Jan Kedves talks with Jimmy Robert about performance, paper and movement as a form of writing
JAN KEDVES: You use many different kinds of media in your work – choreography, dance, performance, poetry, writing, film, collage – often combining several in the same piece. At first glance your work seems fascinatingly puzzling. Do people often ask you what came first? Where it started?
JIMMY ROBERT: I get that reaction, yes, but does it really matter where things start? Recently, for my show at It’s not lame … it’s Lamé (2015) at Tanya Leighton Gallery in Berlin, I did a presentation there for my students – I’ve been teaching at the UdK in Berlin as a guest professor for the last two semesters. For instance, I was talking to the students about my work Reprise (2010), explaining how I made the images of the Japanese butoh dancer that are woven into the table. It started with a Hokusai lithograph which Jeff Wall also adapted in his lightbox A Sudden Gust of Wind (after Hokusai) (1993). Making my piece was like a third step, transforming the Hokusai print into a sculpture. One student said: ‘I don’t think I need to know all this. To me, it’s like I get the work without the back story.’ And I replied: ‘It’s not about defining the origin of a piece, but I sometimes need the prior research, the genealogy.’ That’s my way of processing ideas and getting into what I’m going to do. So I have this archive of knowledge that supports the work.
JK: Vanishing Point (2013), the installation you showed last year at the 8th Berlin Biennale, consisted of table-like structures with a white roll of paper between them. Onto the paper, you projected two versions of a film shot in Rio in which a drag performer whips her hair fiercely, ‘Bate Cabelo’-style. A voice-over reads a poem – in Portuguese and a version in English.
JR: That work began when I was doing a residency in Rio. At first, I was looking a lot into Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed, but nothing really came out of it. Then I went to this dive club and saw an amazing performance by this drag queen – so strong! So powerful! I knew immediately that I wanted to work with her, but I also wanted to elaborate and construct something from the performance – not just appropriate it and put it in an art context. I had also been looking at a lot of the modernist architecture in Rio, which is everywhere, you can’t avoid it. For example, I was totally fascinated by the Gustavo Capanema Palace which was designed by a team of architects in the 1930s, amongst them Lucio Costa, for whom Oscar Niemeyer was interning at the time. All these lines, all this rigidity. I felt it made sense to work against that and bring the drag queen – her stage name is Erika Vogue – within this construction and place her performance in that context, and combine it with a poem. To me it felt very natural.
JK: The poem seems to deal with the topic of lyricism itself. It starts with the line: ‘Lyricism is the translation of a subjective, sincere personal sentiment.’
JR: It’s by the poet Ana Cristina César whom I discovered when I was in Brazil. She died really young, aged only 31. She committed suicide in 1983. She left a very distinctive voice in Brazil. In that poem, Primeira Lição (1979), or First Lesson, she’s trying to define lyricism rationally at first, with this very didactic description. But then in the last para- graph the poem becomes totally physical, almost violent: ‘I look for a long while at a poem’s body / until I lose sight of whatever is not body / and feel separated between my teeth / a filament of blood on my gums.’ So suddenly you’re reminded of the physicality of the person who’s writing the poem, and it’s almost as if the language is trapped inside her mouth, bleeding. That really struck me. It’s like the poem resists being defined and contrived in a frame. Maybe these are the same things that I’m trying to resist in my work – the same kind of frame. That’s maybe why in Vanishing Point the projections are off-centre, and maybe why the paper is rolling out onto the floor. They don’t want to stay where they’re put.
JK: Loops are everywhere in your work. The drag queen throws her hair in loops. The films are screened as loops. You often use rolls of paper. The performance Metallica, which was shown as part of your show at Tanya Leighton Gallery, starts and ends the same, it could be performed as a loop. Also, the performance Abolibibelo, which you performed yourself in mid-April at the Migros Museum in Zürich as part of the big Xanti Schawinsky , consisted of you circling around in a white full-body costume, reciting a poem you wrote which, again, starts and ends the same.
