeup, a costume designer with a team of 12 assistants, a producer, and more than 12 people working on the set and props. Singh, who was born in Bordeaux, France to Indian and French parents, was brought up in Manchester before studying Fine Arts at the University of Oxford. The play has been ruminating in his mind since high school. It also has been in the mind of curator Defne Ayas since they first met in New York in 2005. And so, when she took up her post as Director of Witte de With in 2012, this was the first project she wanted to realize. For Singh, this play is not only a bold move but it is also a new step in his professional career: He has done many one-man performances, or lecture-performances, but never until now a play, and one of this scale which surely marks his debut as a theater director. Though one would mention that his approach in developing this play does not necessarily step far away from the way he is used to working: Singh’s work derives at once from traditions in literature, performance, photo-conceptualism, and object-based installation art. All this also transpires in The Humans. In April 2012, Alexandre Singh relocated to Rotterdam upon invitation by Defne Ayas, Director of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art (and Curator at Large of Performa) to develop his play. At this stage, The Humans had been played out in Singh’s mind but not yet in practice. From April 2012 to January 2013, Singh transformed Witte de With’s exhibition spaces into his workshop, studio, script room. And from January 2013 to present, Singh continued working on the play and its production from a studio in Rotterdam. Throughout this period, Singh developed his research that would feed into the realization of his play, and shared this through thematic and monthly public events that took place at Witte de With in the program Causeries. Taking its title from the French verb causer—to converse or chat—the Causeries were set up as a series of discussions in which Singh expanded on The Humans’ key themes, ranging from cosmology and cosmogony to satire, theatrical costumes, and scatology as well as key inspirational figures such as Aristophanes, Alexander Pope, P.G. Wodehouse, William Hogarth, John Ruskin, South Park, and Woody Allen. Rather than discursive events in the well-known format of a conference or a symposium, the Causeries were conceived as informal conversations between the artist and an expert in a given field. Much of these discussions have been instrumental in writing the script or inspirational in the development of characters, or even the look of the masks. After 18 months (and counting) of production, The Humans had its world premiere in Rotterdam on September 28, 2013 at the Rotterdamse Schouwburg; The Humans premieres in the U.S. tonight at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of Performa 13. While we may still be able to catch the play in other cities around the world in the upcoming years, The Humans will also morph into a video installation, including a number of props that would be presented in Singh’s exhibitions. His forthcoming exhibition in January 2014 at Sprüth Magers in London will show the masks. Amira Gad is the Managing Curator at Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam. All photos courtesy of Witte de With.
www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/oh-charley-charley-charley-alexandresinghs-the-humans/ November 14, 2013
Oh! Charley, Charley, Charley: Alexandre Singh’s The Humans by William S. Smith Find this article online: www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-features/news/oh-charley-charley-charley-alexandresinghs-the-humans/
Alexandre Singh: The Humans, 2013. Photo Richard Termine.
In his solo performances, Alexandre Singh often assumes the persona of a slick motivational speaker. Using nothing more than an overhead projector and stacks of transparencies, he charts webs of connections between far-flung images and texts. Over the course of a lecture that meanders between authority and irony, or in one of his flowchart-like artworks, he might show how "Sex and the City" and "Grey's Anatomy" are predetermined by the work of Lord Byron and Oscar Wilde. Singh mines the deep structures of culture, those core narratives and beliefs that persist over time even as the surface features of art and literature change to satisfy fickle tastes. Still, his work seems to be less about establishing a theory of everything so much as reveling in the paradoxes, tangents and idiosyncrasies that spiral outward from the attempt to systematize something as unsystematic as human culture. So it actually seems logical, even necessary, that Singh's practice would develop into a sprawling theatrical production. The Humans, with a cast of dozens, had its U.S. premiere at BAM's Fisher Theater as part of Performa (through Nov. 17), having been produced at Witte de With in Rotterdam in September. The Humans teems with giddy ambition. Ostensibly about the creation of mankind, the part opera, part allegorical play is concerned with the basic infrastructure of human society: ethics, religion, science, philosophy, good and evil. This sounds like heady stuff, and it is, but Singh's production adheres to the Brechtian proposition that the first responsibility of theater
