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How Real Are You? Bill Viola’s ‘Martyrs’

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The installation at St Paul’s

On the Saturday before Palm Sunday, I went to see Bill Viola’s video art installations at St Paul’s Cathedral.  The two moving-image works, Martyrs and Mary, are gifted to Tate and are on permanent loan to St Paul’s.  I will in this piece focus on Martyrs because talking too much about Mary would be a great spoiler – its meaning is only in seeing it, and reading anything descriptive about it will destroy its impact.  You will understand if you go and view it.

Born in 1951, when Viola was 6 years of age he fell into some water and nearly drowned. Looking back many years later, he says that while he was under water, he was able to register the beauty of this new world that he witnessed. The notion of the ‘real’ being under the surface is a key theme throughout his work, and this draws from his early experience with water.

He says ‘Art is, for me, the process of trying to wake up the soul. Because we live in an industrialized, fast-paced world that prefers that the soul remain asleep.’  There is no more of an appropriate time for this than Easter.  The installations, parts of which can be seen here, begin with, in Martyrs, humans in the process of beginning to be martyred, and in Mary, new life – a baby, but ending with death.  It got me thinking: the Christian faith is about Crucifixion followed by Resurrection, and recalling these events in Holy Week is a prime opportunity for us to start over and ‘wake up’. But actually, in our daily lives we are presented with such opportunities constantly but so often allow them to pass us by, and so the moment has gone – and we fall asleep again.

Viola sees cameras as keepers of the soul because of what they capture – an example being the filming of his mother as she died (she was in a coma).  He read St John of the Cross aged 16 which, like the experience with water, was highly influential and is evident here where his work seems to have an integral feeling of bringing back the numinous and focussing on the interior landscape of the human person.

The use of film to communicate to the audience is significant – we are used to being spectators but in this instance, we are not to be controlled by this usually controlling medium.  Going back to the theme of being asleep, in our daily lives we have allowed screens to dictate far too much to the point of being so addicted that an alien visiting earth would think our souls were stored in our phones rather than in our very being.  Well, these installations remind us that it is the latter: yes – I hate to break the news but your soul is not in your phone.  The essence of the humans in these installation is so intense – we are not controlled by them, or the screen in which they reside, but rather we are at one with them, as the tangibility of the flesh behind the screen is raw.

In Martyrs four actors are shown left to right, in isolation.  One is a man buried under earth, who gradually stands up and pushes through the soil; the second is a woman bound at her feet and wrists, and hanging from them as she is blown in the wind; the third is a man sitting on a chair surrounded by a circle of flames encroaching on him, and the fourth is a man hanging upside down with water pouring down on him, his arms outstretched.

Viola does not say what anyone is supposed to see in these or in what time period they are set. The man in the earth has overtones of Adam (man made from the earth) – or it could be a civilian caught in an earthquake; and the man hanging could be St Peter who was crucified upside down – or it could be someone undergoing waterboarding. These are just some of the reactions St Paul’s has received from the many visitors to the installation. There is a phrase which is something like ‘comfort the distressed and distress the comfortable’ – this work is an example of this process. The point is we should be affected in some way – not indifferent. It is the encounter that matters.

Whatever we think, as viewers we look and then walk away. Which is exactly what we do in life, at our peril. We condemn those who torture or kill others, and apparently empathise with the victims, but these actors within the screen seek to reflect us back to ourselves (as all good art does) and show our failings, which in this case is inaction – and force us to re-examine the term ‘martyr’. It can be ill used in today’s world.

The main issue I had with the martyrs is that there is no evidence of pain in their faces – even when a martyr accepts death willingly (alone, in order to stand for the truth – they do not impose this on others or wish to destroy others in their death), they would physiologically feel the agony of flames, or the horrendous pressure on their body hung upside down battling to breath with water blocking their air passages. Perhaps suffering is aestheticized, and too gentle in these installations? Are these martyrs too archetypal – to the point of being unreal?

