“Saint Genet [by Jean-Paul Sartre] is a cancer of a book, grotesquely verbose, its cargo of brilliant ideas borne aloft by a tone of viscous solemnity and ghastly repetitiveness.” –Susan Sontag in Against Interpretation and Other Essays
“The practice of writing, as described in Genet’s novels, is a mode of destabilization and disruption, a means by which to render conventional narrative forms and representational economies strange…” Elizabeth Stephens in Queer Writing: Homoeroticism in Genet’s Fiction
St. Genet’s Paradisiacal Rites is a lavishly macabre, ultra-sensory opus of sound, theater, comedy, conceptual art, sculptural installation, video projection, dance and opera that was presented by On the Boards May 17-19, 2013. It is a sprawling, two-hour-plus extravaganza of dramatic spectacle. And it may or may not have any interest in taking place in front of an engaged audience.
Despite elements of showmanship, the punishing process for the performers of getting through Rites does, in many ways, fulfill the purpose of the work. The context of the stage enables the performers to put on heightened personas, to get rampantly inebriated, to anesthetize through nitrous oxide—and it provides an acceptable platform to behave in ways that would be reprehensible in other situations. As players in a created universe, spitting wine in your colleague’s eyes is dehumanizing and degrading, yes. It’s also ritualized disorientation—the individual making way for process. And at the core of St. Genet is the belief that the creative act is a process of expressing pain and desperation as the only alternative to complete annihilation.
Setting the scene
The room is filled with a sound like zillions of electrons colliding. This sound is trance-inducing and creates a sense of never ending anxiety. Headless quails endlessly spin on meat hooks like disembodied dervishes. A wheat field gently waves vertically instead of side-to-side, as if there is a wind, a movement of ghosts from underneath the ground. It is at once pastoral and horrified, like stalks like hair standing up on the end of crawling skin. A fresh grave to the side is quiet and as looming as a memento mori from Renaissance-era paintings. Next to it little cubes of earth undulate and glow. In video contoured figures that “stalk” back and forth are anonymous voids that vigilantly stare out into more void. The tone is sinister and surreal, escalating the heartbeat.
Peopled in this landscape are the elaborately costumed, over-the-top, Mathew Barney-esque characters of this play. They exist in a more grounded state than the dreamlike landscape, but feel less authentic, brimming with a kind of forced gravitas. A brooding, drinking Harlequin-type sulks amid the wheat field, where beings with spiky, metallic spheres for heads move in orbit, their hands scanning the grain tops like supernatural healers. A carny with his belly exposed inflates and deflates a balloon filled with nitrous oxide, a double hit of hyperventilation and gaseous lightheadedness that makes him shake uncontrollably. A saintlike figure sits docilely inside a votive niche, ornately carved and richly adorned in bowers, as a woman in an old-fashioned currier uniform douses her in flour, wine, and honey. Front and center is Ryan Mitchell, the “Creator” of this work and this alternate universe, sitting in a wicker chair and antiquated Victorian dress, officiating with a pastor’s raised palm and stern voice. Someone combs his hair for him. He drinks from goblets and is distressed. The histrionics are thick, and the piece hasn’t officially started yet.
There is no narrative through-line, but there is a protagonist figure in the Harlequin, played by Darren Dewse. This dandified boy has memorized a list of Academy Award winners throughout history but has also witnessed his lover beaten to the point of urinating himself. “His face was covered in a veil of spit, blood, and mucous, sitting in a potpourri of piss.” In this way the subject matter heavily identifies itself with the homoerotic themes of novelist Jean Genet, his crude and violent aesthetic sensibilities as developed from his life as a hard-on-his-luck orphan-turned-criminal.
Textually, the work clearly operates within a post-structural framework drawing specifically from writings about Genet’s work by famed existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre. In the book St. Genet, he purports that Genet’s early childhood trauma compels his writing to function as a means to pick up the shattered pieces of his life. The creative act is a journey towards catharsis, though perhaps not one that is ever reached.
For Mitchell violence and beauty are inseparable and constantly shifting. A raging party of drinking from punctured beer cans and grinding on each other devolves further into repeatedly depantsing the protagonist in an increasingly cruel manner; but the same world contains the haunting, abstracted grace of dancers in transparent white shifts spinning themselves into ecstasy. It’s a physical embodiment of the way Sartre’s contemporaries Jaques Derrida and Roland Barthes destabilized conceptions of language by questioning the authority of concrete meanings that could be derived from language structures. The many modes of Rites is, in a sense, less about its enigmatic spectacle and more about its inability to trust in the authority of any single medium to preside over heavy, sometimes grandiose, ideas about religious death rites, the origin of divinity, our human capacity for violence, and fatalism in the face of the inevitable conclusion of life.
Visually, the work has the sumptuousness of films like those by Bill Viola—moments slowed way down so that they exist neither as theatrical action nor as tableaux vivants, but some ether space between. I was reminded, in Dewse’s fragile protagonist, specifically of Viola’s piece Emergence, which depicts Jesus’ resurrection as a reverse drowning. He is elegantly and meticulously birthed out of the fountain into the arms of the two Marys—who lovingly and alarmedly reach to cradle him. It magnifies a scene of grief, disparity and disjunction by couching it in ornate scenery and graceful procession. One of these kinds of stunning moments in Rites happened during the second “knee” interlude.
