Hantu interview in TK-21
From the introduction:
“It is mainly the question of performance that arises. Because many things are called performances. Clearly, in our work there is a desire to construct rituals.” But many other subjects are addressed, allowing us to discover more precisely the innovative work of this already mythical duo!
“The artist is the one who permanently leaves the wound open.”
Find the English translation below.
Interview with PASCALE WEBER, DUO HANTU
Following her text on their work in issue 113 of TK-21, Gabrielle Carron conducted an interview with Pascale Weber who with Jean Delsaux forms the duo Hantu, and of which we publish the first part today. “Above all, it’s the question of performance that arises. Because we call performance a lot of things. Clearly, in our work there is a desire to build rituals.” But many other topics are also discussed that together allow us to discover more precisely the innovative work of this already mythical duo!
“The artist is the one who, permanently, leaves the wound open”
On 13 November 2020 I brave the ban of the lockdown to go to 3, rue Française, in the first arrondissement, after crossing a deserted Louvre Court and a deserted rue de Rivoli. As part of my research on the contemporary body and performance, I find myself at the Espace Française, where performers duo Hantu (Pascale Weber and Jean Delsaux) present their exhibition “Comme l’herbe pousse”. After the visit (see article published in TK-21), I sit down with Pascale.
Gabrielle Carron: How does your duo organize itself?
Pascale Weber: When we founded Hantu our roles were very separate and we didn’t have any previous experience with performance. Jean occupied himself with the representation and I with the presentation. He completely took care of the imagery, and I developed a work of concentration from the memory of the body, sometimes blind, with Jean as my eyes. We didn’t think about our procedure until we met Sikerei (shamans) from Mentawai in the south of Sumatra (Indonesia) who explained to us that shamans often work in pairs, the former connected with nature while the second connects with the community, for which he translates what is happening. When there is interaction with the audience during the performance (and not before or after) it is Jean who makes the connection, as for the performance Corps and Treesperformed at Monthelon Castle for which he evoked a ritual of Sulawesi and it is he who makes the images that document what is happening. At the beginning of our work in duo there was no communication between us, we each did what we had to do. Each one had her/his own role, one cannot put one’s responsibility with the other in a duo. Gradually, and not systematically, for the video editing work for example, we began to work at three, him, me and Hantu. Now it happens that Jean appears on screen. And sometimes things are a little more porous.
G: How long have you been working together?
P: About fifteen years…
G: When we were in the first room of the exhibition, we talked about the differentiation between the photos performed and the photographed performance. Can the remnants, traces of performance, take on the status of an art object for you? Or of just archival documents?
P: I’m not sure I can answer this in a general and definitive way…
G: Do you think that the museum can appropriate these objects to reactivate performances, sometimes almost making them into sacred objects, such as the remains of Joseph Beuys-performances that have become objects of museums, while the performance is intended to be ephemeral, free? I ask myself this question of posterity in the museum.