is to entertain. So we witness what is essentially a narrative primer on Nietzsche punctuated by lively song-and-dance numbers and slapstick routines. One imagines that the whole production began as a diagram. A core opposition between the Dionysian and the Apollonian is reflected in Singh's symmetrical set design. Verdant stage right is overseen by N (Flora Sans), a full-figured bunnylike creature who communicates in flamboyant body language and spends her days in a giant outhouse. Stage left is the staid realm of sculptor Charles Ray (Phillip Edgerley). He is the logician, the space-measurer, the creator of man. His ash-colored studio looks like a tidy version of D端rer's Melancholia 1, filled with masonry tools, instruments of learning, and the requisite dodecahedron. From her outhouse throne, the bunny-woman produces great rivers of excrement; out of Ray's studio come statuesque human automatons who live only to toil and obey. A towering mountain of fractured polygons divides the stage, ensuring that these two poles of existence remain forever separate. From the beginning, though, the balance of this static dichotomy is thrown off and a narrative set in motion by the offspring of the bunny and the sculptor. The demigods Pantalingua and Tophole have inherited mixtures of their forbears' qualities. The beautiful Pantalingua (Elizabeth Cadwallader) is as articulate, rational and self-assured as Ray, but shares her mother's pugnacious streak. Tophole (Sam Crane) is the kind of authoritarian subject one finds in most Hugh Grant films: neurotic and lovesick but essentially obedient. Together they plot to subvert the divine plan of Voxday, the omnipotent force (possibility just a misunderstood cat) that has blessed the world with air conditioning, demands offerings of milk, and issues commands discernible in leftover espresso grounds. All of this and more is exposited in the first 30 minutes of the three-hour performance, mostly in rapid-fire Oxbridge banter between Pantalingua and Tophole. At times one worries whether the vast scope established at the outset might devolve into a great mess in the hands of a first-time director with a well-used library card and lot on his mind. In a recent interview, Singh defended the conventional narrative structure of the work: "I challenge anyone to write an opera from scratch . . . it's just as difficult as making an avant-garde piece." Yet what holds The Humans together is precisely that Singh didn't begin with an empty page. This tale of creation-of starting anew-is as familiar as they come, and Singh has filtered his script through a great cultural sieve. The anachronistic world created on stage leans heavily on Greek theater, the Bible, Shakespeare, Milton and Mozart. There are direct quotes from these sources, but mostly the script contains subtle echoes of familiar passages. These serve as reminders that while this territory is plotted out, the tale of creation is still the most compelling story we have. So we return again and again to freshen it up, to make it newly entertaining. It helps that the performance is genuinely funny, and that the script's fluid transitions between vernacular speech and flights of Romantic poetry are performed by professional actors. Ray's cadre of humans-a Greek chorus and later a jazzed-up chorus line-sing wonderfully. (They are virtuosic, not just good relative to most "deskilled" performance art.) The humans may be the supporting cast for most of the performance, but they are also the show's real protagonists. They are us, after all, as a few poignant fourth-wall-penetrating glares from the stage affirm. We cheer when the stiff plaster creatures with numbers for names revolt against their servile fates. The rupture occurs when the Dionysian and the
Apollonian realms are joined in a profound scatological cataclysm-the high and low point of the production. The humans' bowels evacuated, they become craven, but essentially loveable, creatures pursuing newly discovered desires and intellectual faculties. Donning grotesque masks evocative of James Ensor or Otto Dix paintings, the humans fumble their way through the Enlightenment, goaded on by the tyrannical Vernon (Ryan Kiggell). What follows is a tender vision of ugly, idiot humanity. The show's misanthropy is always upbeat, even-or especially-when we know we are implicated. If the initial diagram were to be redrawn over the long arc of The Humans it might show how the Apollonian and the Dionysian have been transformed, through the interventions of the demigods, random accidents and the missteps of humanity, into the new concepts of good and evil. Yes, this is an opera about the human condition, one that grapples with curse of being and the horror of nothingness. We might groan at that idea, though it should really be inspiring that one young artist has given himself license to take up these threads. By raising the issues he does, Singh affirms that they belong to a common cultural inheritance, not just an aristocratic tradition. The Humans doesn't offer new questions (much less answers) about life and philosophy, but it succeeds in underscoring how urgent the old ones remain.