But maybe that is the point – we don’t need to be ‘controlled’ by being shown four actors screaming and writhing in agony. We know this to be the case – and having to think for ourselves about these four human beings who appear peaceful and serene only makes manifest the real life current situation – it is the peaceful who have become martyrs at the mercy of many a brutal regime. Viola’s film medium has indeed subverted the idea of control – we have got it wrong if we are controlled by it and become its puppets. This is about what we do in response, as are the daily news pictures on our screens…

The study of Theology, in general, throws up more questions than it provides answers.  Likewise with these installations, and likewise with Easter. We simply cannot know answers to everything and it is increasingly difficult to find meaning in everything. If we are constantly looking for rational explanations for our experiences, including our sufferings, then we are missing the point. It is far more important to engage with the situation and in that moment, take a note of how we feel, and react. How we react makes us real, and if we don’t react we are perhaps the ones who are unreal.

As Disraeli said, ‘never apologize for showing feeling. When you do so, you apologize for the truth.’

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The Clown in us all

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I recently attended a weekend workshop with LISPA, the London International School of Performing Arts (based in London and Berlin). I knew the school focussed on physical theatre, after the work of Jacques Lecoq at his school in Paris, but didn’t realise how relevant the focus would be to be my own interest in masks, clowning, mime, puppetry and the expression of the unknown, the unseen. We don’t always think of the links between clowning and acting and we tend to brush off the term ‘clowning around’ thinking of it as just silliness but you don’t have to look far to see how clowning can work hand-in-hand with acting. Sacha Baron Cohen, Simon MacBurney (Director of Complicite Theatre Company), Emma Thompson, Geoffrey Rush and Kathryn Hunter trained under Philippe Gaulier who was a student and teacher at Lecoq’s school in the 1960’s and 70’s and is known for his ‘Inverted Clown’, where a balance is struck between grotesqueness and charm. Gaulier was interested in the pupil finding a ‘wonderful spirit’, rather than teaching a ‘style’. (Just as Tom Stoppard, according to actor Joseph Fiennes, says ‘imagination will take you to a greater truth than academia.’) He popularised the ‘buffoon’ genre of 1960’s theatre – during festivals, the ‘ugly people’ (buffoons) would entertain the ‘beautiful people’. These beautiful people were often part of the Government or Church. The idea was to make the ‘beautiful people’ think, and realise their lives were meaningless. There is a slight irony here in that the acting world (at least Hollywood) tends to favour more commercially good looking people. But if we think about what really makes a good actor, we’re attracted to the ones who portray truth more than how beautiful they are. Speaking personally as someone who performs, it’s difficult to be truthful and beautiful as those two things mean different things to different people – and truthfulness is unfortunately less valued than looking beautiful in this society.

Lecoq

Lecoq

However in opposition to this, in a recent interview with film director Harry Macqueen on his film Hinterland (opening February 2015), Macqueen talks about the importance of truth and honesty to him saying ‘this ‘truth’ lies in the spaces between words – the unnoticed glances and mutual experiences, as well as the tacit acknowledgement of the things that cannot be said…’ Later I will talk about how mask plays a part in taking this further. Philosophically speaking, truth, beauty and ‘goodness’ are all inherently linked but that’s a subject in itself. The programme at LISPA itself, integrates relevant elements from the Junguian concept for personal growth and additional body-movement-performance based practices.

The type of physical theatre I explored was very much rooted ‘in the body’ and asks the actor to think about resonance with an object, or a person (or just something – for example a colour), and once that resonance has been activated, to then embody that ‘other’ (the object, person, colour). I found this a very useful way in to truthfully portraying something outside myself, whilst using what I have within me. Lecoq and Gaulier theatre is about the actor finding the most successful performance outcome for themselves by rejecting technique, and that acting is ‘play’ which creates a rapport with the audience by speaking to their imagination. You only have to see a few pictures on the Lecoq School’s website to understand this.