P: It’s mostly the question of performance that arises. Because we call performance a lot of things. Clearly, in our work there is a willingness to create rituals. When we travel and meet indigenous peoples, it is by sharing their rituals that we come into contact or pretend to be in contact with them. And when we return to France our idea is not to replay these rituals conceived and performed in another context, it would make no sense, and from an ethical point of view it is questionable. Instead, we try to understand “what is a ritual? “, “what is it used for in a community and for an individual? “. Today we realize that in our societies we act in a repeated, organized and highly framed way, but we lack certain rituals that formerly structured our individual and collective life, in a way that seems to us today and in Western secular society extremely restrictive. By affirming the possibility of appropriating gestures, playing them freely in our own way, many performances testify to the necessity of the ritual and the markers it proposes. The ritual is the way we have to register in a place and in a time. It is also a way to reserve moments (space-time) that escape the stress and imperatives of power… When the government or the institution decree that things are essential and others are not, for example. Ritual is a mode of action alien to the question of necessity, “we do” because one feels the need to do, without this need the ritual is nothing more than a folkloristic gesture, a moral obligation justified or not, a habit devoid of meaning. Who can judge for others the necessity s/he feels to put flowers on a grave? The ritual is something we repeat because when you do it, it just feels good. You can’t decree something to be a ritual. The ritual is above all a test of reality, it lasts because an action that has been carried out still has a meaning to be repeated. Sometimes the meaning is lost. That is why I do not always agree with what is called “re-enactment”. For me, if it is just to replay a moment that in its time was a liberation (of meaning, energy, emancipation), then one transforms into an exercise of a genre what has been a test of the body, a moment of truth. The danger cannot be reconstituted, it is transformed according to what we experience; one cannot make the archive a living spectacle by playing the past in the present, but one can perform the narrative of the past in the present, as in the tradition of the so-called griots or storytellers. There would probably be no sense to replay in another context the performances we did clandestinely in Paris at night during the confinement. The spectacle of “re-enactment” not only does not justify itself, but constitutes a spoliation, just as we speak of cultural spoliation of the Amerindians when we make dream traps that try to imitate the amulets marketed by the Ojibwa. The ritual imposes itself, just as we make our coffee, grounded every morning, for me in Turkish style, for Jean in Italian style, and it’s like that every day. Until maybe one day we’ll get tired of it. But in the meantime it allows us to get to work and to inscribe ourselves in time, quite simply.
The objects, shown up in the mezzanine of the exhibition space, which I call ritual objects insofar as they are reused, will become trace objects if we no longer use them. No one knows when things will pass from one status to another. There was for example a ritual directed by Simona Polvani for the film Nature Vive shot in the exhibition space. She made a bandage that she stuck on the rest of a compost heap, it’s a trace and at the same time it reminds us that there was something we cleaned up. In fact, a trace object, comes as a comment, a trace object is a material comment.
G: You talked a lot about dressing wounds, bandaging the body, the concept of care. Why are you so interested in this?
P: Maybe because when I started working, it was said that the artist was the one who had to act on the social divide, to “relieve” a whole fringe of the population abused by our society. Actually, I don’t think the artist is there to be like a bandage, that is, to hide the misery of the world. On the contrary, I believe that the artist is the one who permanently leaves the wound open, and maintains it, to show that evil is there, that it is vain to hide it, that healing is impossible until one heals the cause of the pain inside. So the bandage does not hide the wound, the dressing is indicative of the wound.
G: Just to go back to the ritual, do you think performance is the preferred way and place to recreate rituals, or can it be done in other spaces?
P: Performance is the affirmation of the necessity and operative of the ritual. But performance is not always or only the performative, linked to the operation and the spectacular, to a particular situation. And one cannot consider a performance, a performed photograph or a performative situation on the same level. Whether I think of Francesca Woodman, Cindy Sherman or Ana Medieta, there’s a work of the body in representation and a relation to the image that we cannot simply sum up by the term performance. Something very subtle is happening between the creation of a situation, context, action, physical experience, a staging of the body, and the conception of an image (photographic or video) that is sometimes part of the performance or the performative.
For the film Nature Vive Hantu asked six artists to come and perform in the gallery. It was a question of how to let bodies coexist, welcome artists in our work. It’s a performative situation, but it’s not a performance. In performance there is something deeply indeterminate, uncertain, “insecure”.
G: Does the use of all these plants contribute to this desire to leave room for uncertainty?
P: Yes, completely. I refer to the title of the exhibition “Comme l’herbe pousse (Like grass grows)”, live, think, create, practice art as grass grows, on the sides of the highways. Integrating the plant is to admit our inability to control everything. Each performance for which we use plants must be prepared a few days in advance, so that plants germinate, sometimes they germinate faster than expected, and so we must grow others that do not always have time to sprout. It is impossible to push a plant (we do not use any activators or chemical fertilizers!). In the film Nature Vive, Neva, our dog, barks and goes to bed when asked (overall!). But I can’t tell a plant “Grow, grow, grow”, if it is not the time, it does not come out of the earth. It depends on the sun, on a lot of things that we actually don’t control. It’s life-saving. We try less to control our project, our desire, intention, we more readily let go of the process. It is in this gap, between what has been anticipated and the testing of the real that interesting things happen.
