Review: “Mount Olympus” by Belgian artist Jan Fabre
Margarita Zieda 10/08/2015
The 24-hour theater marathon “Mount Olympus – To Glorify the Cult of Tragedy”, by Belgian artist Jan Fabre, not long ago experienced its world premier at Berlin's international performing arts festival Foreign Affairs. It has now moved on to Amsterdam and will emerge again in the autumn, in Rome, and then yet again in the winter – in Antwerp. Buenos Aires has also taken a place in line. This large-scale zooming-in on the cultural roots of Western civilization, this performance by 27 people that continues for 24 hours without stopping and in which individual performers leave the stage for only a few moments, this complete shattering of normal human physical and psychological limits – requires so many resources and such stamina that no one is willing to perform it any more often. At the same time, the response of the audience is overwhelming – the first performance in Berlin closed to a standing ovation that lasted for half an hour. This may be nothing compared to the 24 hours of intense labor that the performers just put in, but it's still pretty impressive.
Jan Fabre has always been interested in human limits, testing them out “for real” on the bodies and souls of his performers. Without any pretense of “faking it”. He contends that he is the first to combine the conditionality of theater with the authenticity of performance art. The elements of theatrical art with which Fabre constructed “Mount Olympus” were sketched out thirty years ago. Back then they were a novelty, and the avant-garde director Jan Fabre was seen as something of a new guru in the art of European theater. At the 1984 Venice Biennale, Fabre put on “The Power of Theatrical Madness”, a production that went on for four straight hours without any characters. Instead of characters, the focus was put on the actors, dancers and singers themselves, all of whom performed on stage until they were drained to complete exhaustion. In place of a story, everything happened in real time; instead of drama, there were quotes; and at the very core of the work was the realness of what was happening on stage – real sweat, real exhaustion, real pain. Fabre is interested in the real processes that take place within a person, and the aesthetic arrangement of them all – into the form of art – often seems to be a kind of necessity with which to legitimize his activities. At this point one should remember that the great 19th-century entomologist and author of popular books on the lives of insects – Jean-Henri Fabre – was the great-grandfather of the 21st-century artist Jan Fabre.
After his success at the Venice Bienalle, Fabre developed an eight-hour-long piece that tested the limits of both his performers and the audience. This wasn't any world record since the performance of “KA MOUNTAIN AND GUARDenia TERRACE”, by American director Robert Wilson, went on non-stop for seven days straight. Wilson's piece was produced in Iran in the early seventies, and after performing for three days around-the-clock, Wilson and one of his performers woke up in the hospital, hooked up to intravenous drips. Wilson, ever true to his passion, ripped out the IVs and headed back to continue with his performance. Subsequently, his productions became shorter; he had already found his limits.
Jan Fabre's art, however, has not yet found its limits. A whole year was spent on preparations and rehearsals lasting from morning to late in the evening, all in order to create something that had never been done before – a 24-hour testing of human limits. The main character in Fabre's work is, as ever, time and its effect on people. In this latest piece of his, the performance's emphasis is not on a work of intellectual thought, but on the experience of the human body and consciousness. On the processes going on in a person as he or she executes various stage directions for as long as he or she can, and what goes on within the audience members as they watch all of this at length. Fabre himself says that his wish is to bring the viewer's perception to a complete jumble of reality and unreality. And in order to this, he heads back to the very origins of theater, to the ancient Greek Dyonysia – days-long ritual processions with theatrical performances of dramatic tragedies and comedies. How did these multi-day intensive festivals affect human perception? This is the question that leads Fabre and his performers to go back in time several centuries before the birth of Christ, and spurs them to delve into ancient Greek mythology and the tragedies and comedies of antiquity – to unwind these historical motifs in another time and place. Words also appear in the fourteen-part production, but only to give a clue about which tragedy we currently find ourselves in. And all of them speak about human pain – the pain from injustice, from betrayal, from love, from the wish to avenge and its ultimate impossibility. Fabre's theater is physical, carnal, sensitive. It is free from psychology and the intellectual. All of a person's extreme emotions are set free and articulated through the human body, to the limits of human expression and for as long as possible – in order to, at the very end, collapse in utter debility. And after a short while, get back up again and continue with a new challenge.
In this manner, and with war songs playing, the choir of performers do exercises with jump-ropes made from metal chains. Each person jumps for as long as he or she can. And they do this interminably, if one looks at it from the viewpoint of a naïve, average person who only works out once in a while. They jump till they sweat; they continue jumping, and continue sweating.