Human, All Too Human by Hili Perlson | 21.11.2013 |
Alexandre Singh, The Humans. Photo by Sanne Peper. Courtesy of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art Alexandre Singh’s performance piece describes a revolution from the guts In a production commissioned by the performance art biennial Performa 13 and Rotterdam’s Witte de With, artist and writer Alexandre Singh makes his debut as theatre director with a thickly woven, multi-referential and entertainingly surreal creation myth. The play in three acts pours an abbreviated history of Western thought, from philosophy to science and art, into three hours, while the history of theatre itself and the medium of performance serve as key sources for quotation: here, the mood is modelled on the comedies of Aristophanes, with their brash, often bawdy, satirical components. The plot is set in a half-formed world on a distant island, divided into Apollonian and Dionysian territories – the former controlled by sculptor Charles Ray, and the latter by the rabbit queen Madame Nesquik. A mysterious being referred to by island inhabitants as Vox Dei is revered by all, as it leaves behind cryptic messages in the form of hairballs floating in milk, which only the educated can decipher. A black cat also lives on the island. Two spirits named Tophole and Pantalingua conspire to prevent the creation of the universe that the hairball “commands” seem to orchestrate, but instead of averting it, they add the element of
chaos to the space / time continuum, accidentally bringing about the birth of mankind, the titular Humans, who came into being as perfect sculptures made by Charles Ray, and who also constitute the play’s (slightly annoying) chorus. The neurotic Tophole is Ray’s maladroit apprentice, and his manner and appearance pay homage to Woody Allen. He falls in love with Pantalingua, daughter of Queen N, who is, in turn, experiencing an existential and theological crisis. Projecting their messy emotions on Ray’s perfect sculptures, they teach one statuesque human to void his bowels, leading to the human’s sudden surge of pain at the experience of hunger, emptiness, lust and want. What ensues is the humans’ revolt against Ray, who they slaved for, and orgiastic indulgence in carnal matters and in corruptive power, culminating, inevitably, in murder and injustice.
Alexandre Singh, The Humans. Photo by Sanne Peper. Courtesy of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art The superb set design and costumes draw from too many sources to list, but the appearance of the humans post-fall from grace merits particular mention as they’re modelled after grotesque figures straight out of Daumier, Grosz and Dix paintings. Once this connection between material physiology and ideology is established, a material reading can also be applied to Singh’s deployment of the bowel movement as a motor for revolt. It recalls a literal reading of materialism in Georg Büchner’s plays, who, before Marx and Engels, came to the provocative conclusion that the hunger of the proletariat must not be alleviated as it is the only impetus for revolution. The very beginning of body politics seems to originate in the intestines. Or as Francis Bacon warned in 1609, “the rebellions of the belly are the worst.” But revolution, like science, follows its own momentum, unconcerned with its consequences.
Alexandre Singh, “The Humans”, is touring to Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), during Performa 13, New York, November 2013 13.performa-arts.org www.wdw.nl
THEATER Alexandre Singh
by David Levine Nov 12, 2013
David Levine and Alexandre Singh discuss the playwriting process, stage excretions, and traversing the art-theater divide.
All images are from The Humans, 2013. All images courtesy of the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Photos by Sanne Peper.
In the week before its premiere at BAM, theater director-turned-artist David Levine spoke with artist-turned-theater director Alexandre Singh about recreating classical theater in Singh’s play, The Humans, which will run from November 13 through November 17 as part of Performa 13. DAVID LEVINE Was the genesis of The Humans a question of somebody commissioning you to do a play out of the blue, or had you been wanting to do something like this? ALEXANDRE SINGH I’ve been wanting to do something like this for a long, long time—seven or eight years. I got an email out of the blue from Defne Ayas saying that she had a mysterious new job—the nature of which she wouldn’t reveal—and did I have any large projects that I wanted to do. I said “Yes, I’ve always wanted to do this play,” so she invited me to Rotterdam, gave me the space and the time, and most importantly, the incentive and deadline, to actually produce the play. All of the pieces I’ve made in the last eight or ten years have been steps in a process of learning how to craft stories in more orthodox genres, with the aim of moving towards theater and film, perhaps something even like opera—but traditional dramatic genres. I’m friends with this amazing novelist, Benjamin Hale, and we share a passion for cinema. He decided he wouldn’t go down that avenue because he enjoys the act of crafting the entire world as it were, by himself, and not being compromised by the stress of having to work with a lot of people. I definitely share that feeling when I’m in the middle of a huge production, but I think it’s something that suits my megalomaniacal qualities: I like to interfere in everything.
