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“Tragedy of a friendship” by Jan Fabre. Photo: Wonge Bergmann

Irony Comes From Within. A conversation with Jan Fabre 0

Interviewed by Margarita Zieda

In honor of Richard Wagner's bicentennial, when almost every opera house in the world is presenting one or more of the composer's works – the more ambitious houses even producing the complete four-part series of “The Ring of the Nibelung” –  the Flemish artist Jan Fabre has taken to task all 13 of Wagner's operas in his new work, “Tragedy of a Friendship” – starting with the composer's first opera of his youth, “The Fairies”, and ending with his testament to humanity, “Parsifal”. The piece opened in May, in Antwerp's De Vlaamse Opera, before heading off to Paris and Amsterdam.

Working in the diverse fields of visual art, theater, dance, performance and opera, Flemish artist Jan Fabre (1958) is often called a renaissance man. At times he works with several of these domains at once; at other times, he works with all of them at once. Fabre's seven-hour-long “The Power of Theatrical Madness”, showing at the Teatro Goldoni, opened the 1984 Venice Biennale, while the second part of his opera trilogy “The Minds of Helena Troubleyn” – “Silent Screams, Difficult Dreams” – closed the 1992 German art exhibition dOCUMENTA IX in Kassel. Fabre is the first living artist to have been given exhibition space at The Louvre in Paris – in 2008 he presented 30 huge installations in the masterpiece-containing Richelieu Wing of the museum, thereby creating an interplay between his works and those of the Flemish, Dutch and German artists on display.

Fabre's theatrical productions and operas lack a cohesive story – they are associatively created, staged events that grow and develop from definite themes. And in these productions, the human body always becomes the focus of attention. Fabre is convinced that the deepest truth is hidden inside man, and for the last thirty years he has unremittingly attempted to tease out this truth. He is preoccupied with the processes and transformations that occur in man, submitting the bodies of his performers to physical feats that meet, and even surpass, the limits of possibility. In Fabre's productions we see real physical exhaustion; the meeting of a candle's flame with human flesh is real. On stage, his actors do not portray characters, but rather gain experience – according to Fabre's convictions, everything that a person experiences on stage is also transferred to the audience. And it is important to Fabre that the viewer is connected to an intense physical experience that has been brought to the extreme – because that is the path to a deeper human experience. Fabre belongs to the branch of artists who provoke, and he does not shy away from using extreme methods. But at the same time, he is a master of poetic characters and metaphysical works, which these days – when cruelty has become routine on Europe's theatrical stages, having long since lost its initial ability to shake the viewer to the core of his existence and has instead become maddeningly dull – allows Fabre's theater to converse in yet another quality.

In making a production on the relationship between the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and the composer Richard Wagner, and in pondering the friendship that began with such creative joy and ended in its own little hell, Fabre has taken on board the composer Moritz Eggert and the writer Stefan Hertmans. Together, they have made a new opera – “The Tragedy of a Friendship”.

Jan Fabre. Photo: (c) Angelos bvba, Jeroen Mantel

We met with Jan Fabre during the Holland Festival, during which the opera was playing at the Amsterdam City Theatre.

Your production of “Tragedy of a Friendship” has an unusual approach to the music of Richard Wagner. You never use the great power of it, but let the audience hear Wagner's music in a very silent and fragile way – in a capella form. For this production, the composer Moritz Eggert created his own acoustic space with a harmonium, cello and theremin, but there still is a place for Wagner's music as well. Why this silent Wagner? Usually, the power of this artist is associated with the great intensity and the overwhelming force of his music.

I wanted to construct a stage that brings the feeling of a museum. A spiritual place that brings in the echoes from the past. It is almost as if I am bringing Wagner through the dust, out of the past. There are LP records, old movies. It´s like a memory that I have brought to the stage. You see the people with gloves as they bring up the objects like they would in a museum. It looks like they are coming from the cloak-room, from backstage. That feeling – that it is like a museum – you see and hear echoes from the past. And then you have an almost contemporary approach to the opera.

To celebrate the bicentennial of Richard Wagner, you chose not just one of his works, but all 13 operas. How did you ever create this production?

