Monthly Archives: September 2015

Paulina Olowska: The Mother

This interview with Paulina Olowska about her staging of Witkacy’s play The Mother at Tate Modern appeared in Tate Etc. online:

Paulina Olowska, Re-stage of 'The Mother', Collage, 2015Paulina Olowska, Re-stage of ‘The Mother’, Collage, 2015. Image courtesy of the artist

What drew you to Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz (Witkacy)?

Witkacy is a name that haunts you, where I come from. As a teenager, I found his novels unsettling. I remember my uncle telling me that Witkacy painted and made drawings under the influence of drugs. He operated a portrait painting firm where he would sign his works with the names of the drugs he had taken and charge his clients accordingly. Witkacy was a pioneer in this domain, before American artists started experimenting with drugs. To me, he has the appeal of an all-round artist: a playwright, painter, photographer, writer and philosopher with an interest in spirituality. For some time now, I’ve been investigating outsider figures who lived in remote places which, in Witkacy’s case, was Zakopane in the Tatra mountains in the south of Poland.

And how did you become interested in Witkacy’s 1924 play The Mother?

While going through the archives of my local puppet theatre in Rabka Zdrój, a small spa town between Kraków and Zakopane, I came across a magazine called Teatr. One of the covers was astonishing. It had a black-and-white picture of a woman with black paint under her eyes who was holding in her arms an old bald man in fetal position. I found out this was the actress Ewa Lassek in director Jerzy Jarocki’s 1976 restaging of The Mother made for television. At the time I was working on an exhibition for Simon Lee Gallery titled Mother 200, and this struck me as an incredible pietà figure.

The play’s subtitle is ‘An Unsavoury Play in Two Acts and an Epilogue’? What makes it ‘unsavoury’?

‘Unsavoury’ is a very Witkacian word. It has aristocratic overtones and there’s a touch of the grotesque about it. That’s what makes it relevant today. We may no longer get high on morphine and alcohol, like the characters in Witkacy’s play, but there are other kinds of drugs. Love is a drug; emotions are a drug; you could say that capitalism is a concept drug.

Initially you were going to build a wooden hut visitors could walk through in the Turbine Hall. Why did you decide to set it amid the Tate collections in the ‘Realisms’ room?

The Zakopane-style hut theatre, as I envisaged it, would have evoked Shakespeare’s theatre, the Globe, which is right next to the Tate, on a smaller scale, more like a circus. But then I started looking at paintings in the Tate collection and realized it would be more interesting to look at paintings while seeing a play. The ‘Realisms’ room with its unusual combination of imaginary landscapes and portraits, of interior and exterior views, had something of a stage about it. Why not treat it as a stage then, I thought, and the paintings as if they were the interior of a wooden Zakopane-style house? Witkacy and his father Stanisław Witkiewicz – one of the champions of the Zakopane style – were collecting art, though not of the highest quality.

How will you transform the room into a stage set?

The Tate collection is my stage. The actors will play on this stage amid the paintings. But I’m also making a new background for the original paintings. The walls will be covered with a hand-painted, trompe l’oeil wallpaper that mimics the interior of a wooden hut in Witkacy’s time. It’s meant to evoke the idea of domesticity and the room where the drama unfolds in The Mother. There will be two chairs, a table, a wardrobe, following Witkacy’s directions.

Could you talk about the posters you’re creating for the play?

I’m painting them as a collage, inspired by the Russian Revolutionary Posters room. The collage will reference posters from various productions of The Mother. They will function as the back wall in a theatre foyer and signal that it’s a play. I like to use the word ‘play’, rather than ‘performance’, even though I’m part of the BMW Tate Live series. It’s such a beautiful word. It means ‘to play’, which is the basis for education. I’d like it to bring a certain lightness, an element of warmth and playfulness to the play. Theatre can be such a loaded word. The same goes for contemporary art.

How did you find the actors who portray the two leads: the mother and the son?

The play is full of long dialogues and we thought it would be too demanding for non-professionals, so we decided to cast. In the actor specifications, I made it clear that gender, race and age are irrelevant as far as I’m concerned. If someone feels the role of the Mother, I would happily recruit them. So for the titular role I chose David Gant whereas Leon is played by Valerie Cutko. Both auditioned for the part of the Mother. Both embodied the spirit of Witkacy – theatricality, madness, a certain flamboyance, fun.

Did you design the costumes they will wear yourself? What sort of ‘look’ are you after?

The costumes designed by Krystyna Zachwatowicz, Andrzej Wajda’s wife and collaborator, were a big influence on me. She created extraordinary costumes for Jarocki’s restaging of The Mother. I’m very fortunate to be working with friends like Milovan Farronato, Kola Sliwinska and my uncle Kacper Olowski, who interpret the minor characters in the play. They already have an incredible appearance and I will work with that.

Will you be part of the performance yourself?

I see myself as a souffleur. Aside from designing the costumes, creating the stage set and directing the play, I’ll play the violin. At least that’s the plan. In classical theatre, the piano or some other instrument is there to help one focus on the play. The violin, which you often hear in Zakopane, will mark the rhythm and signal when something is ending or beginning. So I’ll also be conducting.

Have you ever directed a play before?