DL What is the allure of conventional narrative for you? That tends to be a real issue in a visual arts context. If something seems too much like a straight fiction, it can be faulted. Were you criticized for being too classical? AS Recreating classical theater is not easy in any way. I challenge anybody to write an opera from scratch—it’s a very difficult thing to do, just as difficult as making an avant-garde piece. But I really do think that human beings are very narrative creatures and even in mediums that are considered very formal and abstract, those mediums communicate to their audience, not just through the splashes of paint on the canvas, but very much through the narratives of the people that created them. One of the reasons that there’s been a long hangover since Romanticism that has bled into Modernism, has been that we’ve conflated the biographies of the artists with their sacrificial and exultant attempts at reaching the sublime via their abstract works. We’ve created a narrative out of that. You can’t look at a Jackson Pollock without thinking of the method by which it was created and of his biography and the myth and romance around it. I think people who believe or dogmatically think that there is a space for culture that is not narrative are to some extent deluding themselves. DL I concur. Do you consider The Humans a classical or conventional drama? AS Well, it’s conventional. It’s not Chekhov, Wilde or Coward, even though they have a small influence on it. It’s perhaps closer to Shakespeare or to Greek theater in the sense that it mixes musical elements and choreography into the story—you don’t see much dancing in Oscar Wilde, but it’s a very traditional three-act story. In fact, in the very beginning of the play there is a group of white foam letters that are placed on the stage which declare Act I, and all three acts acts are punctuated by an induction scene. The Humans is probably as much influenced by novels as by actual theater. I’m sure it seems quite strange for a visual artist to say this, but I often prefer reading plays to seeing them. Maybe that’s the directorial side—to enjoy imagining the staging. DL Reading plays for me was always even more difficult than seeing them. They just seemed so flat on the page. If I couldn’t think them through materially, I didn’t enjoy reading them at all. So, how did Charles Ray wind up in this? AS I wanted to make a story about the Apollonian and Dionysian divide, because I think it’s such an interesting topic that you find woven throughout history and on to Nietzsche. I thought there was really that kind of quality in Mozart’s The Magic Flute and also in Shakespeare’s The Tempest.
I also wanted to make a work about a creator as some sort of Pygmalion-like character. I thought it would be amusing to do it in the same way that Aristophanes would choose a contemporary character to play a living sculptor. I admire Charles Ray enormously as a sculptor. His interest is in the classical. He’s one of the few people who, if you hear him speak, will talk about how a sculpture touches the ground about issues of weight and demarcation of space. He’s also someone who is very interested in Greek statuary and often talks about how that’s an important part of his work, so it makes sense for this kind of character. DL So he’s the Prospero figure in your play? AS Exactly.
DL In terms of the plot, I know there are two characters and that they rebel against God. AS The story begins with Tophole,the apprentice or son of Charles Ray—the very austere, Prospero-like figure—and Pantalingua, the daughter and assistant to the chocolate bunny, who is constantly rubbing sexual energy onto plants and animals, fecundating the world. Now, Pantalingua’s mother can’t speak because she’s so much of an object of nature, so irrational and sensual and effeminate that she speaks through dance and her daughter interprets her. Pantalingua is a very P.G. Woodhouse, Oscar Wilde type character, a very flighty aristocrat, and Tophole is a very nervous, wretched, Woody Allen type character. Charles Ray sounds like he’s been plucked out of Shakespeare—he speaks for the large majority of the play in iambic pentameter. He has been tasked by an unseen creator called Voxday (we never use the word God throughout the entire play) to do various tasks including making human beings. Charles Ray believes that Voxday communicates to him through secret signs: balls of regurgitated hair and scratch marks and strange messages left in the bottom of his coffee cup. The human beings at the beginning of the story are perfect doll automatons that look like Greek statues. Pantalingua believes that creating an entire universe and then asking the beings created to witness this act of creation is an act of egotism and vanity, so she decides to rebel against Voxday and seeks to frustrate every one of his orders. Meanwhile, the audience becomes aware that there is a cat walking about on the stage. It seems to be interfering in the story but the cat isn’t necessarily very cunning or motivated, it’s really just a cat. The audience understands then that what the characters believe to be Voxday is just a cat. So Pantalingua rebels against him, which seems to backfire.
