Jeroen Peeters´ fundamental book on Meg Stuart’s opus
A woman is watching a man. He looks up to her, into the camera. Starts to get up from his chair. “Don't get up!” she directs him gently but decidedly. And he, whom we only see via video projects, remains sitting. Waiting for directions, stretching his legs, his whole body towards the floor, testing his leeway. The intimacy of his room gets broken again and again by the voice of Meg Stuart, who sits mirroring him in a chair in front of the screen, watching: “Please get in the right position. That's better.” But the regime of observation is thwarted by time – it is simply impossible for Rachid Ouramdane to react to Stuart, as the scenery wants to make us believe: He is not in her power. At least not in the way the solo “Private Room” maintains –a paradoxical play between the Here and Now and the pre-produced video which unhinges causalities. An impossible negotiation of the togetherness that has always taken place, of the conditions, which comprises the artistic rehearsal processes as playfully as it does daily life. Who governs whom? Which tacit agreement is there, which consensus, which pact? From where does Ouramdanes gaze into the camera cross us – the camera which not only becomes Meg Stuart’s eye but also that of the audience? The relations are immediately broken – including that with the audience as the second observer in the picture who is continuously thrown back onto these breaks.
A little later Tim Etchells, author, performer and director of the British performance group Forced Entertainment, will bring Hollywood stars into impossible situations. “Sylvester Stalone and Bruce Willis sharing a shower” he announces in his solo “Starfucker” standing next to a red bar stool, and: “Tom Hanks at the dentist.” He sends John Wayne to heaven, Cary Grant to hell. In a total of five solos which the two magnificent artists play after each other, they subvert and perforate medial surfaces and open up imaginary playgrounds in the abyss between reality and fiction. They tacitly break codes, putting up for discussion the ways of representation by telling tales touching the borders of cliché – of filial love (“Downtime” / Etchells) and love relationships (“I'm all yours” / Stuart), constantly oscillating between an impossible proximity, its presentation and its failure. Both artists’ works shimmer between acting and acting-as-if, between observation and revelation, divulgement and seduction. Double bottoms are lavishly isntalled in the five solos which Stuart and Etchells showed on occasion of the book presentation of “Are we here yet?” at PACT Zollverein in Essen, a publication about the opus of the company Damaged Goods and Meg Stuart, edited by Jeroen Peeters.
The reader is made an accomplice
For five years the Belgian dance critic, dramatic adviser and curator has accompanied Meg Stuart’s work and talked with many of her collaborators over 24 years of artistic work and 16 years with her company Damaged Goods – among them Tim Etchells, the dancer and choreographer Benoît Lachambre, the light designer Jan Maertens, the visual artist Doris Dziersk, the dancer Varinia Canto Vila, the composer Hahn Rowe, the director Stefan Pucher, the dramatic adviser and author André Lepecki as well as the set designer Anna Viebrock. The book focuses on the artistic process, as the title already hints at – a citation from “Forgeries, love and other matters”. It does not want to proclaim ultimate truths but formulate a state of work – and thus approaches to working methods. The numerous professions depicted also make it clear how interdisciplinary Stuart works, how much the visual arts, video and music influence her work.
Many of the texts are by Stuart herself, apart from excerpts from performance texts. On the title photo, a film still from “Somewhere in between” (2004), Meg Stuart turns her back on the reader between the shelves of the fund in Zurich. But even on the first cover page her murmuring voice accosts him: “It is time to act. Forget the pain. Shake vigorously. Rehearse love. Make the first move.” Thus the reader is immediately made an accomplice, a co-actor in this strangely and excitingly in-the-face book: “Enjoy your stay.” There is no list of contents, no overview, nowhere. The book is not intended to be a scientific or journalistic analysis, no classification of the artistic works according to their social or cultural context. Rather, it focuses on the artistic process; it is a many-voiced, heterogeneous notation of its development – and that is what makes “Are we here yet?” equally special and intriguing among comparable publications. In numerous citations, essays, fragments, sketches and photographies the book etches out text and material strata through which the reader may stroll at will, and settle down here or there for a while.
Its narrative is especially emphatic with regard to collaborative processes, the approximations and gaugings of the artists who had a decisive hand in the aesthetics of Damaged Goods. Andrè Lepecki, who worked with Stuart as set designer and dramatic adviser, in “Dramaturging. A quasi-objective gaze on anti-memory (1992–98)” even calls collaboration a method which entirely keeps to the common present – “the collaborative ‘method’ […] had to be absolutely contextual, site-, piece- and sometimes even section-specific.” Lepecki describes in detail how he himself struggled for his place as a collaborator, for definition and action spaces, for serving Meg Stuart’s realm of ideas and at the same time adding something to it. For the collaborators’ functions are open, as the author and curator Myriam Van Imschoot describes by way of “On the table!” (2005–09), where she took part as artistic collaborator, dramatic adviser and performer, and in each of these functions took up another viewpoint of the production.
A view from inside into the innermost
The discussion of different points of view requires flexibility and curiosity, the hardly frictionless questioning or shifting of one’s own premises which extends far into stage language. Stuart herself in her text “Meeting foreign languages” reports that she always has forced the involvement with artists of other disciplines in order to break her usual working methods and not only meet the others work but the others themselves. Collaborations thus require abandonment of the familiar to work out new starting points together, as she describes by example of “Insert Skin # 1” (1996) and her work with the composer Vincent Malstaf: “Through Vincent’s presence, transferring processes from another field into the dance was also extended to music and sound.” Musical principles made her try how to translate them into her corporeality: “How can I sample or remix fragments of my movements, states, or elements of my daily life in my body?”
Lack and desire, the play with visibility and the axes of invisibility, and the discourse on the representation of bodies strongly influence her pieces. How the “displayced bodies” came to pass whose limbs are so at odds with each other, is described in several places in the book – possible best in that part which Peeters calls its core piece in his introduction: the exercises from Stuart’s workshops, in which her body language becomes dense and precise instructions which also invite the reader to go to the dance studio, work with the exercises and “let the tasks slowly overwhelm your body”, as Peeters writes.
Not last, “Are we here yet?” is an archive, a fund and a memorabilium which catches up with and overtakes the fleetingness of dance, overwriting and inscribing it. E.g., in the fragmentary, subjective catalogue of pieces, in which Stuart has written a brief text on each of her choreographies, memories and anecdotes which rarely recur to the pieces’ content or present declarations of intent, but create a striking, nearly haptic intimacy – when she recounts how Francisco Camacho, Carlotta Lagido and herself shaved their heads before the premiere of “Disfigure Study” (1991): “An androgynous and vulnerable art package waiting to be picked up.” This book is a view from inside into the innermost. It is a picking field, a rich and idiosyncratic compendium which presents an opening-up and a divulgement equally radical as her stage works: it does not close its covers of the opus of Meg Stuart / Damaged Goods but lets differences persist, casts trails, awakens curiosity and provokes openness.