by Pieter T’Jonck. Published in e-tcetera on the 18.02.2019.
Chesterfield, by Alix Eynaudi, begins the moment someone hands you a richly illustrated booklet when you enter the theater. It’s a text written by Ann Carson, about Hegel’s leaps of thought, and offers, almost casually, a reading guide to the show.
In Chesterfield, it is not about what words, actions, objects or things exactly represent in themselves. It is about what happens when they ‘tenderly mingle in speculation’. Image poetry. If Chesterfield makes you think of leather armchairs, it is not far from the truth. Leather, as an elusive material, is omnipresent during the show. Hard and slick or, supple, soft and velvety, shimmering or dim. Eynaudi discovered its possibilities during her residency in the Austrian ‘Weltmuseum Wien’ (former Museum of Ethnology) in Vienna, where she came across some fascinating book covers in processed leather. While she was there, she also discovered some very accurate drawings of plants by female authors from the Victorian Era. These drawings were highly valued by scientists, even though they were made by the hands of women.
This is how the study of plants became the secret back door through which women could sneak into the forbidden territory of science. However, the subtle aquarel drawings by Beatrix Potter or Margaret Gatty are far more than just accurate. They also have something unmistakably erotic in their wild proliferation of lines and colors. Their affinity to the suggestive drawings of vaginas, from the Cunt Coloring Book by Tee Corinne, is striking.
The booklet sheds such an unusual light on the contents of the Weltmuseum: as if it wasn’t just a scientific catalog of the popular diligence to the good viewer, but a strong sign of women’s struggle for recognition, of their political rights and of their erotic reality.
With that the booklet immediately becomes a plea for a different, contrary, or better, speculative, poetic, way of looking. Visual artist and performer, Cécile Tonizzo and costume designer, An Breugelmans continued to work with these themes.
Tonizzo created “cloth canvases” based on pieces of leather, one of which dominates the stage image. It is a replica of the famous photograph in which Margaret Hamilton is standing next to a man-sized stack of software listings for the Apollo rocket’s computer. This is how she became living proof that women too can excel in science.
In the museum, An Breugelmans found her inspiration for the magnificent garments in supple, perforated leather, which the dancers are wearing during the show. Eynaudi looks like some sort of dinosaur, wearing them.
However, after the booklet there is still the show.
Anyone who, based on the texts, drawings or caricatures and photographs in the booklet about suffragettes practicing jiu jitsu, was expecting some hardened, uplifting vagina story about women’s rights and female wisdom etc. will be disappointed. The piece is an interweaving of associative, tactile music combinations, scenography and movements, hard to translate into one single story. It’s hardly possible even to describe. The audience is involved in all of this in a special manner: they aren’t sitting in front of the stage, they are surrounding it. This provides not only more than one way to look at what is happening on stage, it also creates an unusual connection between the show and the spectators, because, while watching the show, you are inevitably watching the rest of the audience as well. This gives the show something ritualistic. Like in a church mass or a procession, a precise sequence of gestures and actions creates a parallel reality that only means ‘something’ because there are ‘witnesses’ confirming each other in their belief. The show also strongly appeals to your ‘belief’ in what you are witnessing.
When an almost blinding light floods the back of the stage, the first thing you notice is a painting after the famous picture of Margaret Hamilton, high above the scene. In reality the painting is a collage made out of pieces of leather.
Except for a small light spot in between the audience at the front, the room stays completely dark. A man, Quim Pujol, dressed in a long, straight dress with squares cut out, it sort of looks like a priest’s robe, comes on stage. He is holding a silver replica of a tree leaf in front of his face, like a mask, while he recites a story by the Spanish author Gloria Fuertes (1917-1998), in Spanish. It is a letter written to the ‘council for ghosts and spirits’ to free her from a little ghost that keeps her up at night and doesn’t seem to get along well with her dog. But even more annoying is the fact that Fuertes fears she might come to love the little ghost one day. At that moment, a side door of the theater suddenly opens and shuts again, as if a ghost had entered the room. Let us just believe it.