JR: I use the loop as a formal device. There is something very melodic to a loop. And, in the texts that I write, I find repetition very useful as a structure, to use the starting point also as an end point. It’s almost a form of argumentation, where you start from a position and you try to demonstrate pros and cons, but you end up back at the same place. Not that nothing changes. Instead of saying ‘this is the solution’ or ’this is the answer’, you come up with something like a question: what is your point of view at the end? How much has changed in between, in terms of your perception of what you thought things were, and what they are now?
JK: It reminds me of Diedrich Diederichsen Living in the Loop, which first appeared in German in his book Eigenblutdoping (2008), in which he writes: ‘Haven’t we come to know – not least through Minimalism and techno – that what we hear in a loop is never the same? Thanks to its supple and reliable consistency, our micro-changes suddenly become larger, and the world around the loop begins to grow. Time and again we see ourselves under the same conditions, looking slightly different every time.’
JR: Which reminds me of Marguerite Duras, another writer that I like a lot and often quote. She once said: ‘you can never really change somebody’s opinion unless they’re confronted with change themselves.’ You can’t force change. It has to come from a slow confrontation with change itself. If you force someone to see something else, then they won’t have had that natural progression. I also think the idea of repetition is interesting in the context of quoting historical works. For example, I did a performance in 2008 based on Yoko Ono’s famous Cut Piece from 1965. Mine was more like a ‘tear piece’ because I asked people to rip pieces of tape from my skin. Of course it was a call back, but it was a different body, a different time.
JK: The performer was also of a different gender.
JR: Exactly. So though some might say ‘Oh, we’ve seen this before!’, many things in the performance were very different. It was definitely not a reenactment. We say that a lot of things are repeating in art but what about that repetition itself? Is abstract painting now really the same as abstract painting 20 years ago?What has changed if not the context and the person actually making it? Maybe it’s a generational thing. I remember talking recently with a colleague at the UdK, a professor, about some of the students nowadays and how they seem to not refer to art history – they’re not aware of it. For them, it’s all about the present. I wonder how they see works that refer to the past, what that means for them. Everything is so Instagramy, and very much about the now.
JK: It’s interesting that you mention Instagram. I wanted to bring up digitization. This might sound weird, but I was wondering whether your work might in a way be described as ‘pre-internet art’?
JR: Ha ha! That’s funny.
JK: Your use of paper for example. In our mindsets paper still evokes writing and books and ideas. But, with the rise of digital screens, that association might at some point get lost.
JR: For me the notion of the screen isn’t limited to the digital screen, because paper could also be projected upon and used as a screen – like in Vanishing Point. A lot of things can be used as a screen. I like working with paper because, for me, the idea of paper is akin to the idea of skin. Paper is closer to skin than a digital screen could ever be, because it has this porosity. It’s almost a fetishistic relation to paper, to the format of the book and its surface. Like reading Julia Kristeva talking about perfume in the poetry of Baudelaire, and how the perfume is almost coming out of the poem itself. Maybe it is ‘pre-internet’, as you said, in the sense that I’ve developed this fetishistic relation with books originally, and with digital screens I feel a certain kind of sensory depravation. In any case, for me it’s about this very central relation to text and paper, and trying to kind of sublimate that relation into objects.
JK: Almost every text about your work mentions that you’re interested in the performative quality of your materials. And, in fact, your paper works show a very detailed understanding of paper’s properties. Actually, paper is not a strong material, but depending on how you fold it and crease it, it can become so.
JR: To be honest, I’ve never been nerdy enough to really try and research all the techniques that can be used to work with paper. I prefer to keep a certain spontaneity, naivety maybe, about my approach to materials and be able to say: ‘Oh! Really, I can do that?!’ But it’s true, paper is extremely difficult to use because it’s so fragile. Think about how many paper-based works have been damaged in the course of exhibitions, or torn. Paper is annoying; it’s stressful! But the fragility of the medium is ultimately what I’m most interested in: this ephemerality, which to me is very similar to the ephemerality of performance. How long can this print or paper work ‘perform’? Does it exist only for the moment that it is shown, or also when it’s fading, or when it’s torn? When is it no longer valid?