G: Do you have any examples?
P: In fact, it concerns our state of mind: we expect certain things less and less, we try less to anticipate. For example, in the two performances we made in Rio (Brazilian Arboretum and Germination), we brought plants, we quickly presented our work to the group. People performed in pairs, without necessarily knowing each other, they took a plant and one fixed the plant on the other. The most interesting is what people bring, their imagination, their history, their initiatives. A woman placed the plant on a man’s torso, on his heart more precisely, before learning that he had had a serious heart attack. We had a woman who had just been operated for breast cancer, who put the plant on her chest. A young couple had managed to obtain two plants to which they had given a name, one male and one female in view of their adoption. These are not things that escape us, it is rather that we leave a possible opening for life to catch up with us, so that the ritual allows life to join the performance.
“I think it’s the same thing, to execute the ritual for yourself or for others.”
G: How would you define the ritual?
P: The ritual is a performance, when it is an action that you undertake without being able to anticipate its consequences, an action that transcends us, that we begin to understand when we act. There is a desire, a need, an energy at the base, the desire to put the energies back in the right order, to allow the energy to recirculate where one feels that there is a blockage, a pressure, a difficulty breathing, a fear, an anxiety. As there is in these photographs (from the series “Comme l’herbe pousse”) carried out during the first confinement, this feeling of insecurity, the performer with a bare torso in the street at night braving the exit ban by wandering around the Rotonde, the place known for the crack trade in Paris. Lonely drugged migrants advancing like zombies in the empty streets. The need to cross this space and face this unbearable fear and feeling of oppression and then catch my breath.
G: Would you talk about a form of catharsis? Do you execute the ritual for yourself, for others?
P: It’s of course a form of catharsis. I think it’s the same thing, to execute the ritual for yourself or for others. Everyone has her/his role, the spectator also participates in the ritual, in her/his place, (s)he puts pressure, (s)he supports, (s)he breathes, (s)he returns the energy of her/his presence. It allows this energy to remain in the performer, it is a string of the belted space that evokes this circle of earth present in the lower part of the exhibition. This protection circle was traced at our request by Michiko Fou for Nature Vive. This film recounts our current feeling related to covid, masks, containment, oppression. Calling for a release of all these things you don’t usually get out.
G: Does the performance allow them to get out?
P: Yes, it makes it possible to get them out, and even do things that are scary for the one who does them.
G: Have you ever had unusual, violent reactions from an audience?
P: I don’t think Hantu is taking people hostage at any time. That would cause violence. Sometimes people find us upset at the end of some performances, affected by the death of loved ones, by the re-connection with their cultural roots, by their affinity with our relationship to the plant world. Reactions that might sometimes seem a little violent in relation to the place where the performance takes place. Indeed, choosing an institutional place to perform an action that is not related to this institution, makes it sometimes difficult to give what is done a statute: a ritual that is perceived as a performance or a performance that is perceived as a ritual. Some people don’t understand what they see and are accustomed to the institution telling them what they are witnessing. I remember someone who was very angry that we could perform a mortuary ritual on a theatre stage, the place of fiction. Would the narration be on the side of fiction and the presence on the side of reality? There are so many levels of reality. Nevertheless it is necessary to choose the right places.
G: Do you perform a lot indoors or outdoors?
