Images in Theatre.Theatre in Images. (2015)

Jan Niksinski – 3 August 2015

Text written for the book ‘Es war Leben, kein Schauspiel’ published by the Polish Institute in Vienna in 2015 on the occasion of the 250th anniversary of the Open Theatre in Poland.

This is the title of my exhibition, which I had in 2009 in Warsaw at the Austrian Cultural Forum. In this exhibition, I tried to show everything about my collaboration with TheaterMëRZ from Gaza, so a photographic documentation of my stage designs for this theatre, a montage of recordings of many performances, as well as posters and flyers that I designed for TheaterMëRZ. I have also exhibited there my paintings and drawings inspired by months of living in Gaz and participating in the theatre’s work.

My work at TheaterMëRZ had a very original character. It was nothing like the typical forms of collaboration between set designer and director. Willi Bernhart (the director and creator of this theatre) offered me an artistic collaboration with the TheaterMëRZ, based on the paintings and exhibitions he had seen of mine, and precisely because I had no background or studies in set design. At the theatre in Graz, I had never created any mock-ups or finished set designs. By attending a week or two of rehearsals for a particular show, I would begin to build my installations on stage, similar to the creations of my paintings, but in the theatrical space. Willi Bernhart would then enter these installations with the actors, who, under his direction, would experiment in this new space I had constructed. Along the way of these rehearsals and discussions, my set design was modified and finally, after a few weeks, we found some kind of consensus when the stage image I had created began to harmonise with the director’s concept and the actors’ movement. In this way, my subsequent theatrical images were created, which the Willy Bernhart Theatre brought to life through its original style and action on stage. his boss (and creator) Willy Bernhart.

This long-term collaboration with TheaterMëRZ was a great lesson for me, a practical knowledge of theatre, because I had never worked with any theatre before as a stage designer and in general (after my contact with Kantor’s theatre), I had little interest in theatre, because I was mostly met with further disappointments there. Before that, my knowledge of it was purely theoretical, and tainted in a specific way by my contact with Tadeusz Kantor’s ‘Theatre of Death’. In 1975, I found myself quite by accident at the premiere of his play The Dead Class. Accidentally, because before that I had little idea who Tadeusz Kantor was. I was also not very impressed by his paintings, with which he “imported” a succession of styles and trends in contemporary art, and I knew his performance actions only from stories and photographs, so I wasn’t too interested in them (then in the 1970s) either. My future wife was studying in Krakow at the time and once managed to get tickets for a new performance of Kantor’s theatre at Krzysztofory. It turned out that this was the premiere performance starting the cycle of the so-called ‘Theatre of Death’, or ‘Dead Class’. What I saw at this premiere completely changed my attitude to contemporary theatre and was a kind of artistic shock. Both the productions of various alternative theatres like “Teatr Stu” or “Teatr 8 Dnia”, and the most outstanding performances of drama theatres in Krakow, Warsaw or Gdańsk, which I had seen so far, and also later, seemed to me, from this premiere of “The Dead Class”, something secondary, false, immature and banal. At first I didn’t even realise – why? At the time I couldn’t even justify it or define the reasons for my such views and impressions.

In 1988 I came to Nuremberg in connection with the opening of my exhibition at the Institute of Modern Art and found myself, to my surprise, among Kantor’s friends and sponsors. The first of these was Heinz Neidel, the director of this Institute, who was at the same time the custodian of the ‘Nuremberg Cricoteka’, i.e. the then largest archive of almost all documents and photographs documenting Kantor’s activities, as well as the publisher of many books on his subject and analytical-critical texts. He was also the organiser and curator of my exhibition. The second was Karl Gerhard Schmidt – owner of the Schmidt Bank, sophisticated collector and art expert, founder of the Institute of Modern Art in Nuremberg, as well as Kantor’s close friend and sponsor of many of his artistic endeavours – he financed, above all, the several-month stay of Kantor’s Theatre in Nuremberg and the preparation of the performance Let the Artists Die (in 1985).  Knowing these people, as well as conversations with other Institute staff, gave me a great deal of knowledge about Kantor’s philosophy, the theory of his theatre and many anecdotes from his life and stays in Nuremberg. Slowly, my intellectual attitude to Kantor’s work was also formed. It was also then that I finally managed to define and justify my emotional admiration for this theatre, as well as my negative, critical attitude towards most other theatres – including Grotowski’s ‘Laboratory’ Theatre. 

I realised that Kantor’s theatre grows directly out of his personal experiences and fate – it is a constant return to his ‘childhood room’, without ever becoming a biographical tale. In this way, Kantor created a special kind of truth in art, a truth that many other artists unfortunately lack, not only in theatre but also in other fields of art. Many critics to this day erroneously try to push Kantor’s ‘Theatre of Death’ into the drawer of biographicalism and analyse this theatre ‘psychoanalytically’ through Kantor’s childhood. This is a completely false trope, as Kantor did not tell the story of his life with his theatre – such a direct, naïve narrative was always alien to his constructivist and abstract theatre. He created for this theatre of his a completely original, modern form based on rhythm and relativism, which effectively resisted all the simple ‘pigeonholing’ that various theatre theorists and historians have mostly tried to apply when analysing this phenomenon in the world of contemporary theatre that Kantor’s ‘Theatre of Death’ has become. It turned out that this phenomenon cannot be described and understood either through the key of biographism or simply put into the brackets of some well-known direction or style in art. Kantor himself said on many occasions that he was not interested in plugging into any of the noisy highways that the world avant-garde had become; he was closer to any side roads. He was also always able to define himself best in his statements and texts. Through these texts, theatre, paintings, actions and his persona, he created a kind of ‘gesamtkunstwerk’, i.e. a complete work of art enclosed in an original form – each element of his art defined itself through another. From his paintings came theatrical actions – performances, from these actions his first theatrical rehearsals were created, from these performances various objects remained, which later, as independent entities, found their way into his exhibitions with his paintings or went on to other performances from his ‘Theatre of Death’ series, and finally his philosophical, poetic texts and commentaries on his work were created, and they were no less brilliant than the rest of his work

