A prison ship home companion
Art may be the only profession in which insanity is not only condoned but venerated. Antonin Artaud, a drug addict and undiagnosed schizophrenic, was at the forefront of the Surrealist movement in early 20th-century France. His radical ideas and writings about performance influenced everyone from The Living Theater to Mötley Crüe. Getting through day-to-day life was another story.
Ghost Ship Rodez is a performance piece created by Santa Fe-based musician/artist Terry Allen as a companion to his installation at SITE Santa Fe, part of the One on One exhibit on display through May 9. Artaud was all about shaking up a complacent art world, but Allen, using live music, projections, and sculptural scenic elements, chooses to entertain more than to aggravate, to focus less on Artaud’s ideas and more on his angst.
Featuring Allen’s wife, actress Jo Harvey Allen, as narrator and Everywoman, Ghost Ship Rodez recounts events in the artist’s life during 1936 and 1937. Delusional and suffering from drug withdrawal, Artaud went to Mexico and lived with the Tarahumara people, whose ceremonial traditions include the use of peyote. He then traveled to Ireland, where he intended to return to the Irish a wooden stick he believed had belonged to Jesus Christ, St. Patrick, and Lucifer. His return trip to France, in a straitjacket and chained to an iron bed in the hold of a freight ship, led to the final phase of Artaud’s life, which included electroshock treatment and confinement to a psychiatric hospital in Rodez.
Allen is a multidisciplinary artist who works in music, theater, sculpture, painting, drawing, and video. The installation at SITE features many of the same elements offered in the performance piece, including video projections of Jo Harvey Allen narrating Artaud’s sordid travelogue and the fictionalized musings of a man gone mad. The walls of the gallery are filled with text-based pieces and drawings of rats, the ocean, Mexico, and Artaud’s tortured face.
In the performance, however, Allen and his wife, who hail from Lubbock, Texas, present original music and theatrical delivery that sends the international journey on a detour through the Lone Star State. Using country music and narrative with a twang to deliver a fictionalized take on the interior monologues of a crazed French genius takes some getting used to. There are no rules in experimental theater, Allen seems to be saying. Artaud might have smiled — or screamed obscenities.
Featuring the director on keyboard and vocals, his son Bukka Allen on accordion, Richard Bowden on violin and mandolin, and Brian Standefer on cello, the musical score was the opposite of torture and insanity and more like down-home fun. Jo Harvey Allen brought a comedic charm to her role. Even when she was channeling Artaud and howling at the universe, there was a sense that she would stop it soon enough and then wink, as if there should be limits to a story about one man’s agony.
Artaud’s seminal writings about the “Theatre of Cruelty” presented the idea that performance should not be ruled by text. Ghost Ship Rodez suggests nicely that movement, gesture, imagery, and sensation can also communicate. What seems missing, however, is Artaud himself. By design, Jo Harvey Allen never steps into that role, but that seems exactly where the heart of the matter lies. For all its suggestion of depth and intensity, this performance was easy listening, not cruel by a long shot.
— Michael Wade Simpson