Nina has participated in the conference on Tadeusz Kantor presided by Marek Tomaszewski at la Sorbonne and la Bibliothèque Polonaise de Paris with Georges Banu, Leszek Kolankiewicz and Guy Scarpetta (14-15 April, 2015)
Tadeusz Kantor and his role in the minimalist performance and his role in the overcoming censorship in Art
I will present my text in English- for two reasons: not only that Tadeusz Kantor represents a truly international artist’s stance through his multiple activities of an artist, painter cum theater director cum performance, happening director which have given him the statute of one of the greatest men of our epoch, as he was and is the pillar of postmodernism, even more that Grotowski, in his homeland Poland, as well as in Europe and the entire world, but also the reason of addressing the audience here today, in English is due to the fact that I encountered his work first in an English speaking environment. I met Kantor, the director, at Ellen Stewart’s La Mama theater where I also had an honor to perform my own work in New York, during 1980s and -the beginning of 1990s.
At that time, I was working with The Living Theater, whose founder and spiritual political fighter Julian Beck had a somewhat similar development like Kantor, in terms that he also was first and above all an abstract painter, an incredible set designer and then a theater director who was breaking the boundaries between the Performance art and Theater, but in an absolutely committed direction, also like Kantor himself who, after the war also worked as a set designer, mostly for the Helena Modrzejewska Old Theatre in Kraków. Kantor continued to design for the stage on a regular basis throughout the 1960s, primarily working on abstract sets. A trip to Paris in 1947 inspired Kantor to better define his own individual approach to painting, and a year later he founded the Grupa Krakowska / Cracow Group and participated in the Great Exhibition of Modern Art / Wielka Wystawa Sztuki Nowoczesnej in Kraków. But then, the Polish government authorities began to promote Socialist Realism as “official” art, and Tadeusz Kantor disappeared from the art scene altogether due to the heavy censorship which was too well known to all of us, so called Eastern or Central Europeans. It wasn’t until 1955 that he finally exhibited the paintings he had been creating since 1949. So, as I was highly aware of his work at that time, and as a ‘Mittel’ European in New York while working for Julian Beck’s Living Theater, I was eager to see Kantor’s work which for me contained something that the Living Theater did not have- and that is the whole awareness of censorship, something which I will discuss in my work a bit later today.
The awareness of censorship which often manifests itself in so called auto-censorship is a peculiar thing, and really belongs to the special geographical areas of our planet- the Russian constructivists, poets and authors had been aware of it, talents such as Meyerhold, Mayakovsky and Malevich, the Poles such as Grotowski, Kantor, Cheslav Milosh and Witkiewicz had experienced it, the Checks such as Vaclav Havel and Milosh Kundera, the Hungarians such as Istvan Eorshi and Konrad, the ex-Yugoslavs such as Danilo Kish, Gojko Djogo and Slavoj Zizek. They had their own Gulags and Goli Otok and- if they did not experience them first hand, physically, they were painfully aware of it and this sort of awareness really got reflected in their work. That’s when we speak of Kantor we have the notion of “Dead Theater” or “Zero Theater”, “The impossible Theater” or The Poor Theater in Grotowski, these notions are taken not only from the real theatrical praxis that these artists executed in their own time, but these notions also come from their respective real life experiences where their living existence was reduced to zero. In the reductive practice of minimalizing one’s daily existence, the artists’ professional practice was also reduced and became minimalist, as theater and performance always follow the needs and the imperatives of the real life unless they predict them and explain in any given manner.
The history of Central Europe or “Mittel-Europe” always sends us back to the story of K., notably to the hi-story of Kafka, but also, according to the authors/theorists of history such as Claudio Magris and Igor Fiatti, to the writers and artists such as Konrad in Hungary, Kundera of the Check Republic, Danilo Kish in Serbia and Tadeusz Kantor in Poland. All these authors could tell us the history of the anti-Soviet resistance in the second part of the 20th century, painful stories of nomadic moves or of an exile, the internal one or the physical, external one. The constraint of such history is also often explained by the rigor, discipline and the daily existence of the Central European artists within the regime and the scope of “KundK” empire which continued to exist in the mentality of people throughout the 20th century.
However, we should not forget yet another notion of Ka, which is , according to the archaic, ancient world a real , essential source of energy which is , as the ancient Egyptians would have it—an essential characteristic of a human being which manifests itself as “Ka”, or “chi” (as the ancient Chinese used to call it) and all the artists and writers mentioned here were certainly in the possession of it.