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‘Neutral Mask’ is a cornerstone of LISPA’s philosophy. Masks are creations of our individual, collective or universal imagination and can have a similar function to myths, which can be seen as expressions of our longing for something much larger in life. At the same time, they are the access to the Invisible, giving us a glimpse of the yet unseen and unlived. Thomas Prattki, Founder and Director of LISPA (and tutor on the course I did) says ‘there are also masks which are capable of opening for us the gate to the grand mysteries of humankind as a whole. Masks can also be seen as amplifications of the different inner drives rooted deeply within our body and psyche …an experience of the collective or transpersonal dimension within us.’

Lecoq called the Neutral Mask ‘the mask behind all other masks’. The Neutral Mask is a unifying ‘reality of body, psyche and world, which has been described in mythology, science, philosophy and depth psychology as the ‘Atman’: the Implicit Order, the Real, the Flesh or the Self.’

Wearing the Neutral Masks that LISPA provided made me feel bigger than I am – by that I mean I felt my own presence. I felt more alive and comfortable in my own skin, maybe because I wasn’t showing my own face – which looking back, in fact is rather unsettling. The course says it is for artists, actors, dancers, educators, healers, therapists and human beings. The mask forms a dialogue with the person wearing it, as well as those watching it being worn. An inner dialogue is formed which tells a story between the conscious and the unconscious. My movement and expression in the mask became more defined – it is what the school calls ‘staging the shadow’ – as myself I don’t live certain elements of myself because of constraints or expectations of society, work, friends, family – the conditions that govern my life. In the mask, my shadow surfaces.

People recognise that they need to integrate the shadow into their personal and collective lives. Movement, theatre and performance are some of the most direct ways to unearth the Unlived – the body, play and imagination are pathways into the anarchic vitality which are there in us as children but get covered as we grow. The paradox is that uncovering them is done via this mask.

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

Lecoq with Neutral Mask

The art of clowning I learnt comes from picking up on the little details about life (how we walk, how we hold our head etc) and then blowing these up into a chaotic act. To celebrate the strange, the untamed and sublime and find your own clown, the buffoon (via the Grotesque mask – moving on from the Neutral) which you become, announces the arrival of the Fantastical and Mystery. Prattki calls this ‘the untamed Other within yourself who deeply enjoys failing, falling and the chaotic and unpredictable nature of life. Contact with your clown shadow will enrich your creative potential and unearth the pleasure of being truly stupid.‘ We find we develop the dialogue between our shadow and conscious mind, between chaos and form. You find who you are via ‘the other’ – though ‘the other’ is more you than you know, since you are simply making visible the Invisible.

Philipp Schaeffer is a professional clown, actor, TaKeTiNa Ryhtym teacher and alumni of Lecoq, and says ‘Rhythm is my tool as a clown and as a teacher in order to create space…there is no need to learn a new instrument, since you are your instrument. You will find out how to play it in the best possible way.’ Many times on the course, we were told to give ourselves permission to ‘be’.

The puppeteer Basil Twist III (an example of his work below) was one of the creators behind Kate Bush’s comeback concert in 2014 and has been at the Barbican in January 2015 with his own show as part of the London International Mime Festival – he says that although puppets are marginalised, he says this has its benefits as when they make an appearance, they surprise people – by virtue of the surprise, they have a powerful message. The unseen/invisible puppeteers are behind the seen/visible puppets – it is ‘reverence for something beautiful…a rare, strange thing…To see something coming to life that is not alive, that you know is not alive, is an existential experience…puppetry has very sacred roots. Fundamentally it’s dealing with the frontier between life and death. There’s nothing more profound.’

Twist

 

Being truthful whilst performing

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Here I go again with this theme (I’ll be brief) – but again, we see that the best dancing on Strictly Come Dancing comes from those who give themselves to it in an honest way.  The dancers are as real as they can be whilst ‘performing’ (and yet can often express much more whilst performing than they could off the dance floor).  It’s good to see this, and hear the comments of the judges on this, on a fairly light-hearted programme on Saturday night.  You don’t have to read philosophy to think about all this deep stuff – it’s in the everyday.