A series of events now follow each other quickly and seemingly without any logical connection.
First, you hear a tear-jerker, then a tape where someone explains how to stack and mix sound layers while demonstrating the process using some simple whistle patterns that somehow still reach a certain level of complexity. This is when the show ‘really’ starts. Alix Eynaudi comes crawling onto the scene on hands and feet with her hair loose. She looks odd. She’s wearing a shirt-dress with the sleeves cut open in a zigzag pattern and underneath, she’s wearing a pair of shiny pants with a floral motif. Around her neck she has a ribbon with a little duck hanging down. When she gets up, she squeezes the little duck between her thighs and reaches for her bottom. There she finds a button to turn on the lights in the little duck’s eyes. Like this, she approaches the audience, dragging her feet over the floor. It could almost be a comically absurd joke, if it weren’t for her fearful, almost skittish stare. As if it were of vital importance to do it right. Let’s believe that too.
The story gets a strange sequel when Mark Lorimer enters the scene. He looks odd too, with his turtleneck sweater with white cuffs and white bootcut pants that look more like they were designed for women than for men. It is almost pathetic, the way he explicitly stretches his hands or twists his body, as if he was re-enacting some important play; with invisible characters surrounding him. You just don’t know what is going on in his mind. Everything stays covered with a layer of seriousness.
The spectacle takes yet another turn when a duet between Eynaudi and Cecile Tonizzo is performed twice in a row. The first time the two are dressed in relatively “normal” costumes. Tonizzo’s bodysuit shows beige-brown stainy patterns with red markings across, like an aquarel painting. Eynaudi’s has a floral pattern.
They keep approaching each other, touching and carrying each other but also fighting and groping each other. The movements give off an erotic vibe. When Tonizzo pushes her shoulders off the ground to push Eynaudi up with just one foot, she caresses Eynaudi’s genital area very slowly but with force. Later on, Eynaudi pulls Tonizzo back in a hold, which almost takes the shape of an embrace. Soon after, the roles are switched. Somewhere halfway through, both women start putting on some freakish leather tunics over their bodysuits, which makes them look like strange animals.
The controlled precision with which this duet is executed is yet again striking. Nothing is random here. This shows, all the more, when the duet is performed a second time, in a nearly identical way, even though Eynaudi and Tonizzo switch roles at times.
When Mark Lorimer and later on Quim Pujol join the two women on stage, you can no longer rid yourself of the impression that there must be a deeper story behind their actions. Like the moment where you would swear that they are on board a ship, hauling in a line or a net.
How that correlates to another one of Lorimer’s actions, where he drives around a trolly filled with lamps as if it were a live light show, or with the geometrical leather collages, stays a mystery. It isn’t some rebus you could solve after some careful contemplation, or a silent movie without subtitles. It is a mystery game where you are involved. But, just like with all mystery games, there is an overload of starting points, recognizable elements that were transfigured into a new composition where every little piece counts but in the end it is up to the people present to make it their story and establish it as such.
Or call it image poetry, about the themes in the booklet that you were given at the show. Eynaudi does something very unusual here. This work does not illustrate a solid plea, it makes no point. It is neither a ‘research’ into physicality or movement, or into images and representations. There is no structure elaborated.
But what can be seen still awakens “ghosts” in the imagination of the viewer, by nothing else but the precision with which everything is chosen and executed. Just like with poems: what is actually there may seem nonsense to someone who is looking for a clear message, but the words are still placed as if there was no other way to put them, because only that way they start to sound differently, they tell something new. ‘Tenderly mingling in speculation’.
Reading time 8-12 minutes.
Pieter T’Jonck is an architect and art critic. He writes about the performing arts, architecture and visual arts. In 2012 he curated the exhibition Superbodies in Hasselt. He also runs his own architecture firm, T’Jonck-Nillis.
Translation by Sara Petit.