The most important moment is in the middle of Act II, when Pantalingua corrupts the human beings by having Thirty-one—the human being that Tophole made—take a shit on stage. Not an actual shit though, a cloth one. Thirty-one then feels hungry for the first time and all of the human desires for sex, power, knowledge, and so forth, enter into him and he leads the rest of the chorus into the outhouse where they all excrete and come out corrupted. From this moment on, all of the chorus don grotesque caricature masks. As they become more human—more individualistic and rapacious—they become less human theatrically, through these masks. Then hilarity ensues through the rest of the story. DL You guarantee that? AS Well, hilarity and some turmoil. DL And the Tophole-Pantalingua relationship is . . . ? AS It’s a little love story. I don’t want to give away the story too much but they become powerful figures in their own mythology. DL So, you said you’ve had both violent criticism and some praise? AS I wasn’t expecting people in theater to be so ideological. While I have spent more time in visual art, I don’t really consider myself a visual artist or say that I’m of that world. I’m not more interested in art than any other medium. I assumed that people would be open-minded, and because theater is such a craft-based genre it’s quite clear if it’s really well-acted or really well-written, regardless of whether I care or don’t care about the costumes or these things. But, when I was pitching the project to people, they would immediately be very skeptical about whether a visual artist could do theater, and they worried that I wouldn’t understand what it means to have a captive audience. I’m not just going to come in with some strong visual ideas and it’s going to be five hours long and you’ll spend the whole time yawning. I love the craft, and I’m eager to make something that’s entertaining and seductive. But they would frown and say “Oh, we don’t like that kind of theater, we were hoping you’d suggest something more experimental,” which to me seems rather contradictory. DL Well, what’s interesting about this project institutionally is that, ultimately, visual artists and theater people will wind up sitting in the same room together, watching your piece. AS If you make a work in any medium that’s strong enough, it speaks across mediums and you don’t need to categorize the person that’s making it. You just say, “Do you like Woody Allen?” Whatever he does it’s totally infused with his character and worldview. That’s the kind of thing to aim for, for creative people. DL Do you have different kinds of anxieties then, about approaching an opening in a new medium or do you just feel like it’s another exhibition? AS The play is a labor of love into which I poured an unbelievable amount of energy over the last two years. It’s something that’s very precious to me and very fragile because it can fail at any moment. I think that, large projects aside, most works of art are more like sketches or propositions—it’s the difference between writing an opera or writing a two minute pop song. So, I’m not as nervous and anxious about the success of individual works of art, because I have different expectations for them. DL It’s true that a work of art can survive as a gesture, pointing toward the conceptual, whereas a play is the thing itself. You’re kind of stuck with it, but so are your spectators, so there’s also this element of the captive and potentially enraged audience. The thing about sending work off to an art fair is that at a fair, nobody is paying any particular attention and for the most part, they haven’t paid good money to imprison themselves in a dark room with no coffee.
AS Yeah, and if they don’t like it they just walk away. DL They’re not aimed at your work the same way that they are in a theater. AS Well, audience members walk out of theaters all the time, especially in London apparently. DL See, in America they never do. There’s another element to this, more a problem of audience or of architecture than a particular kind of stagecraft. One major difference, and I wonder how this is going to fare for you, is that one of the great things about staging at The Globe or pre-Realist staging—i.e. before the invention of “the fourth wall”—is that the performer can actually address an audience directly with the shared conviction that they all occupy the same room. What happens now though is—regardless of Alexandre Singh’s beliefs—you still have an audience that believes very strongly in the fourth wall. BAM’s theater isn’t built like The Globe—we all carry around a fourth wall inside our heads—and you guys are still performing in a more conventional proscenium arrangement. I think the real challenge would be to figure out how to preserve this Greek or Shakespearian idea where you aren’t pretend speaking to the audience, but you are actually speaking to the audience, when the audience no longer experiences things that way. Does that make sense? AS Yes and no. Because I’m drawing on a particular type of theater, certain characters behave in a certain way. For example, the character Charles Ray plays is Shakespearian, but he’s also very French-Baroque, in the sense that he is very frontal. He very much addresses the audience directly and uses very stylized gestures. All of the masked characters are working in strict frontality and communicating with the audience in the typical commedia fashion. The commedia actor is playing like a cartoon, to the camera, as it were. You think about Wile E. Coyote looking into the camera and looking frustrated because he can’t catch the Road Runner. And the stage itself is very pictorial, though not a barebones experience like in The Globe. DL Would you do another play? The Humans, as described, seems like a sort of grand or metaphysical statement. What could another play possibly be after this? AS I have many, many ideas. Every story suggests different approaches in terms of staging. I’d also like to make films, another medium that has its own rules and regulations. I’m more interested in the stories really, than in the forms. The story suggests a form. DL One more question. Did you do the sets?