Strictly

Inside Out Theatre

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Richard Armitage, currently playing John Proctor in The Crucible at London’s Olc Vic theatre, says he approaches John from the inside.  He says he is not a character who can be ‘put on’ from the outside.  The fact that he draws from within himself is displayed for all to see on stage.  It is a raw and honest portrayal of a man exposed for all the wrong reasons; John Proctor is a beacon of truth in a society ravaged by its own paranoia and eaten up by its abuse of religion.

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It is fitting that Armitage is so willing and able to act this part from the inside, as the play’s subject matter is that of a society being attacked from its inner core; the values it thinks it lives by are the very values which are responsible for its destruction.

As with all Arthur Miller’s plays, we should learn from this.

Phoenix Rising

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I’m not saying anything new when I say that this year’s Eurovision winner won for more than a song (if people do win for their songs).  It was a win for anyone who feels that they cannot be who they are – Conchita not only is who she is but stands up and sings about it.  She has been interviewed many times since winning, and she talks about a difficult childhood – as usual, those who are seen as different are sidelined, or worse, bullied.

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Her song ‘Rise Like A Phoenix’ is about identity – she has also said since winning, that she is her own truth, which is as close as you can get to living authentically and being truly who you are.  It’s ironic in one sense that there is still a stigma against people who want to do this – and have the guts to do it.  You can be punished in this world for being truthful – be dishonest about who you are and this is preferred!

In Greek Mythology, the phoenix is a powerful symbol of rebirth and regeneration – it is also associated with Early Christianity for the same meanings.  It can also mean the ‘exceptional man’.  All of these apply to Conchita Wurst and as one person said, she not only provokes questions about identity, but she also provides the answers to them, all within herself.  She won for the quality and power of her singing voice but also because thankfully, we saw that what she represented is not something so very foreign to all of us, that we all have a voice and with that an identity, and we should look to her to know that it is possible to be ourselves.  Eurovision this year was meaningful.

Pheonix

Films as Mirrors

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I was thrilled that Twelve Years A Slave got Best Film and Best Actor at the BAFTA’s.  Both speeches were great – Steve McQueen’s touched a nerve.  The film as we know is more than just a film as what happened in it was real.  McQueen, in his after-award-show comment to the media said that the film is a mirror to humanity; we watch it and unfortunately we see ourselves.  In his acceptance speech he said that today, 21 million people are still in slavery of one form or another.  Yet again it takes the arts to remind us of our history and expose us to what we are still capable of.  It would be a bad thing, as he said, if in 150 years time, another Director has to make another film about this depraved human activity to reveal the truth.

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Plays show us to ourselves

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It was brilliant to see the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time do so well at the Olivier Awards last month.  The play is based on the book of the same name by Mark Haddon.  It is about a boy with Aspergo’s Syndrome and his journey to try and find out who killed the neighbour’s dog.  The Director of the play Marianne Elliot also described the creation of the play as an ‘experimental journey’.

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It reinforces the need to invest in the arts – this play won 7 Olivier Awards and is a sure commercial success.  Its experimental journey in devising was truly worthy and it is a double journey as it takes the audience on one too.  Not only is it bringing money into the city but it is nurturing talent – that talent will grow and go on to develop.  It is what you call a domino effect.  Our creative culture is who we are and if we stop creating (or stop having the money to create) we stop being people because we stop understanding ourselves.

Curious

There is no ‘app’ on your smart phone to tell you how your soul is doing.  There never will be (thankfully) since we have to discover this for ourselves.  The writer Zoe Bennett talks of a distinction between eye sight and heart sight – or between sight and insight.  It takes time, effort and courage to have insight and everyday life rarely offers it.  Plays do offer it.  Actor Sir Ben Kingsley says ‘Without a mask I haven’t got a clue.  Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.’

Ben Kingsley

It is hard for people to be honest about themselves and others in real life for fear of judgement (and society does judge) – again the paradox of ‘make believe’ is that the truth about being human can be explored.