This was also an interlude that operated as an intermission for the audience, when many audience members weren’t present, and many others weren’t observing the action on the stage. The wheat field was being torn down by the crew and harvested in canvas by the auxiliary cast, as the dancers pitter-pattered onstage in ornate masks. With an aching slowness and pristine clarity, they plowed through the remaining pathways of wheat as cast and crew followed at their heels with industrial brooms to clear away the clay pods and crushed, broken stalks. For me this moment melded the ambivalence of suspended disbelief and revealed artifice, meticulous ritual practice and ordinary, tedious task, transcendence with a requirement snapping in half, detailed ornamentation with rough, itchy grass.
The physical presence of the work fluctuates between this kind of exaltation of embodied beauty and gruesomely destructive scenarios that test the performers’ pain threshold, equilibrium and stamina. There are repeated slaps in the face with a handful of honey. There is balancing on one foot atop a thin pole with necks in nooses. There is an extended dance section with dancers and non-dancers hopping in attitude en dehors that goes on so long it bleeds into another “knee” when, again, many people stopped watching and left the room. These tests owe much to the performance art of the 1970s, such as Marina Abramović’s self-harming Rhythm series. I was also reminded of Breathing In/Breathing Out, in which Abramović and companion Ulay breathed repeatedly into each other’s mouths until they passed out. (Incidently, Abramović was recently under intense criticism for her treatment of performers for a recent retrospective of some of these works. What we ask of ourselves for art cannot, it seems, be the same that we ask of others.)
Another specific source, of course, is Chris Burden, whose piece Shoot Mitchell recreated vigilante-style in Carkeek Park the day of the final performance.
Author and audience
Because Rites is constantly building up and undermining its visual splendor, simultaneously associating death and violence with the sublime, intensely laboring inside divinity and demonism—the audience must exhaustingly contend with the unending presence of this polarity, which accounts for the extreme responses I have seen in the community. Either the audience has the ability to endure the constant friction of the two ends of the spectrum or it doesn’t.
Here I must quote again from St. Genet. Sartre writes that “Genet treats his readers as a means. He uses them all to talk to himself about himself, and this peculiarity may alienate readers.” Mitchell, too, ultimately has a minimal interest in engaging his audience. The intermissions (during which many audience members milled about the house chatting or left to get drinks) didn’t disturb the performance from continuing. Stirring violin solos were performed to the oblivious, and dancers dizzying themselves into almost vomit-inducing dervishes went largely unnoticed. Many watched half-heartedly from the aisles and hallway during the final scene, in which the exquisitely skeletal Alan Sutherland emerged from a mound of earth—after having laid there for almost two hours—and then delivered a heart-wrenching monologue of purring love for a frail ghost and a radical beseeching to be relieved of his life. “Let’s get on with it!” he yelled as the protagonist repeated his words in deadpan.
This moment, showing Mitchell’s clearest affiliation with Genet’s aesthetic, confirmed the artist/jester/protagonist as an individual operating under a normalcy of torment. Subsequently, he subjects the audience to the extreme monotony of that experience. Eventually, if there is no relief from incredible highs (in both senses of the word) and devastating lows, the result is numbness. An inability to experience either. It’s very demanding to expect an audience member to dive into that level of trauma with the same amount of rigor and stamina that was demonstrated so well by the performers. And, as graphic as some of this piece is, because of the element of put-on characters, I didn’t always feel the impact of the action. This—and not the violence itself—became increasingly disturbing to me in the aftermath of experiencing this work.
In discussing this reaction with fellow artist Vanessa DeWolf, we asked ourselves some tough questions. What is the responsibility of the audience to endure work that causes pain or injury to its performers? Why is it so easy for an art audience to either dismiss with disdain or have a blasé reaction to this kind of work? Does it trivialize the experience of the performers? Does it make the audience an accomplice? Is there a reason audiences should watch a work that isn’t ultimately intended for them?
In lieu of trying to provide inadequate answers, I can only posit these far-reaching questions against the caveat that, very often, our encounters in the world are as consumers of products, news, information, status updates, insanely cute pictures of cats, etc. I think that even smart and sophisticated audiences like those found in Seattle may have an expectation that art will, in some way, be consumable. Paradisiacal Rites does little to cater to this desire, which is off-putting, discomforting and disorienting. And who wants to go through that? But we do, in fact, need works like this just as much as Mitchell needs this work to toe the line of shock in order to get to the meat of his content. We need to be challenged in order for art to do what it should: break a pattern of viewing, bring in a new perspective of seeing and elucidate the human experience.
Resources for the reader:
A film by Jean Genet: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHgb9_1LkWo
A Description of Marina Abramović and Ulay’s piece Breathing In/Breathing Out from 1977: http://catalogue.nimk.nl/site/?page=%2Fsite%2Fart.php%3Fid%3D18363
A piece with similar elements from 1978: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iAIfLnQ26JY
Well-written article summarizing key components of Sartre’s depiction of the writer in St. Genet: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/160272-saint-genet-actor-and-martyr-by-jean-paul-sartre/
A download of Elizabeth Stephen’s research article on Genet and homo-eroticism: http://www.academia.edu/172469/Queer_Writing_Homoeroticism_in_Jean_Genets_Fiction
Nobody knows Christin Call the dancer/choreographer/poet/artist, explainable by part-existential, part-marketing reasons. As a fair weather critic she has written articles for F5, Kansas City Review, The Ulrich Museum, SeattleDances, and now, happily, STANCE. Her poems have appeared in the lively journals Boston Review, Eastwesterly Review, KNOCK, and Anemone Sidecar. The Mountain? The Mountain., her self-published book of poems, is available through Lulupress.com.