AS Yes. DL This is always an interesting question: did you farm it out to a scene shop, or did you use fabricators? Did you employ a theatrical apparatus or an art apparatus to get it built? AS Some of the scenography was built by Jessica Tankard, who is a young architect in Rotterdam. After making plans, it’s nice to work with someone who can actually build. Working with theatrical fabricators is just like working with art fabricators, there’s no real difference. The prop department approach was a lot like art, and I was also essentially the art director—which, I should mention, I would never, ever do again because I think writing and directing and doing the props and the masks is too much. In the future, I’d really like to work with an art director on the scenography, because if they understand that I am quite a tyrant in what I want then they might be open to that kind of approach. It was an interesting experience to learn what works in terms of the completely different visual qualities of an object that’s viewed from 50 centimeters away versus an object that’s viewed from 10 or 20 meters away, as well as the level of finish required to make things work in a theatrical space. It’s not enormously different from conceiving of an object to be in a performance. I think it’s more challenging and more interesting actually, making sets. DL Why is it more challenging? AS Because it has to be a more dynamic object and it can’t be precious. It has to be adaptable. For example, when I first sketched the mountain, which is the center of the play, it was really just a sculpture. After speaking with the costume designer Holly Waddington, who has done a bit of theater designing, she made it so clear that this was really a crap set. It just took up space and didn’t do anything. By speaking to her I found a couple of different ways that characters could sit on the mountain, ways that the mountain could come apart and have a multiplicity of uses. Something that anybody who works in theater knows—and that I didn’t—is that there is a real economy to the stage. It’s such a waste of the audience’s attention, energy, and effort to bring on a prop or to build an element of scenography if you don’t really use it enough. The best plays and best use of an object is to get as much mileage as possible, and to use it in one way then subvert it. The economy of that is very satisfying. It’s a bit like poetry: you want to cram in as much information using as few syllables as possible. DL That’s a nice way to put it. Are these sets going to reenter circulation as sculptures? AS No, my original idea was that it would be nice to exhibit them, but actually having made them, they live on a stage. You wouldn’t want to look at them like art objects, they don’t work that way. They crumble and fall apart when you look at them up close.
For more on Alexandre Singh and The Humans, click here.
David Levine is an artist and director based in New York and Berlin. His work has been featured in Artforum, Frieze, and Theater. He is currently at work on WOW, an opera about Milli Vanilli, which will debut at BRIC House, in downtown Brooklyn, this January.
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Original Sin, Original Theater by Allison Meier on November 14, 2013
Scene from “The Humans” at BAM (photograph by Richard Termine, all images courtesy Brooklyn Academy of Music) His first foray into full-length theater, artist Alexandre Singh has taken on nothing less than the creation of our world. “The Humans,” which is being presented this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space as part of Performa 13, focuses on attempts to disrupt the formation of the universe through its own constructed reality of pop culture, Greek comedies, Shakespeare, and the sculpture of Charles Ray.
Charles Ray in his studio (photograph by Richard Termine) “It’s not in any sense talking about art and the boundaries between art and theater, it’s really a theatrical play,” Singh told Hyperallergic, emphasizing that although he has mostly worked in visual art and has taken on this new medium, it’s not so much a clash between the two as an evolution of using narratives. For an artist still in his early 30s, Singh has had an impressive visual art career, including an installation at Marfa, group shows at the New Museum and MoMA PS1, and his own exhibition earlier this year at the Drawing Center. Yet since spring of 2012 he’s been grappling with how to merge disparate influences of not just the visual and the textual, but how to get a character from P. G. Wodehouse to interact with one more derivative of Woody Allen neurosis.
Masked humans (photograph by Richard Termine) Singh has done performance lectures before, but this is a show with a 19-person cast and he’s wearing a whole haberdashery’s worth of artistic hats from writer to director to set designer. He developed “The Humans” with Witte de With Contemporary Art in Rotterdam using a gallery of the museum as a workshop from April of 2012 to January of this year, and it had its world premiere there in September. ”I came to really appreciate the value of all the creative team and the collaborators,” he said. “I worked on the set, but essentially I was leading the iconography and the masks and the writing and it became a guerrilla kind of project.” And while the strokes of Singh as the creator are definitely there in those knowing intersections between things like the Commedia dell’arte-esque unsettling masks and the quotes from Milton and spurts of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, there’s also striking influence from the actors who spiritedly embody the characters themselves as well as costuming that is impeccably done by Holly Waddington. “Each of the characters is inspired by a character from a painting or a type,” he said. There’s a universe of characters from James Gilroy, from Honoré Daumier, those inspired by Weimar-era soldiers and prostitutes, there are a couple of characters inspired by Proust, and every character’s costume is very rich and detailed.”
Rabbit and Grecian humans (photograph by Richard Termine) “The Humans,” which opened last night at BAM, consumed the small Fishman auditorium space with a split stage: half a tumbled together forest with a cartoonish tree and outhouse, the other the refined studio of Charles Ray, which serves as a creator of the first people — Grecian automata draped in classical robes and dusted with white powder. (Yes, that is the Charles Ray of contemporary sculpture, who likes to play with proportions, especially those of the human body.) In the center of the set is a mountain peak topped by a suspended air conditioning unit and a can of Nesquik chocolate that tumbles down one side. It’s here that two spirits — the Dionysian “Pantalingua,” whom Singh describes as “very reminiscent of characters from Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse,” and the Apollonian Woody Allen-derived Tophole — rebel against the unseen creator Vox Dei (meaning the voice of God, and here actually being the name for God). They also clash with their parents, with Pantalingua rebelling against her carnal rabbit mother, and Tophole struggling with his inability to please his father Charles Ray.