Altogether, as we come to evoke here the life and times of Tadeusz Kantor, a Pole , a Central European, we fondly remember him as the man of theater, author of great theater performances, which, as Guy Scarpetta— a formidable connoisseur of great “K”s would tell us, belong to the most disturbing ones in our epoch, and these include “The Dead Class”, “Wielopole, Wielopole” and “Let them die, these artists”. However, we should not forget that first and above all,
Tadeusz Kantor is/was a GREAT, formidable painter, for whom the activity of painting was not the secondary one, but his first and foremost activity without which his theater and his directing, scenic activity would not be possible, imaginable. At any rate, the mental and the emotional scope of the most important theater and film directors of our times have consisted in viewing their representational world as the series of consecutive paintings, that is, the consecutive visual images which they endowed with the constant movement ( later called either “a film” or a “theater performance”.)
Tadeusz Kantor decided very early to become a painter. As his childhood developed at the crossroads of two cultures, the Presbyterian and the Jewish one in Krakow, the one which endowed him with the seriousness and the other with tender humor, we could not call him a painter with the romantic sensibility, as explained nicely in his biography by Denis Bablet, who remarked that his vision concerned the living moment of “here and now”, always aware that this now addresses itself to future but also to the living past as exemplified later in his DEAD CLASS. Under the steady eye of Karol Frycz he formed his interest for the Russian theater of Meyerhold but also for the German Bauhaus school, and for Erwin Piscator who spoke of the necessity for the permanent revolution in the domain of art. He admired the radical artists such as Moholy- Nagy and Oscar Schlemmer but in his dialectical approach to his peers he felt an urge to contradict them and as the great modernist Pound said “make it new!”. Kantor says “I am against the expressionism because I am the expressionist. And I know that the expressionism pushed to the extreme– is the dead-end in art.”
Kantor devours the univers of Kafka, but also the univers of the Polish writers such as Wyspianski, Witkiewicz, Gombrowicz and Bruno Schulz. And as much as Kantor was under the influence of Gombrowicz and his theater of the absurd throughout his life, by the end of it his thoughts occupied the minimalist economy of Schulz, whom Bablet calls “Polish Kafka” but whose “ubermanequin” body certainly nourished my compatriot Kish as well as his Polish comrade Tadeusz Kantor. In the Dead Class, Kantor conducts the steady but perhaps hidden dialogue with Schulz, the author of Tractatus on Mannequins, who was his Virgil, thus his guide in the degraded reality of the junk world and discarded objects not only in this play but also in Waterhen (the theme of the eternal voyage).
Kantor’s reality reflects horrors since 1942 when he created in Krakow his first clandestine theater in the catacombs, influenced by Schlemmer’s mannequins and the Bauhaus stage scenography. His first play Slowacki’s Balladyna as well as his Return of Ulysses in 1944 , also performed in a non- place (as Marc Augé would name it) bear marks of abstract and austere realism including raw materials, mud, dust, a cannon and old wooden logs, dusty boxes, the entire minimalist stage world which Kantor is going to describe in his theoretical essay “The Independent Theater”.
“We shouldn’t watch a play the way we watch a painting, For the aesthetic pleasure, but we have to live through the theater piece properly./I don’t obey aesthetic canons/ I am not connected to any historical era/ I know them and these don’t interest me/ I am only profoundly indebted to the era in which I live and to the people who live next to me./ I believe that the barbarians can coexist with the subtle ones, the tragedy can co-exist with the ironic laughter/ I believe that everything is born out of contrast and that the bigger the contrast the more palpable and concrete and lively this world (is).
Yes, this stance we often found in Rabelais, and whenever I think of Kantor, Kantor the director or the performance artist, I see this connection with the great Russian Constructivists such as Malevich, but also with someone like the father of the word Avant-garde, Michail Bakhtin, manifested in his love toward the grotesque, that grotesque laughter which brings both Kantor and Bakhtin to Rabelais.
In his shows, Kantor connects the elements, even the most tragic elements in a funny humorous, grotesque manner- and here we come to his notion of minimalist performances, autonomous and divided scenes which could- each of them standing by itself as a minimalist fragment, but later connected by the fine line of grotesque humor into an entity as is the case with the Dead Class. Each fragment/scene from the Dead Class could stand as a mini performance of its own where actors are exposed in a phenomenological net, as some special objects, mannequins who are in fact the objects predestined to relate to one another in a phenomenological manner. Here he comes close to another giant of the postmodern theater, the American director Richard Foreman who had a similar approach to his theater sets and his actors in his Ontological-Hysteric Theater. However, Foreman’s theater is Ontological in terms of his placing his actors/playful objects within a middle-class semantic field, filled out with angst and memories of his bountiful reality whereas Kantor’s theater is a painful historic memory of the European past filled with battles and wars. And where Foreman offers us a Barbie doll as a memory of an abused childhood- in a memory of Vienna secession and Freud, Kantor turns a man with a hat into an object leading yet another much older creature by his hand who turns out to be an epitome of European History- a blind object leads yet another blind thing.
