No, you can’t do that—yet I want to watch! That’s how I remember a shocking and beautiful moment from the first theatrical work I had seen by Jérôme Bel. It was 2001, and though my memory of much of the show has now faded, I recall how it changed my understanding of performance. That quiet experience of shock and revelation is now deeply rooted in my history with staged work. When I scan my 20-some years of seeing theater and dance as an artist, this moment by Bel is truly unforgettable.
It’s a moment well into his 50-minute performance titled Jérôme Bel (1995). By then, I had adjusted to some of the other disarming aspects of the work—the four performers nude from the very start of the piece, the uncompromising single, large bulb casting the only light in the show, the long pauses throughout. Still, I was unprepared for the next moment. In the middle of one of the long pauses, when the stage framed a male performer standing directly in front of the audience, the seemingly unthinkable happened. Without warning or movement, without opinion or shame, from silence and stillness, he began urinating.
An unbelievable action that we are allowed to watch, expected to watch. A plain acknowledgement of what we are. Here, it was placed squarely stage center for all to consider. In the shock, the mind scrambles to make sense of it, really to hide, but there is no use, no help. We’re exposed to ourselves as the scared, funny, soft, and beautiful beings that we had forgotten. This moment of theater reminds us.
The moment passes, and we think we get a respite from the violent yet innocent tearing of theater convention that just happened. In the surprise and confusion, however, we neglected to watch a female performer seated on the stage floor, demurely with both legs to one side. She had been there all along, not moving, while we focused on the male performer. Now, she gets up, and we see that she too has created a puddle, quietly, all around her. Biology, gender, taboo, theater, and the audience ourselves implicated. It’s so hard to make sense of it that we want to revolt or flee, yet we know it’s all just common truth.
If you don’t know of Jérôme Bel, it’s understandable because he doesn’t make much work. When he does, he works slowly. His website lists 15 shows in 20 years. His performances tend to be concise and modest in materiality. With no recognizable song and dance, neither bells nor whistles, only highly economical use of time, space, words, and materials, his pieces don’t have the trappings of a crowd-pleaser. I find, however, it’s some of the most important work in contemporary performance around. To anyone interested in understanding how the stage works—its overlooked and underutilized power—Bel has something very profound to say.
Bel choreographs with near non-actions. Artist Tim Etchells wrote helpfully about how Bel uses the stage as “a little empire of signs.” To me, the signs are like suggestions or instructions: Please look directly at this. Please consider what you ignore or hide from. Please notice how you are reacting in this moment. Please let go of your expectation of theater. Bel’s language is methodical, plainly inviting, and paced for our careful study.
I could easily understand it as expert guided meditation. Everything that is unnecessary is pared away. It all lives in a plainness, modesty, or intimate reality that keeps you just where you are. You are never swept away by outward virtuosity or passion. Instead, you must provide the unswerving gaze, calm mind, and open heart. Like a guided meditation, you should go willingly, and if you do you are transported, not away, but further into where you are, your own humanity. If you don’t go along, the stage experience will appear stupid or boring. (He usually does supply some understated humor to keep you amused along the way.)
Bel is best in his precise and delicate alchemy of signs that taps into our internal reservoirs of learned right and wrong. He loosens the anxiety that comes from the right-and-wrong structures that have built, defined, and confined our society, revealing a naked moment surrounded generously by the space, time, and situation of a darkened theater. In the theater, it feels new and dangerous.
I know five of Bel’s works. It’s a rare occasion for his live work to travel to the US, and I look forward to his latest piece, Disabled Theater with Theater HORA, showing this month at the Walker Art Center. Disabled Theater will give voice to individuals who have learning disabilities and are typically unheard in society. With his previous several pieces—from Veronique Doisneau (2004) through Cédric Andrieux (2009), which were created with and on solo dancers—Bel has proven masterful at biography. With this new work, Bel is playing biographically with a much more sensitive subject matter, and it will be an intriguing test of how he balances his usually daring and insightful authoring with the sensitivities of power and exploitation explicit in the relationship between creator and performers—heightened, in this case.
Bel has said, “If you don’t go to theatre to be a voyeur and see what you’re not allowed to see, I don’t understand why you go.” I remember my encounter with Jérôme Bel, and the shock of seeing on stage what I never thought I would see.
He also has said, “My artistic project is theatre, trying to understand its structure, how it works, what its power is.” I remember his film Veronique Doisneau and that shock of how lovingly and crushingly revealing theater can be of itself and of a dancer’s life. These are my favorite works by Jérôme Bel. In both instances, I remember how every moment of my attention stayed with every moment of the work. A masterpiece is to be alive in the theater, awakened and fully present with what is before you.
Marcus Young is a behavioral artist and City Artist in Residence with Public Art Saint Paul.