Tophole and the humans (photograph by Richard Termine) What ensues is described as a sort of “accidental Paradise Lost,” where all the spirits’ attempts to thwart the dawn of creation go haywire and result in the complicated humans we are today. ”If you think of the Miltonian universe, Adam and Eve are as much the children of Satan as God,” Singh said. And the music and the scenery warps along with the corrupted statues of humans, switching from Gregorian chants with blasts of the Litany of the Saints to 1920′s and 30′s swing, just as Charles Ray’s vision of a refined being dedicated to work turns into a hungry beast wanting pleasure and to consume. Experiencing “The Humans” does require some stamina, as it’s a three-hour long play that often dips into follies that can drag a bit long. Yet if you’re interested in theater, the influences of art’s obsession with forms, Shakespeare, Wodehouse, and scatological humor wrapped around a frame of the Greek satire of Aristophanes is an intriguing experiment. It will be interesting to see where Singh, who is established as a visual artist but new to the world of more direct theater, takes this as a next step into his career. As he said of the way he brought in a theater thesis-worth of influences into “The Humans”: “You take what’s appropriate and you draw a new language, and it’s an ancient form. There’s nothing new in the stories, it’s about how you tell it.”
Patalingua (photograph by Richard Termine) The Humans is presented by BAM and Performa at the BAM Fisher Fishman Space (321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn) through November 17 (Photo credit: Richard Termine.)
blogs.artinfo.com/artintheair/2013/11/14/performa-13-milton-goes-musical-in-alexandresinghs-the-humans/ November 14, 2013, 3:47 pm
Performa 13: Milton Goes Musical in Alexandre Singh’s Whimsical “The Humans” 0 Comments
“Thou art now a human being, number 43 in an unlimited edition” proclaims Charles Ray (Phillip Edgerley), one of the demi-gods tasked with populating pre-lapsarian earth in artist Alexandre Singh’s Performa 13 commission “The Humans,” which opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night. A kind of knowing yet earnest musical parody of humankind’s expulsion from Eden told from the perspective of the angels grappling with the immensity of the universe, the consequences of free will, and their own place in the divine hierarchy, Singh’s show tries to put a new spin on a story at least as old as the Old Testament, with very mixed results. The sprawling musical sets out to tackle a ton of material through an irreverent and playful re-imagining of “Paradise Lost,” a forbear Singh acknowledges with multiple Milton
excerpts. Tophole (Sam Crane) and Pantalingua (Elizabeth Cadwallader) are our romantically interested guiding angels in this Edenic allegory, he the disenchanted apprentice and son of Charles Ray, she a philosopher bent on subversion — and the daughter of a mute rabbit goddess named N (Flora Sans). Their efforts to free the humans and then escape the fallen mob’s rebellion are punctuated by appearances by a cat goddess (Simona Bitmaté) — Singh’s apparent nod to the cat meme that currently has the art world in a thrall. “The Humans” looks terrific. From Singh and Jessica Tankard’s cartoon-like set design to Holly Waddington’s costumes — which make very clear nods to classical Greek sculpture, Renaissance-era Flemish painting, and classic Broadway baroque — the production mines art history with great success to create an eclectically stylized yet coherent combination of styles. The chorus has the movements to match, starting out as a troupe of pasty and robotic jointed statues reminiscent of the animatronic fountains at Caesars Palace before transforming into lewd, leering, and lascivious louts whose sculptural masks (also by Singh) evoke Pieter Bruegel’s paintings of drunks.
Some of the musical numbers are exceptional, too, like one in which the upstart human statue, Number 31 (Ryan Kiggell), transforms his cohorts from rigid automatons into fleshy beings — not by introducing them to sex or imparting forbidden knowledge, but by teaching them to shit. The Protestant work ethic send-up “Work Is Good, Work Is Holy,” in which the human statues do the robot in unison while the sculptor character cheekily named after Charles Ray expounds the virtues of industriousness and geometry, is another stand-out. And the late numbers “Better to Be a Bee” and “No Joy Without Terror” epitomize the streak of Monty Python-esque humor running through “The Humans.” The show starts off strong and very funny, and by the three-hour production’s intermission the narrative is chugging along nimbly and very enjoyably. But in the second and third acts,
when the action takes a serious turn and bodies start to pile up, the action slows to a grind. In the end, Singh falls back on an over-written and drawn-out courtroom drama format for a finale, in which the preceding two hours’ actions are all laboriously recapped. For a contemporary re-imagining of an exceedingly familiar story, the final chapter of “The Humans” comes off as incredibly unimaginative — and, as such, quite out of keeping with the foregoing action’s winning whimsy.
