Only Time, Pure Time: Jérôme Bel
Jérôme Bel in conversation with Emanuele Guidi and Antonia Alampi
On the occasion of Jérôme Bel’s first solo show at the Museo Pecci in Prato, curator Emanuele Guidi talks to the French choreographer and the exhibition’s curator Antonia Alampi about notions of time, choreography and audience, and how they “shift” between the stage and the museum.
Emanuele Guidi: I think it’s important to start with you speaking about a key point of this exhibition: “the first solo exhibition by French choreographer Jérôme Bel” (from the press release). Clearly, Jérôme Bel is not new to the art context (Tate, documenta…), and for sure since the 1990s he has been a reference for all those who, moving within the field of visual arts, have an interest in his conceptual and linguistic approach. Still, a solo exhibition in a museum like Pecci shifts the goalposts, the focus, the possibilities, as you point out in the many questions at the start of the press release.In order to give a glimpse of the timeline of this project, can you describe from both the artistic and curatorial perspective how this idea of the solo exhibition came about and how you decided to undertake its “translation” from the stage to the white cube?
Antonia Alampi: I had been thinking about a solo show with Jérôme for a while. When Fabio Cavallucci approached me for ideas, I immediately thought of him, given also the Centro Pecci’s new interest in working with disciplines outside the visual arts field in the strict sense, which I find incredibly timely and indeed necessary. From the very beginning of our discussions, Jérôme and I thought it would be important to try to present a sort of catalogue of the possibilities of bringing dance into a museum while presenting a show with a rather conventional exhibition duration (two months) and with regular opening hours, instead of the very short time-frame usually devoted to performative exhibitions. Hence, the exhibition unfolds along three lines: there is a filmic component, with dance pieces expressly reformulated for the video camera; there are performances on specific days and times with a precise dramaturgy to follow from the beginning to the end; and there is a new piece, an ongoing performance for one dancer present throughout the entire period of the exhibition, especially created for the specifics of the museum and the needs of the performers. Why this is his first solo exhibition I don’t know; we never really talked about this in fact…Jérôme probably has a better answer to this?
Jérôme Bel: Not really. I am usually invited to group shows (biennials, documenta…). I had never even imagined myself that I might have enough works to make a solo exhibition. But in fact I had quite a few, after ten years working for various museums and biennials. All those works are commissions from the institutions themselves; I would never say, OK I’ll make a piece for an exhibition. The Centre Pompidou asked for a video of Shirtology for one of their exhibitions. They produced it, and it was very exciting for me to adapt the piece twenty years later to the film medium. It was an opportunity for me to change the piece, to take out unnecessary things. I have to say that HD helped me a lot. With these new technological tools, viewers have an experience which is just like the one that may be had in the theater. It is also a relief for me: Frédéric Seguette, the dancer who performs Shirtology, is getting older, and he is busy with others projects. To keep him “alive” through film is important. I created “Company Company” because MoMA ask me to participate in their “Artist’s Choice” program, etc… Finally, I had enough pieces, and of course I wanted to try out something new: an ongoing dance, one that could be danced throughout the two months of the exhibition. Pecci was the perfect place to try it. But this was Antonia’s idea; again I was not thinking myself about the possibility of a solo show. This is because we slowly found a kind of balance between the various pieces, and so I accepted her project. I am generally very reluctant to work with museums because most of the time I can’t do what I want; there are too many contingencies.
EG: Jérôme, what you say about the video is quite interesting, and can really help in understanding the shift from the idea of documenting a piéce for the stage into one of producing a work for an exhibition. Could you describe your work with video and the process of shooting and editing, and how that transformed your practice as a choreographer?
JB: To be able to work once again on an old piece pushed me to think about it more. And it was nice to be able to change things in it which were no longer relevant. Basically I honed it down; I made it more concise, taking out things which were not necessary. So I enjoyed the translation from the theater to the museum, from the live to the recorded. That is why it is not documentation anymore: the museum context gave me the opportunity to change it drastically, and for some of the pieces that meant changing the dramaturgy. And this is an opening for me onto perspectives I couldn’t have expected. In a way it’s like a rebirth of the pieces. New energy and certain new meanings are produced.
EG: I find the title quite beautiful in the way it stresses one of the main points about exhibitions and exhibition-making nowadays: time. A title that immediately recalls the ideas of audience, attention, control, labor…
AA: Exactly. Time of course was literally the first aspect we discussed. It defines the completely different way of experiencing art and dance in the museum. Time here is entirely individual instead of collective; the experience in the museum is an individual one, where the audience is entirely free to linger on each work according to their own time and interest: it’s a looped time. The museum is also built to keep artworks over time, to preserve them for the future, so in this sense too it is the opposite of the theater. Theater is presence, as Jérôme would say; the museum, as a dispostif, is still a sort of white temple that aims for timelessness, and as such it’s a sort of time machine. In this sense, the title encourages the audience to watch the works on view from the beginning to the end. While we know that this will never be more than encouragement, I think the title emphasizes the difference of experience and raises awareness of our ways of seeing.Infinity becomes a metaphor for different things: a new ongoing dance thought to last forever just like the rest of the objects in the collection.