Throughout his life, Kantor painted pictures – these then created the artistic shape of his performances or were created as if a’proposing subsequent performances. This is an exact illustration of the title of my exhibition and this text: Images in Theatre – Theatre in Images. I too, through contact with Kantor’s theatre and with Kantor himself, began to appreciate his paintings and objects (especially in comparison with what can now be seen in galleries). Kantor himself was also integrally connected to the rest of his ‘gesamtkunstwerk’. As long as he was on stage for each of his performances, this theatre was alive and gave a phenomenal display of truth and form every time(!) (even abroad with foreign actors, such as in Milan in 1987). When Kantor died (in 1990), one of the complementary elements of this construction also disappeared, and not only did he then stop writing, speaking and painting, but his disappearance from the theatre stage also caused his natural death. Although his actors still managed to put on a successful production of the last show he prepared, Today Is My Birthday, where Kantor’s puppet played, all their subsequent theatrical performances were merely embarrassing echoes of Kantor’s theatrical splendour. Other attempts by subsequent artists (mainly Poles) to imitate Kantor’s style were also merely kitsch examples of infantile copying of his unmistakable style. In the architecturally magnificent Cricoteka, newly built in Kraków, in addition to a phenomenal exhibition of all Kantor’s works, one can sometimes see additional exhibitions presenting the work of artists inspired by his work. However, I will drop a veil of silence on this – Kantor would probably break down if he saw what is exhibited there next to his works and how some critics try at all costs to include his work in the currently fashionable current of the so-called visual arts (or critical art). Perhaps only the recent exhibition by Christian Boltanski (a friend of Kantor’s), which can now be seen there, somewhat rescues this situation

However, I only really understood the essence of Kantor’s theatre through my collaboration with TheaterMëRZ. During hundreds of hours of rehearsals in this theatre, I saw how infernally difficult it is to build and maintain the rhythm of stage movement, which is completely different from the rhythm of ballet or pantomime. The director and head of this theatre, Willi Bernhart, built this theatre on his fascination with the work of Witkacy. (Witkacy was also a very important artist for Kantor). Although various social and political themes were always important to Willi Bernhart in these productions, above all the “Witkacian” pure form was most important to him. He was always keen to ensure that cheap journalism and the recreation of one-to-one reality had no place in his theatre. Like Kantor, he condemned banal theatrical acting – with him, as with Kantor, the actor was never supposed to play anything, but to be – to exist in a given situation or space. This caused me to work with this theatre with great joy and artistic satisfaction for many years. We created 6 joint performances with Bernhart – “MëRZFraktatówo” – from “In a small manor house” by Witkacy, through Charms to “Oedipus the King”. It was also in this theatre that all my most important theories and manifestos were created, mainly the notion of ‘Rhythm and Relativity’ in art. I realised that these concepts define the quality of art regardless of the category – from painting, literature, theatre and cinema; in poetry and music they are even natural. Through these criteria, one can also better understand the form of Kantor’s theatre and the lack of this form in most other theatres. What is worrying is that for many so-called visual artists, who now repeatedly imitate theatre and film with their work, something like the concept of form in art is completely alien (or even hostile). It is fortunate that there are still a few outstanding artists left with true form in this art: in theatre, Krystian Lupa or Włodzimierz Staniewski – the founder of the Gardzienice theatre; in painting, Gerhard Richter, Anselm Kiefer (who also worked with Kantor) or Luc Tuymans; and in music, the composer Paweł Szymański or Marcin Masecki – one of the most creative Polish pianists. (I am writing here, of course, about those artists still alive). This saves my faith in the quality and sense of art, in a situation where most museums and galleries, but also theatre and music halls, are dominated by empty pop-culture for the masses empty pseudo-intellectual pap. This culture gets more and more official funding, more and more contrived, gigantic architectural buildings are built for it, and artists instead of works are forced to create more and more expensive and complicated managerial projects – the curators of these projects have become gods of this “rich” pop-culture scene.  There is no room for this ‘Poor room of the imagination’, which has always been Kantor’s field of artistic penetration. Only sometimes, when an intelligent and sensitive person ends up in such a room, watching somewhere on video some archaic performance of Kantor’s ‘Theatre of Death’, he experiences, on the one hand, a strong prick of emotion after contact with real art, and, on the other hand, a sense of frightening alienation and guffawing when trying to leave this room for the street – unless Marcin Masecki is playing in this street or Krystian Lupa is staging some of his performances.