As It is very difficult in terms of scenography, to set into motion all these very precise Dadaist objects, and as it is already very problematic for actors cum objects and objects cum actors (as Kantor would have it) to create and sustain the inner story of such a phenomenological play, both of these directors have never believed in improvisation in theater. Hardly they both believed in a coherent and contingent story in a play as their miniature fragmented scenes could be taken as a series of separate performances in themselves. However, as Kantor’s Polish reality of the 1960s and 1970s appears more politically restrictive, Stalinist and suffocating than Foreman’s American one, Kantor’s metaphors- as they are being thrust upon the spectator- are more somber and raw in their appearance. Kantor is obsessed with the relationships between art and life and he claims that “the problem of art is always essentially the problem of the presence of an object. As the abstraction is a formal lack of an object which exists outside the picture”, he employs the intricate net of associations which bring the spectators back to an object, as exemplified in his Dead Class. In the opening of Kantor’s Wax Museum of human dolls and mannequins, the number of the said objects turned into people, keep raising their hands, as if they had something to ask, as if they had something to say. But they are not capable of telling a story, or the murky History of the man whose soul died under the Communist boot and censorship.
And when they start uttering words and semi-coherent sentences, their declarations are unimportant, as they turn around in circle or in circles around the bench. However, Kantor obtains in his staging process a certain neutrality of his object which becomes in turn an independent semantic sign, like Duchamp’s “Fountain-urinary”, a recyclable “ready-made”. In his Cricot 2 Theater he treats the text also as an organic “ready-made” object, ready to be manipulated by an actor. Kantor has never believed in “props”, as his view of his object had always had a strictly political, utilitarian role- it was there, made to be ready to jump into action and break the frontier between the representation and the spectator. And then there was his WATERHEN: after this particular performance the objects enhance their phenomenology status- they gain on their proper meanings and significance, they speak for themselves, their roles are totally equal even competing with the roles of actors who in turn become things.
Kantor provokes the spectator with his objects, and although they are sparse and not numerous on stage, they are disturbing. He does not believe in illusion and he draws the spectator in right away: in media res- he learnt from Piscator that supreme lesson in disturbing the voyeur and he will not let him dream- if his spectator is lulled to sleep, he will make sure that by the end of the show, his dream becomes a nightmare. Bablet nicely remarked that Kantor’s performance is not a can that a spectator can open every evening and be served there the same, tasty meal: Kantor invites his audience to join his stage, but unlike the Living Theater (also the adepts of Piscator)he does not impose his political vision on them, nor he lures the spectator to construct or deconstruct the stage mentally (the way that Foreman, the Brechtian soul would do). Kantor invents the semantic game and sets it on the stage resembling a chess-field where he invites you for a rollercoaster ride (each slope is a different chapter in History full of wars, slaughterhouses, inner prisons and censorship). And so as not to sound or appear sordid in all his gore reveling, he introduces Rabelaisian humor to it, decadent prostitutes turned into dolls, minimalist boxes (or prison-houses?) where all shades of grey, black and white parade in their splendor.
The very manner of Kantor’s belief in equality of theatrical elements (meaning the text, spectator, stage, objects) enables him to increase the tension between the sequels of the mini performances or “the scenes” which constitute a longer piece, say like the Dead Class. If we observe these separate acts or miniature sequels we see that it is this hyper tension which divides them into semantic units. And the logic of the larger unit is the composition of a collage or the assemblage; he says about the creative process something like “all the elements of the theatrical expression such as the word, the sound, the movement, the light and the content turn against one another” they deconstruct one another in a dialectic manner, feeding themselves on inner contradictions. The real feeds on the unreal, reason feeds itself on instinct, spiritualism depends on materialism, laughter feeds off the tragic content. But in fact, Kantor dialogues foremost and above all with the real but for him the real is manifested in an object and as in the piece “Brain Tumor” it is the Anti-social element, object on the brain of the society which calls for the action of the conscious creativity. Such an object ironically threatens human society and mankind and is prevented from any action by the apparatchik such as professor Green. Here, like in his other pieces Kantor arrives at the ‘übertreatment’ of the real, a performance action which in turn becomes the surreal one which is just a structural shortcut in his economy of a play. The quintessence of the Surrealism is extreme realism or, as Djordje Kostic, the founder of Serbian Surrealism underlined once by saying “The surrealism is the realism on square”. By applying such a structural, Surrealist shortcut into his performance, Kantor reduces both scenic space and the temporal duration of his assemblage or a happening or performance.
We should not forget that the principal point of Kantor’s creative reduction is his credo that the absence emphasizes the presence of an object or a given situation – by insisting on the absence of life (thus the notion of his Theater of Death) he really points out at the presence of the living elsewhere.
April 2015, Paris