When I return to the auditorium several hours later in the middle of the night (taking breaks is a necessity if you want to see the performance to the end), the man who has lasted the longest in his metal jump-roping is now struggling with four women who are literally hanging off of him. They've grabbed on to him from all four sides; they're heavier than rocks. Having once physically lusted after them and then “taken” them, now he must bear their weight. “Zeus, why did you create woman? What was the point?” he asks the heavens as he shakes off this human dead-weight forty times in a row, only to have them pounce upon him again and again.
Nevertheless, Fabre's interest in the human soul is minimal. People are physical; people are meat. Fabre gets this across right from the start with his first huge scene: people dressed in white dance until blood begins to seep through their clothes; pieces of raw meat begin to peel off of their clothes and fall to the ground – livers, hearts, kidneys, flesh. The white floor becomes red, sticky, full of the sickly sweet aroma of warm blood. Greek tragedies are full of this – wars, savage violence, murders, revenge. People act like animals with one another. Looking upon this lengthy demonstration of the beginnings of Western civilization, one can clearly ascertain that in the period from 2500 BCE to the present, nothing much has changed, essentially.
Not only does Fabre's production turn the lens on today's world in all its barbarism, but it also changes the perspective from which people look at themselves. The person dancing among pieces of meat, with various pieces of raw flesh still tied on to him or her, lets us see that all of this meat is also a part of us – humans. Covered in skin, you never see your own structure made of meat and blood; but that is also a part of you.
Fabre's theater has not only physical heaviness, meat, blood and flesh, but also humor, poetics and beauty. It was precisely during the calm and quiet scenes (including the three grandiose sleeping events that followed three episodes of excessive activity) that the undefinable took place – one could call it a kind of magic that happens when the feeling of reality changes. A Dionysian state of consciousness that lasts for several days, and after the viewer has recovered from it, he or she can try to answer a self-directed question: Did this 24-hour-long change in consciousness give him or her any kind of deeper experience?
In any case, in the current cultural situation of Western Europe this contribution from Fabre has been created like a clear challenge for today – to the people of today, with their laborious way of using the time that they do have, as well as the realization that there is not enough time for anything. There's no time; time is money; the time must be cut. This can also be seen in the case of European theatrical productions where shows continue to shrink to match the time of an average movie – one hour and forty minutes, with no intermission. A few years ago the creative director of Amsterdam's City Theatre explained to me that, in the Netherlands, a longer production is simply not possible because people want to still go out to dinner after the show, and they have to get up early for work the next morning. Ever since Tim Renner, a former pop group manager, became Berlin's State Secretary for Cultural Affairs, a noticeable turn towards creating ultra-short events has been observed – Berlin is a city for tourists, and this latest “short-form” culture serves as a good warm-up act before heading out to the clubs.
It is in this situation that Jan Fabre comes up with a performance that allows us to experience time from anew; to make room for the experiencing of time. The challenges set by “Mount Olympus” are too great for a person to take it all in over the whole 24 hours. Everyone watches for as long as they can endure. Beds were set up inside other rooms of the Berliner Festspielhaus, and tents were set up outside in the garden for those who preferred fresh air; a pig was being roasted in the yard, and the following morning a communal yoga class was held in the garden. Toothbrushes, showers and breakfast were also available to viewers, so that one could freshen-up and not offend other viewers with their bodily odors. The same kind of amenities can probably be expected in Rome, Buenos Aires and many other cities, for Fabre's production is unique enough that everyone everywhere would want to go see it.
But at the same time, while watching “Mount Olympus” in its entirety, one is increasingly overcome by the feeling that this art that strives for maximum reality and squeezes people to their very last drop is in possession of something inhuman. Something that isn't even related to capitalistic criticism, but rather to the artist's demeanor towards his performers who, as he perceives them, are only tools with which he can work, and not living human beings. The 24-hour performance ends with an hour-long orgy of colors in which the performers are constantly splattered with chemical-based paints, as well as spend a rather long time inhaling the colored powder from the beautiful clouds of fog – everything is supposedly “non-toxic”. Watching all of this for what seemed to be an excruciatingly long time, I was reminded of Fabre's 2012 performance in Antwerp in which he “worked” with cats. To show to his audience what it looks like when an animal exhibits true fear, he stood on top of a very high ladder and dropped screaming animals from this immense height. Having received more than twenty thousand written letters of protest from viewers, Fabre simply shrugged it off – it was just a demonstration of what true fear looked like; don't infringe me with any sort of moral or humane standards.