Alexandre Singh’s “The Humans” continues at BAM through November 17. — Benjamin Sutton (@bhsutton)
Alexandre Singh, The Humans. Photo by Sanne Peper. Courtesy of Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art
ART SEPTEMBER 9, 2013
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n 2010, Isa Genzken romanced New York with a longstemmed rose—a twenty-eight-foot-tall sculpture installed on the façade of the New Museum. But don’t expect hearts and flowers from the German artist’s retrospective at MOMA, her first in the United States, which will travel to Chicago and Dallas. Genzken’s multifarious output in the four decades since she made her solo début, at Düsselfdorf’s legendary Konrad Fischer gallery, has defied categorization, from the long
wooden “Ellipsoids” that she made in the heyday of minimalism to the flotsam-and-jetsam assemblages for which she’s best known. (The influence of these radically hybridized pieces on younger artists is incalculable.) It’s tempting to view Genzken’s career as a feminist deflation of the power dynamics of the male-dominated art world, but to do so would be to rob her work of its Delphic complexity. As Genzken has said, “There is nothing worse in art than ‘You see it and you know it.’ Many artists seem to work from a theory that they invent . . . a theory they never deviate from. That’s a certainty I don’t like.” (Opens Nov. 23.)
The superb Swiss-French painter Balthus (1908-2001)—notorious for his portraits of Lolita-age girls and fond of self-portraits in the guise of a feline—once sent a telegram to the Tate, on the eve of his retrospective there: “NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS B.”
One wonders what he would make of the Met’s “Balthus: Cats and
Girls—Paintings and Provocations.” (Opens Sept. 25.)
Memorialized in fiction and film, Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” is one of the world’s best-loved pictures. It comes to the Frick—along with masterpieces by Rembrandt and Hals—on loan from Holland’s Royal Picture Gallery, the Mauritshuis. The Vermeer, which has not been seen in New York since 1984, will take center stage—the only work installed in the museum’s Oval Room. Tickets are available now through the Frick and through Telecharge. (Opens Oct. 22.)
It’s not breaking news that performance has migrated from the margins of contemporary art to the center. (Two words: Marina Abramovic.) That shift is due in no small part to Performa, New York’s biennial of live events, founded in 2005 by the art historian RoseLee Goldberg. Expect some hundred productions spread out across forty venues, including the U.S. première of works by Alexandre Singh and by Jérôme Bel and Theatre Hora. (Opens Nov. 1.) PHOTOGRAPH: PAUL HOPPE; ICONS: JOOHEE YOON
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Metro Pictures Artists Exhibitions News Publications Info
Alexandre Singh • News • Bio • Selected Press • View Images • View Thumbnails
"The Pledge," installation view, 2013. The Drawing Center, New York. • News • Bio • Selected Press
The Humans(play) Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam Grote Zaal, Rotterdamse Schouwburg, Rotterdam September 28, 2013 September 29, 2013 at 1:30 PM Traveling to: Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) / Performa, New York November 13 – 17, 2013
On Truth (and Lies) in Greek Comedy(artist talk) BAM Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York November 17, 12:30 - 2 PM www.bam.org
Black Sun(group show) Devi Foundation, New Delhi November 9 - February 23, 2013 www.deviartfoundation.org
The Phenomenon of Image and Writing: Typography and Art in the 60s(group show) Städtische Galerie, Karlsruhe November 8 - February 23, 2014
La Tyrannie des Objets(group show) Galerie des Galeries, Paris October 16 - January 4, 2014 www.galeriedesgaleries.com
Despite Our Differences(group show) Fondation Hippocrene, Paris October 8 - December 15, 2013 www.fondation-hippocrene.fr
Meurice Prize 2013/2014(group show) Le Meurice, Paris October 7 - January 4, 2014 www.prixmeurice.com
La Biennale de Lyon(group show) La Sucrière and Le mac Lyon, France September 12, 2013 - January 5, 2014 www.labiennaledelyon.com
La Vie Matérielle(group show) Fondation d'Entreprise Ricard, Paris September 6 - November 2, 2013 www.fondation-entreprise-reicard.com
Jetzeit + La Espalda del Angel(group show) Art Center La Panera, Spain May 18 - October 10, 2013 www.lapanera.cat
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