P: Rather, the distinction is between performances with and without audiences. They may take place indoors or outdoors, in urban areas or in no man’s land, in protected places or requiring special vigilance. In cold or equatorial regions they test the body disoriented by a new environment. It’s difficult to talk about explorations because of colonial history, but there is a desire to discover something else, a potential, the possibility of an unsuspected reality, a training in the unknown and the indeterminate. With the audience things get complicated. Today performing in public space is becoming more and more restrictive and it is often necessary to act in a stealthy, clandestine way to make sure that a project can succeed. Inside the action is often supervised by an institution that reduces the performer to a provider of more or less strong sensations (forcing her/him to an exhibitionist overkill) while respecting safety standards that prohibit any deviation from the planned scenario. Organizers and performers must be diplomatic and responsive. I remember, for example, a performance in Jakarta, on a public square (UrBanian at the Kesenian Art Institute, Jakarta/Indonesia in 2014) that happened to be right in-between the capital’s oldest slum (Kebon Sayur Kampung) and the Fine Arts-district (Kesenian Jakarta Institute). We were programmed around a Banyan, a traditional gathering place, between two calls for ritual prayer. This place, point of convergence, space of consensus, or of the one who terrorizes, scene of violence played by artists for an audience, of violence tested by artists in representation, of a possible real violence borrowing from the codes of the spectacular and which has nothing to do with art, the terrorist act, since new attacks were soon to hit Jakarta.
The violence of the institution has in principle nothing comparable, but it is nevertheless the source of self-censorship. We performed at the Palais de Tokyo (Incorporations, L’Humain débordé n°2, performative seminar, 17/06/2013; Homo Erectus, 2013), at the Musée de la Chasse et de la Nature (La Tracque, as part of the symposium Performances et animalités, 13-14/11/2013), at the Museum of Fine Arts of St. Petersburg (Colloquium “New Forms of presence in performance”, 1-2/06/2017)… It would have been wrong for me to criticize the institution, yet I wonder about the function and status of the performance achieved in this context.
G: What do you feel when performing in a museum? Are there institutional rituals, codes to follow, is it more restrictive?
P: The public here is very special, and it is a constraint if not an obligation to comply with practices that fall under the scholarly presentation, the conference in front of an insider audience. There is immediately an intellectualization of the performance that is, an instrumentalization of the performance for discursive purposes. The museum participates in this intellectualization. And as the museum allows a certain visibility, performance in institutions becomes an obligatory exercise of verbal and gestural rhetorical demonstration.
G: Polina Dubchinskaya told me about you, as director of her thesis on the institutionalization of the performance. I am very interested in her subject, it interests me to think about this utopia of putting the performance in the museum. Michel Foucault spoke of heterotopia, the place where utopia takes place. Could the museum be that place?
P: The weight of the place, of the administration, and beyond that, the symbol of the museum… It reminds me of the movie The Square, the stage with this monkey man who speaks a lot about the performance in the museum. Actually, we can both do anything, and we can’t do anything. In the museum, and on the stage, there is a kind of fiction of freedom and disruption of the body, but on stage at least the game does not impersonate reality, even if there is precisely a friction between the game and the real. In fact, the performance that is promoted today in museums is brought in continuity with its collections. Insecurity has no place, but performance is, like any substance, active for better or worse, I mean, up to allow the performer to play her/his death or to deeply, irretrievably alter her/his organism. The only way to bring the institution to life, whether it is the museum or the university, is not to respect it. If it is impossible to heckle the institution a little, it is because nothing constructive and inventive can be expected in response to the current crisis. Historical analyses make it possible to put creation into perspective, the role of the nude for example in photography, in parallel with the history of feminism, this way of overcoming fear and the norms of self-representation, but this is an already structured discourse on the body. In artistic practice, the body is both less serious and at the same time much more serious, both deeper and lighter than what is said about it.
So yes, I find it difficult to believe in performance in the institutional framework. At the same time, it is an exercise that does not prevent being able to free ourselves from the place, simply choose the space for the gathering or deployment of the body.
We performed in symbolic and known natural places, in Sapmi for example. In those places that are not governed by anyone, visitors meditate, walk around, shoot a video clip for a song. Everyone does what he wants there as long as the place is respected and left in good condition. Of course the isolated position helps. A museum is not in that situation. It claims to give freedom, but in reality it doesn’t give it, it just gives the opportunity to play, to represent the idea of freedom and openness. It’s just a place of representation. Presence and representation are two incompatible realities. We are very lucky with the Espace Rue Française, because Miss China, who has already organized a lot of performances here (“The Performance Mondays”), did not even ask us what we were going to do with it, she gave us all freedom. Today, with the pressure we all feel, the little fears, the forbidden, the authorization forms whose approval by agents do not protect us from a contravention, suddenly obtaining a space of freedom allowed us to make an exhibition and a film in particular that speaks of the anger in us that we did not allow ourselves to show before.