We had to go through so much material. There were two years of preparation – we read all the librettos, heard all the operas, read so many books. The exercise was, in a sense, to cut down all these forests and to only have a couple of trees left. We talk about essential things from every opera and tried to find inside of them the other kind of concurrences that connect these metaphors and symbols.

In preparation, I do a lot of drawings. Drawings, models, space, action, costumes. But first of all, there are a lot of drawings in the working process. And then I start to improvise. I prepare myself very well and then I improvise with the actors, dancers and singers around the themes. And I always give them the impression that they have invented everything themselves.

In your performance, every opera of Wagner has a subtitle. “Rienzi” - “Hero and Terrorist“, “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg” – “The End of a Poetry”, “Parsifal” – “The End of Music”. Could you explain, with one example, this cutting down of the forests to have a couple of trees left?

Let's take “Parsifal”, for example. There are a lot of different things which come together in terms of the wounds. In my reading you see, essentially, that the wounds are coming out of the hats. The wounds are things that we create ourselves. In “Parsifal” there are a lot of lines about wounds and skin, and how they come together.

Studying the Wagner cosmos as a whole, which aspects did you find the most exciting?

For me, the most exciting thing in his work is the transformation between the animal and human forms. From human to animal, and from animal to human.

Wagner also believed that it is possible to transform humans – those who are sitting in the audience – into more spiritual beings; that´s why he wanted to build the Opera House in Bayreuth for only four days, in order to perform “Der Ring des Nibelungen”; afterwards, he wanted to let this building burn down.

He built the opera house. You can feel it in Wagner's librettos, how he slowly started to combine the values of Christianity with the values of pagans. You feel that he is a kind of revolutionary artist, and he still is in “Rienzi”; and then you see how he slowly goes towards Christianity and how this kind of paganism slowly culminates into Christianity on the inside. There is a kind of reaching towards a spiritual being. I think his evolution goes through the revolutionary-artist-phase, and on towards that of a spiritual artist.

Wagner wanted to change his spectators. What is important to you when you think about the audience?

For me, it is always a kind of exchange of energy, an exchange of catharsis. But at the same time, I think there are secret bindings between the spectator and the work of art. I don´t think you can come between them. It´s something very individual – very personal – that goes on there.

There are very few artists nowadays – almost no one – who manages to reach a point of catharsis in the audience, who gets access to this purifying process within the souls of the spectators – which the ancient Greeks tried to attain through horror and mercifulness in their tragedies. What is your way to catharsis?

Through the physiological states of my performers. The public always goes through the same experience and pain that the performers go through.

At the end of his life, Friedrich Nietzsche was very disappointed in the theatre and said that all performers are just liars. I read an interview with you some time ago in which you said that it is very important that the person on stage is really experiencing something, and is not just showing it.

I try to make a guideline for my awareness of beauty in the post-modern stadium of life.

And through this guiding line, I try to reach a kind of truthfulness. And I try to do this through a physiological approach. So it is not about emotions or something outside of them, but it is much more about the chemical processes inside of the body. And after dealing with the physiological states, I try to find the bridge between truthfulness and acting. From acts to acting. You could say that through the acts of coming into a real tiredness and the experiencing of real pain, you can make a bridge from the acts to the acting.

And how does a person on stage get to this physiological state? What kind of impulses do you give your performers?

I teach with my regular methods in my own company. Some of these people have been working with me for already 10 or 15 years. They know what kind of a performer I want to see on my stage. It is training. It is a teaching of different exercises, they do kendo, they do yoga, they learn ballet exercises. It is a combination of different factors.

Could you give an example of how this physiological approach works in your new Wagner production?

For example, when they do the fornication scene. There is a focus on this for more than 20 minutes, I think, and they are really doing it. You are getting tired, you are transforming yourself and your physiological states; it is almost like going from a physical body to a kind of spiritual body.  For instance, at the end, they take the sweat drops in the air and they became these angelic figures. It´s true that physically, through time and through repetition, you reveal the state of your physical presence in a different way.

It is interesting that you mentioned exactly this example. Because in Wagner's operas, the audience hears many more such longings, and they last for four or five hours.