Never a play as such, though I have directed performances involving posing, such as Bahaus Yoga 2001, Salon de l’indépendent 2001 and Alphabet 2012. One of my collaborations with Lucy McKenzie, Nova Popularna at the National Artist Club Gallery in Warsaw, was a bar and an art salon doubling as a three-dimensional painting, where we staged concerts in a range of musical styles during a month in 2003. The Mother is akin to that experiment. It’s an experiment to use paintings as a stage set and props; to mix professional and lay actors chosen from among friends and prior collaborators; to work with a play that’s part of theatre repertoire and attempt to make it feel new and relevant.

If Tate Modern was Musee de la danse?

This review of Boris Charmatz’s Musee de la danse appeared in the Autumn 2015 issue of Tate Etc.:

Levée des conflits as part of ‘If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse?’Photo: Brotherton Lock ©Tate Photography. 2015

Spanning the glass panes of the building’s façade, the expansive proposition ‘If Tate Modern was Musée de la danse?’ slowly impressed itself on me as I approached the Tate from the Millenium Bridge on day one of its 48-hour ‘occupation’ by another institution: the Rennes-based but itinerant Musée de la danse. The tentative way in which the question was phrased made it less of a rebranding exercise, perhaps, yet it gave a measure of the project’s scale and ambitions. Above all, it seemed to invite an imaginative leap.

In his 2009 Manifesto for a Dancing Museum – penned the year he became director of the Centre chorégraphique national de Rennes, promptly renamed Musée de la danse – dancer and choreographer Boris Charmatz describes what he and his collaborators have envisioned as ‘a viral museum which can be grafted onto other places’. Judging by the public’s response to the temporary takeover, both in situ and on social media, the Tate Modern-turned-Musée de la danse really did go viral. As one commentator aptly put it in a facebook post: ‘Everyone’s gone nuts for it.’ But was the relationship between the host institution and the joyously invasive, parasitical species that is Musée de la danse one of symbiosis?

This was hardly the first time Charmatz’s Dancing Museum strutted its stuff in a gallery setting; neither was contemporary dance staged amid Tate Modern’s collections unprecedented. Leaving aside the performances that took place in the dedicated space of the Tanks, members of Trisha Brown’s dance company had re-created her Early Works from the 1970s in the Turbine Hall and galleries as part of Dance Umbrella 2010. Parts of the Musée de la danse in its Tate Modern incarnation had already featured in the 2011 Performa biennial and, more recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York staged three pieces choreographed by Charmatz over three consecutive weekends in October/November 2013.

But the Tate Modern/Musée de la danse was an altogether more radical idea. What made it so was not only the sheer scale of the enterprise with its core 90-odd participants, most of them dancers, and its varied formats calling for different degrees of audience participation, but also the ability to enjoy what the Dancing Museum has to offer free of charge, opening it up to a global audience through live-streaming.

Of the three discrete strands that made up this hybrid museum body, expo zéro and its coterie of artists, curators, choreographers and thinkers moving freely across four empty gallery spaces in ever-shifting configurations was the one I spent least time with on this occasion, though I remember falling under its discursive spell elsewhere. The constant stream of visitors did not allow for any kind of intimate or meaningful exchange, and I came away from this ‘laboratory of ideas’ with no real insights into what a museum of dance might be.

Far more instructive and thought-provoking in this respect was 20 Dancers for the XX Century, which took over the collection galleries and landing areas on all three levels, barring the (paying) temporary exhibition spaces. These were off-bounds in a tacit acknowledgment of the disruptive character of the Dancing Museum. Indeed, anyone who visited Tate Modern that weekend hoping to commune with the objects on display would have faced an impossible task. But part of the pleasure that drifting across this section of the museum afforded lay precisely in the occasional moments of symbiosis between the dancing bodies and the surrounding artworks. Feminist artist Sanja Iveković’s performance pieces unfolding in front of Andy Warhol’s 1962 Marylin Monroe diptych or Butoh-founder Tatsumi Hijikata’s dances in the Arte Povera and Anti-Form room were both perfectly matched to their setting.

What the dancers unleashed on Tate by Charmatz set out to activate was not so much the space and the objects held therein as the museum-goers themselves. ‘Dancing is for everybody,’ Charmatz repeatedly assured the crowd gathered inside the Turbine Hall, transformed into a dance floor with little more than a giant glitter ball and a DJ station tucked away beneath the bridge for the Adrénaline sessions. Led by Charmatz, who directed the well-attended public warm-ups at the start of each day, a team of dancers clad in fluorescent pink and yellow T-shirts took people of all ages and abilities through complex sequences of movements in the visitor version of the Levée des conflits – one of four pieces spanning the choreographer’s career performed amid the audience on the east side of the Turbine Hall.

Was the Musée de la danse merely a playful interlude, or a dress rehearsal for Tate to come, as the completion of its expansion and the reopening of the Tanks draw near? The museum of the future as embodied in Charmatz’s ephemeral proposal for Tate Modern would let itself be colonized by other art forms; it would sometimes do away with objects altogether; it would seek to directly involve the visitors, turning them from passive spectators into active participants; it would aspire to be more like an open-ended repertoire than a fixed archive; it would appeal to all the senses, not just vision.

Was the Musée de la danse merely a playful interlude, or a dress rehearsal for Tate to come, as the completion of its expansion and the reopening of the Tanks draw near? The museum of the future as embodied in Charmatz’s ephemeral proposal for Tate Modern would let itself be colonized by other art forms; it would sometimes do away with objects altogether; it would seek to directly involve the visitors, turning them from passive spectators into active participants; it would aspire to be more like an open-ended repertoire than a fixed archive; it would appeal to all the senses, not just vision.