G: Do you think that performance can be the place of utopia, a place where everything is possible?
P: Performance is the moment of confrontation with the real. Utopia rubs shoulders with night visions, directed dreams when we imagine the performance. This is the place where all is possible, but performance is the moment of the passage to act, and for me we are therefore no longer in utopia. And moreover, I don’t think that the question of utopia is more related to performance than to drawing. The drawing may be more loaded with utopia, because you can get rid of the body, the performance cannot be freed from the body. When Bob Flanagan, who has cystic fibrosis since being a child, performs pain, playing in pain, through an inversion of evil in pleasure, he is not in utopia but he actually fights against death. When ORLAN imagines a transformed body, she imagines. When she goes to surgery, she quickly reaches the limits of what a body can accept as surgical intervention. So utopia, no. On the other hand, this is the place where we will repel or turn over the forbidden. And the forbidden is not utopia. You identify the forbidden very well. During the confinement, you see where it is, when you’re a woman and they tell you that you shouldn’t walk naked on the street because you’re going to get raped, you know where the forbidden is. And ORLAN today, it’s as if she has no body anymore, she’s dispossessed of her body. She says that her body has become her work, but in reality, for me it is her work that vampirized her body, she is a slave to the image she built of herself. What remains of the emancipation she claimed? What part of utopia is there in this body that only exists as an image?
G: And besides, she wants her body to be exhibited in a museum after her death!
P: Yes! So, there for me, the performance is twisted, that’s the risk. But perhaps this is the fate of any performance. A fragile and ephemeral art is the most fragile art ever. When you’ve made a painting, once it’s done, it’s done. Performance is dazzling (one cannot refuse the dazzle of ORLAN’s transformation). What is important to make the performance live (i.e. to keep it) is the narrative, like with Beuys’s fiction. Performance is a return to orality: things exist because we tell each other about them. And I ask myself the question of the status of performance with Beuys, whether his biography isn’t his greatest performance?
G: Exactly, the construction of his own personal mythology, this self-mythification.
P: Yes, because this construction, this mythology is the only thing you can’t appropriate (by “re-enactment”). Beuys makes his existence a kind of biographical institution, when Marina Abramovic re-enacts his performance (“How to explain paintings to a dead hare”), she overtakes part of the story of Beuys’s performance by inviting herself into his story. In fact, I have the impression that she herself becomes an institution by doing this: embody the living memory of a disappeared monster, a style exercise that does not risk encountering the misunderstanding or criticism to which the original work has already responded.
G: Yes, for example, I am thinking of the cardboard Dada masks, which normally shouldn’t be in a museum, they were objects intended to be ephemeral. But the conservators strive to restore them, remake them, perpetuate them at all cost for art history. These works tend almost to attain a status of sacred object, inalienable, untouchable…
Interview conducted and transcribed by Gabrielle Carron on November 13, 2020, at 3, rue Française, at 5:00pm.
Exhibition “As l’herbe pousse”, Espace Rue Française, 3, rue Française, 75001, Paris.
From 11 to 17 November 2020. Video of the exhibition. Hantu website (Weber+Delsaux).
Pascale Weber received a training in environmental design in Paris (École Sup. de Design Indus.) and then a university degree in Art and Art Sciences at the Sorbonne (Paris 1-St Charles). In parallel to the performance, she practices butoh dance, the awakened dream and other directed journeys, vocal techniques from joik, throat singing or diphonic singing and among somatic disciplines, the Feldenkrais method.
Jean Delsaux received a training in Visual Arts option Digital Images at the University of Paris 8. He co-directed Brouillard Accurate, a creative workshop in synthetic images and video images, for 15 years in Marseille. He practiced photography and video and relies on his experience in bio-energy and Tai-Qi-Chuan in his artistic work.