TANIA BRUGUERA INTERPRETS SAMUEL BECKETT
And being true to herself, and to her conception and vision of art as an interactive act with the public… the entire weight of the novelty was in this public/play relationship.
The first edition of Portugal’s BoCA—Biennial of Contemporary Arts was held between March and April, 2017. The main feature of this Biennial was that its concept is based on the transversality of its program. Not only were traditional sites used, as in the different Biennials held across the world: museums, galleries, cultural institutions, public spaces; but special emphasis was placed on theaters, bars and other unusual places, to present innovative and unconventional works. This same transformative vision is rooted in the selection of the Biennial Director, a position which fell to a Portuguese actor, stage designer and producer trained at the Lisbon Theatre and Film School, thus possessing an unusual profile among directors of art biennials. Hence also the importance awarded to the performing arts as a form of art production and dialogue on the structures of promotion, programming and representation of contemporary art.
This Biennial was thought up with the idea of confirming something that artists have been doing for a long time, that is the combination of several different artistic expressions to produce their works.
It was in this context that Cuban artist Tania Bruguera was selected as one of the four resident artists. Like all the artists of various disciplines, she was asked to exchange with other participating artists and choose to exhibit her creations in a style in which she was not accustomed to presenting her work. Thus Tania launched herself into a project which was novel, yet related to her usual performances and installations, and chose a form of expression that she was always interested in using, that of the theater.
Tania’s debut as an artistic director took place at the São Bento da Vitória Monastery in Porto, but the work was later performed in three other European cities: Brussels, in the framework of the Kunstenfestivaldesarts, at the International Summer Festival Kampnagel in Hamburg, Germany; and at France’s National Dramatic Center of the Théâtre Nanterre–Amandiers, as part of the Festival d’Automne in Paris.
The São Bento da Vitória Monastery is one of the most important religious buildings in the city, but since its declaration as a National Heritage site it has formed part of Porto’s São
João National Theater complex, and therefore hosts theatrical performances, concerts and other cultural events. When it was restored, the Noble Cloister was closed with a transparent roof that constitutes an acoustic shell, and a wooden floor was also laid. This monumental granite building was begun in 1604 and the cloister was finished between 1725 and 1728. The building is of a Mannerist and Baroque style, as a result of the long period over which it was built. It was here where Tania placed the metal structure that served as the medium and part of her creative way of presenting her work.
The work chosen by Tania was the play “Fin de partie” (Endgame) by Irish writer and playwright Samuel Beckett. The play was completed in 1957 and premiered that same year. Ever since the artist read the piece for the first time more than 20 years ago, she was deeply marked by it and has reread it several times throughout her life. In it she found the ideal medium to demonstrate all her artistic creativity and thus convey a message, which in her work always has a markedly political character, but on this occasion was presented in such a way as artists usually captivate the public, with intelligence and subtlety. The piece deals with the universal and eternal theme of power, its use by those who possess it, of dependence, of manipulation and in general of human relationships in all their cruelty and humanity.
There are only four characters in the play, who interact in a bare room with a door that is always closed and provides access to a kitchen that is never seen. There are also two very difficult to access windows in the room. Hamm is a blind paraplegic, always confined to his wheelchair; Clov is his servant who cannot sit down due to a strange rigidity in his legs. On interacting with his master, when not standing by his side, Clov assumes an uncomfortable semi–lying posture. Hamm’s parents appear intermittently and each lives in a garbage can, since they lost their legs in an accident. The relationship between Hamm and Clov and their mutual dependence is the central theme of the piece.
The play was performed in English, which although not the original language in which it was written (Beckett originally wrote the piece in French), can also be considered an original version insofar as it was the author himself who translated it. Tania decided to present the work in English at all four venues. The fidelity to the text is rigorous, as the author demanded of all performances of his work. In the leading roles were two notable artists who effectively and convincingly interpreted the work. Thus Tania’s innovation was not in the use of Beckett’s text or the dramaturgy, but in the public’s perception of the piece, already known to many but which always allows new interpretations given its many nuances.
And being true to herself, and to her conception and vision of art as an interactive act with the public, who complete, modify, interpret and enrich its message, the entire weight of the novelty was in this public/play relationship.
For the presentation in the very well–chosen cloister of the Monastery, Tania Bruguera built, with the collaboration of an architect’s studio, a gigantic cylindrical metal structure almost 9 meters high. This structure served as the box/stalls on which the audience was positioned, thus it was not only necessary to think about the concept of her work, but also about safety, given that comfort was not a priority here, detached as it was from the artist’s concept.
The work was seen through a white curtain in which some holes had been strategically placed, so that each member of the public could place his or her head through one, and not only observe from above the play that was underway at ground level, but also watch the other members of the audience in their mixture of physical discomfort and concentration on what they were observing.
The whole piece was appreciated standing in this circular metal structure whose stairs spiraled the circular tube in which the piece was performed. And in that circular tube covered with a white cloth there were holes barely big enough to be able to see clearly through. They were distributed two, four and six meters from the ground such that each audience member had to choose the height at which he or she wanted to be placed, on buying their tickets, without knowing exactly what that decision meant. What was the correct height? Was one height better than another? What did it mean to choose a height at which to be placed? Already long before seeing the work, the public was eager to discover this new interpretation.
But nevertheless, the piece required a conscious and motivated public, who had to climb up scaffolding to the places from where they were to see the play. They also wore casual clothing and shoes, as more than an hour of attention was expected of them, standing, bent forwards, supported by an iron structure covered by metal mesh, with their heads pushed through a hole in a large white curtain. In short, a position that was not particularly comfortable, in order that the viewer could also be aware of his or her own body. And it worked. Not only were they conscious of their bodies, but great concentration and empathy was achieved with the rest of the audience, and the work was perceived in a very different way. Power and manipulation, there is no doubt that they can be exercised in many different ways.
From the title itself, “Endgame,” the work refers to many different situations. For those who did not know the play before, it makes one think of the game of chess, of which Beckett was said to be a great fan, with its mix of strategy, long–term vision, anticipation of the opponent’s actions, self–control and uninterrupted concentration. And it also suggests the imminence of an end that can be prolonged in time.
I believe that on this occasion, Tania Bruguera showed that art, as an art in itself, is an excellent way to convey a message to which the artist feels committed, without being obvious in the means of expressing it.
Fin de partida, 2017 / Metal structure design by Dotan Gertler Studio / 46 x 46 x 30 ft / Photo: Peter Hönnemann