Yes, but it is also inside. Using this, let´s say guiding line, you feel a kind of vulnerability and a kind of impossibility of reaching it. Almost in a physical way.

Let’s speak about the tragedy of friendship between Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche. What is your take on this friendship? What happened between them?

Historically, you know what happened. The texts for this performance were written by Stefan Hertmanns. He is a poet, but he is also a specialist in the visual arts. And he has written about my work for 25 years. He has written various essays about my visual arts, about my writing, about my stage work. And he himself is a very good thinker. So, collaborating with him was a little bit like – sometimes he has wanted to become an artist, and I have sometimes wanted to become a philosopher. It was something like Wagner and Nietzsche between us. Nietzsche had also composed music. He was a very bad composer. And Wagner wrote a lot of texts. But he was not a great philosopher. This clash between the apollonical force and the dionystic force. And of course, these two characters themselves, this duality. For me, Nietzsche and Wagner are one figure.

In your performance you have a very ironical way of looking at things. Why is that?

I am Flemish.

Could you explain this to me?

Flemish artists come from a very small community. Historically, other peoples have always occupied us – the Spanish, the Dutch, the Germans, the French. And you see this in our tradition of painting. In all Flemish painting from the 13th, 14th and 15th centuries. The power that couldn't be taken from us was the irony of the artists. Because irony was always a tool with which to analyse things in a very sharp way. With a small smile in the corner of your mouth. And even today, that is the reason why I say that I am a Flemish artist. Look at the French and German paintings from the 15th and 16th centuries. They are all about the glorification of power. Look to the Flemish paintings, and they are about the celebration of life. It is sex and drugs and rock´n´roll. It is singing, feasting, dancing. And at the same time, a lot of jokes and irony regarding the ruling powers.

That’s interesting, precisely because Richard Wagner's world is totally free from irony.

He was German. He represents the German tradition.

But going back to irony. Of course, irony is not humour; it is not cynicism. It is something else. And in that sense, it may be a link between the German or Wagnerian worlds. First of all, we have a Germanic language – Flemish is Germanic in origin. I think that irony lives on the inside – it is not something to be put on the outside.

It is inside. By the seriousness of me, as an artist. Irony comes from within. It is not a tool to be stuck onto the outside.

I'm sure you have read a lot of works by Nietzsche. I was thinking during the performance yesterday that your irony, according to the Nietzsche figure, is so massive that there is almost no possibility for him to exist today. What do you think – are there some really important thoughts from this philosopher that are still useful in a contemporary world?

For me, he still is a very important philosopher. For me, he is like Antoine Artaud. They are two thinkers who, essentially, do not have methods. All that they essentially have is a guiding line. Do you understand the difference? Because the methods of a lot of thinkers usually become old fashioned very quickly. But not in terms of Nietzsche or Artaud because for them, it is a guiding line. It is a mental guiding line. It is not a system. It is not a method. For this reason, these two people are very important for me today, as an artist.

What is important for you in their guiding lines?

You find it in Nietzsche and you find it in Artaud. When they talk about performers, they say that the performer needs the rage of a killer, yet he doesn't kill. This intensity, this complicity. This anti-sentimentality.

The phenomenon of “friendship” is something immaterial. How it is possible to show it, to put it on the stage?

We cannot show it. It is like that with every relationship. In a relationship, the tragedy is within. Because you know that one day it will peter out. It is there already from the starting point. In every single friendship.

I believe in friendship. But it is always there – the idea that friendship implies this tragedy. Otherwise, it cannot be a true friendship. Everybody who has been in a relationship goes through this tragedy in their lives.

What happened – why did Friedrich Nietzsche break with Richard Wagner and start to write a love letter to “Carmen”, by George Bizet?

Jealousy. Ha-ha. I think that deep down, it´s jealousy. That is the feeling one gets when reading all of those letters that have been published in the old book, “The Case of Wagner”. It is so badly written, and it is so full of remoteness. Yes, I think it basically was jealousy. Jealousy was the power. But don´t forget – at the end of his life, he said that the only person whom he had loved so very much was Richard Wagner.

“Tragedy of a friendship” by Jan Fabre. Photo: (c) Wonge Bergmann