notes from the artaud-genet conference, london, june '96

[from "Waxing Intellectual with the 'Vaguely Transgressive'" by Jane Cornwell, _Sydney_Morning_Herald_, June 5, 1996]

"I have answers. Who has a question?" asked the film-maker Alejandro Jodorowski of his audience at London's Institute of Contemporary Arts [ICA] last weekend. Following such statements as "My shoes are my country" and "Before I can make a film I must kill myself", this invitation by the director of Sante Sangre met predictably bemused silence. In an adjoining room, Detroit-based rock priestess Patti Smith brought her seminar swiftly to a close -- she'd forgotten to bring any knickers, she revealed, and had to get to Harrods before closing time.

Upstairs in the galleries, David Bowie's quirkily titled installation, Derek, here are a few ideas towards a non-violent theatre ... had punters positively demanding an explanation -- albeit more along the lines of just how the Thin White Duke could get away with passing his formulaic efforts off as art. "Don't give up your day job, Dave" was the unanimous reaction to a black box with a peep hole revealing a "pandemonium painting": little more than a blob-like figure behind bars.

Art, as this "Incarcerated with Artaud and Genet" conference had it, should be used to oppose any form of social control. A survivor of French asylums and wartime concentration camps, surrealist visionary Antonin Artaud founded the Theatre of Cruelty to communicate a sense of suffering in pursuit of a radical perspective that would facilitate a regeneration of society. His legacy has influenced everything from film and opera to psychiatry and penal reform since.

Similarly, Jean Genet -- an oft-imprisoned drug and petty thief most famous for his 1943 novel Our Lady of the Flowers -- championed the dispossessed and stateless with his plays, criticism and political texts. Though the links between the two might be tenuous, their influence on art is indisputable and this three-day "experience" saw a bevy of performers, film-makers, writers, directors and rock icons turning up to sing their combined praises and wax intellectual.

Such cross-art form representation was in keeping with the two men's mission to eschew categorisation and break down boundaries. The contemporary United States opera and theatre director Peter Sellars, presently directing the lauded Theodora at Glyndebourne and acclaimed for his work with Los Angeles street kids, lamented America's burgeoning "prison culture" and called for increased communal spirituality.

Asked how he could negotiate his passion for social issues with working at an operatic institution such as Glyndebourne, Sellars commented: "The whole point is we have to be working on multiple levels. I'm trying to create a place for dialogue in big institutions, but you have to be clear. If you're not, they have a way of sucking you dry and replacing your bone marrow with their particular brand of ideological treacle." As the ICA audience nodded sagely, he concluded that, as Artaud believed, language was just one form of communication. "Anyway, I love opera because it has a feeling, emotion and awareness of structure that has nothing to do with language. Meaning in opera can't be reduced. It has all the art forms existing and contradicting each other."

But for Patti Smith, these days more concerned with poetry and writing than "being a rock 'n' roll star", words are everything. Smith, who read Genet when a teenager working in a mattress factory, remarked: "I thought his language was beautiful and intoxicating, though I can't say I always understand its message." Genet, she said, reminded her of Robert Mapplethorpe: "When Robert photographed two men kissing it was a very beautiful image, for he intended to portray them in an honourable way, just as Genet did. Artaud, Genet and Mapplethorpe took very complex aspects of the human condition -- whether it was homosexuality or thievery or madness -- and magnified it in their work. They took on what other people called shame and called it beauty. All three attempted to create space for others. I think that is an artist's duty."

The lanky Smith attempted to do away with gender constrictions when she started out as a musician in 1974 and released the seminal Horses. This time round, her acoustic showcase for forthcoming album Gone Again was peppered with poems and songs concerned largely with death: elegies to her late husband Fred "Sonic" Smith, to Kurt Cobain, Jerry Garcia and, fittingly, to Genet. "Clouds stained by hand prints," she intoned, keeping the sky at bay with palms raised and arms flailing. The highlight of a weekend for anyone who considered themselves vaguely transgressive, this was a performance so powerful one almost expected Artaud and Genet to turn up as backing singers. "Art is what is not normal," Jodorowski had stated earlier. David Bowie should've been taking notes.

Copyright © Jane Cornwell 1996

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