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PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 22.3 (2000) 66-71

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Reviving the Dead

Johanne Lamoureux


CounterPoses: Reimagining the Tableau Vivant, Galérie Oboro, Montréal, May 7-9, 1999.


Presented "live" throughout the 4001 Berri building in Montréal, CounterPoses: Reimagining the Tableau Vivant enabled visitors to reflect on the conditions that would make it possible to take the viewer into account--I mean in a way that would be slightly more critical than the constant appeals that we are now (at a time when interactivity has become widespread and banal) subjected to, on the pretext that we will be better served (or subjugated). The idea for this weekend originated with the collective Display Cult (Jim Drobnick and Jennifer Fisher). With a name like this, it should come as no surprise that it chose to measure itself against the medium of the exhibition; indeed it should be praised for using this opportunity to reinvent in a meaningful way a genre that had fallen into disuse with the arrival of the twentieth century. I am referring to the tableau vivant.

A cultural and para-artistic practice of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the tableau vivant was a cross between a parlor game and a form of spectacle. In CounterPoses, it abandons its edifying and moralizing aims without, however, relinquishing its right to play freely upon the incredible epistemological richness (history, religion, gender studies, ethnology, technology, etc.) that constituted its complex genealogy. This concept allowed Drobnick and Fisher to reactivate a network of entirely current issues relating to contemporary art-making, in the process echoing each one's own theoretical concerns: the tactile (Fisher) and olfactory (Drobnick) dimensions of the works' pragmatic and of the itineraries traced by the institutions that show them. It is understood, of course, that this exhibition partakes of the postmodern project that consists in relativizing and undermining the hegemony of the visual, instead of demonizing it.

As a contemporary genre, the tableau vivant is also interesting in that it allows for an articulation of an aesthetics of the exhibition and an ethics of the body, and facilitates a chiastic inversion of these terms, which both curators and artists have here used in their attempt to [End Page 66] [Begin Page 68] formulate an ethics of the exhibition. Of course the problem is framed all the more forcefully and urgently given that we are dealing with a mise-en-scène of live figures (for this new practice the curators have proposed the term, "living display"). Inspired by Foucault's final work on the care of the self, and related to Stephen Greenblatt's "self-fashioning," this particular manifestation is obviously greatly indebted to two decades of performance art. But while performance combines presence and duration, the tableau vivant intensifies the crystallization of these two givens into a stasis: that of the actors/authors frozen by the pose, in the grip of a device, or framed by a "role."

CounterPoses, which brought together a dozen or so interventions by some fifteen artists and collectives, was conceived as an exhibition and not as a "performance festival." Thus the tableaux were presented sequentially and simultaneously. The dark building recalled the cavernous interiors of the wax museums of our childhood. On the ground floor, three interventions highlighted the exhibition of the body to different circumstances of the gaze. David McFarlane's installation featured two elements: a sphere in which one could glimpse a human silhouette, and a large screen showing a close-up of a face. Visitors instinctively tried moving the sphere, whose bulk became linked with the gaze on the screen as soon as one realized that the camera was recording the physical, psychological, and technical modifications (blurring of the image) which the viewer's "participation" produced for the performer and his performance. Facing this first room, The Other Theatre also set up a closed and mobile world. Its tableau, confined to the cage of a moving elevator, was intermittently visible through the viewing grille in the door, where visitors lined up to see...


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