JB: Schematically, we might say that theater is the art of time and visual arts the art of space. It’s more complex than this, of course, because as a viewer your are also dealing with time when you look at a painting for three seconds or seven minutes. My performances in the theaters are based on time essentially, and that’s why so many spectators find my pieces boring. I always emphasize this quality. I love the power of theater to change the feeling and/or the awareness of time. This is one of the strengths of theater. For example, as a spectator I always need to know before the performance starts how long it lasts, otherwise I cannot engage fully in the experience that theater can offer. There is a contract between the spectator and the director/choreographer: the spectator gives his/her time to the performance, an so there is an incredible level of trust and investment in this theatrical relationship. Which is very different from the museum. You can visit an exhibition in five minutes or in two hours: this is time-free! Sometimes when I have no time left for one reason or another, instead of visiting the exhibition I have a look at the catalog in the museum bookstore. Shame on me! So I came up with this title very quickly, almost without thinking about it. It is a modus operandi for the visitors, laying out the contract: “Hey guys! Be careful, give the exhibition time or nothing will happen.” I warn them – if they don’t respect my advice, too bad for them. But on the other hand, this situation of time-freeness has moved my work into interesting new territories: I started to think from a different point of view; I had to abandon dramaturgy, which is the main tool of theater, for dramaturgy means organizing, “writing” time. My last two works, Company, Company and Dancing like nobody is watching has no dramaturgy really; there is no beginning and no end, i.e. there is no writing, no development of time. I might say that ‘Dancing….’ is only time, pure time. Time will last forever, won’t it? + ∞
EG: Over the last few years, against the backdrop of growing exchange between visual arts and dance, the terms “choreography” and “exhibition” have become ever more associated, especially with regard to the role/presence/movement of the audience. Is it something you discussed when you “designed” the exhibition? Could you guide us (the readers) through the exhibition, its display, the sequence of works and their supports?
AA: Yes absolutely. The two realms and what they entail, the entirely different ways of experiencing works and moving around them, also the difference between the individual experience of the museum and the collective one that theater produces were all things we discussed from the very beginning. And maybe a lineage to be traced between the two is that we (or actually more Jérôme than me) were talking about a dramaturgy when designing the exhibition, one telling a story of emancipation, of the performer as much as of the individual, through Jérôme’s substantial body of work since the 1990s. The exhibition revolves around five key moments. We start with a slideshow of images of theaters from around the world on a laptop on a table, ranging from Roman to the Japanese Noh theaters, to a series of plastic chairs assembled around a stage on a beach. From this work, titled Diaporama, the essential infrastructure of theater emerges, showing how very few elements are necessary to “make” one and reproduce its experience however immensely its forms have been transformed over time and geography. It also contextualizes Jérôme’s work within the medium. Right behind it you see a massive projection of Company Company and its huge bodies: imperfect, real ones, bodies that dance without mannerism, revealing a rich diversity of aesthetics, social classes, ages, races, sexual identities…The proportions are literally inverted in the show; the human body here is the predominant figure, whereas the infrastructure and architecture of the scene almost disappears, again highlighting a very important characteristic of his work, emphasizing the individual prior to any other staged element. Here we already have a completely emancipated dance company, one that reveals a strange intimacy and fragility, a company that is ashamed to perform while simultaneously wanting to expose itself (every Sunday we also have a performance related to this film, here with dancers sourced from Prato and the surrounding province). The nuances of the cultural repertoire of the company’s members emerge in an image that speaks of the social texture of a place (in the case of the performance, the city of Prato itself), showing us the multiplicity of aesthetic models that exist and that are implied by dance, and the plurality of movements and emotions this field encompasses.
In the same room, we have Shirtology on a human-sized LCD screen. Here, the solo choreography itself is dictated by the branding of the T-shirts the performer wears. A fourth encounter is that with Veronique Doisneau in a completely black room. This time, the typical life of a ballerina of the opera house leads the audience through a very intimate experience of what dance represents as an institution, with its working conditions and the implications they have on the psyche of the dancer. The last space is a new performance conceived especially for this occasion, an ongoing one. Here, in a pink and white space the pungent sound of a 432Hz frequency surrounds one dancer, caught in an act that I could only define as one of bodily introspection (for a lack of a better word), in which the audience ceases to matter and the dancer focuses entirely on him/herself instead. Something we addressed early on is the fact that there will always be moments without an audience in the museum, something completely unusual in theatre. Dancing like nobody is watching in this sense directly addresses the museum’s role in presenting and preserving anything that enters its spaces, for which existence matters, not presence. A piece that will live on for eternity, with or without humans around it.
Jérôme Bel (1964) lives in Paris and works worldwide. He studied at the Centre National de Danse Contemporaine of Angers (France) in 1984-1985. His shows and his films have been presented in many contemporary art biennials and museums around the globe, including the Yokohama Triennale, MoMA New York, dOCUMENTA(13), Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou Paris, Malaga and Metz, Biennale de Lyon, Biennale of Porto Alegre and Biennale of Tirana, Palais de Tokyo, Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, MABA Buenos Aires, Performa New York and Fondation Bernardo Lisboa.