JK: For Abolibibelo in Zürich you wore a full-body costume that looked like it was made of paper strips. It’s a recreation of one of the costumes Xanti Schawinsky – the Bauhaus teacher who was later in charge of the theatre department at Black Mountain College – used in his ‘Spectodrama’ multimedia stagings, right?
JR: Yes, the costume designer Claudia Gedoe recreated it for me. The original costume was actually not made by Xanti Schawinsky, but by his wife Irene. Apparently, she was a fashion designer and made all of his costumes. As so often, the wife in the background … A bit like with Franz Erhard Walther. His wife sews all his pieces and hardly anyone knows her name. I only found out about Irene Schawinsky when I was researching for my performance. I was surprised, but at the same time, not so surprised. If you think about that time machismo was really prevalent – at the Bauhaus but also at Black Mountain College. The male heroic artist figure is the one most prevalent in the modernist tradition.
JK: The performance reminded me of some kind of Candomblé ceremony – the way you recited this poem that seemed almost like an incantation, and how you simultaneously performed choreographed hand movements, some of which reminded me of postmodern dance, some of voguing.
JR: When I saw the Schawinsky costume it reminded me of things I’d seen at carnivals in Guadeloupe, where I was born. Maybe that’s why I was so drawn to it. I left the island when I was four or five years old, and grew up in France, but I still I have these fascinating and scary memories of figures in carnival costumes – voodoo-like, running after people with whips; stories of people casting a spell on someone, trying to get them divorced, and so on. Black magic is a big part of my culture, but then again, that heritage was repressed by colonialism and Catholicism. Within my family, it’s all very taboo. So for me, doing the Schawinsky performance was also trying to get in touch with that history and tradition again, kind of paying homage to it, but at the same time combining it with the knowledge I’ve accumulated of different things. So I thought: what happens when you take elements of Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A (1966), a droning sound piece by my friend, the sound artist Ain Bailey, elements of vogue, and a Bauhaus costume and try to compose something out of that?
JK: Why did you incorporate voguing?
JR: In the film Paris Is Burning (1990) they say that some elements of voguing come from as far back as African ancestors, from tribal rites. I think that’s why included those hand elements in the performance, because I felt it would be interesting to have some movements in there that could be misconstrued as somebody casting a spell. In a way I was asking: where did it come from? Like with the Schawinsky costume: it’s Bauhaus, but it looks like it might be a tribal costume from Africa. The book by Fred Moten, In the Break (2003), in which he writes about jazz and black performance as the black avantgarde, was a really big influence during the process of developing the performance and writing this poem. It was about this kind of lineage, trying to find a position within all of this history and still be able to articulate something through that.
JK: The opening stanza of the poem that you recited in the performance – ‘a / a a a / aboli bo / aboli bi / bibelot bibeli’ – is that Guadeloupean creole?
JR: No, it’s actually some lines from a poem by Stéphane Mallarmé called Sonnet en X (1899). It’s a really beautiful poem, considered to be the birth of modern poetry. I just took these four words from it, ‘Aboli bibelot d’inanité sonore’, which means, literally, ‘resounding silence of meaningless object’. What is striking about that poem is that it’s pure sound. I wanted to use it as a starting point for the performance, abstracted, so that it almost becomes something like incantation. Taking this French modernist poetry and asking: how close could that be to an idea of primitivism? And really play with the question: what came first, modernity or primitivism? I also talk about paper in the poem, the idea of writing also comes though. I repeat the line ‘Sound of the text / on the page’ several times, and: ‘Feet / hands / writing / partition’. So you could say the performance was about movement as well as being some kind of inscription: movement as writing, performance as drawing – except there was nothing to be recorded. Nothing left, nothing imprinted. Except maybe an image left on the eye.
This interview was first published in the current issue no 20 of frieze d/e
Jimmy Robert is a French artist who currently lives and works in Berlin.
Jan Kedves is a writer and associate editor of frieze d/e. He lives in Berlin.