Man is a Beautiful Animal

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Interview with Jan Fabre

“The body is like an incredible paint box, a laboratory, a battlefield” says Jan Fabre, theater director.

In many of your performances, you cut yourself…

Yes, I’ve been drawing with my own blood since 1978. Once, as a young boy, I went to Bruges to see an exhibition of the Flemish masters. I remember experiencing a physical shock – I discovered performance before I even knew what the word meant. I went back to the hotel and started cutting myself. I bled. I ached all over. Later, I discovered that many Flemish Primitives painters mixed blood into their paint. This phenomenon is therefore a part of our artistic tradition. There was a time when we used crushed human bones to make white paint. These examples show that it’s all about achieving a natural quality. The artist does that by using his own body. Our bodies are veritable treasure troves of knowledge. As an artist, you often act instinctively. Only later do you realize that you were not the first one to take this particular action.

The body, including bodily fluids, is an important element of your performances. What’s the attraction for you?

I’m intrigued by the political, philosopna rymnical and social meaning of bodily fluids. We live in a society where people have become odorless. But we do smell, we sweat. There’s nothing wrong with that. Women get periods all the time, yet all over the world people associate menstruation with the blue liquid from the “Always” ads.

This means that our society is still filled with great taboos. Menstrual blood was seen as evil by the Catholic church, but from a scientific point of view it’s very healthy – it’s a sign of vitality. That’s what drove me to my research. I’m trying to find out why blood is seen as something negative by the majority of people. As a young man, I was fascinated by my penis and sperm. Do you know what sperm looks like under a microscope? What incredible biological struggle is waged therein? It’s a whole new universe! I deal with these issues, because we are essentially beautiful animals. There is great knowledge to be found in our blood, skin, bones, sperm, and water. For me it’s all organic and very natural. But when people look at it from the outside, they think it’s dirty, provocative and weird.

Just take my sculptures, or my plays. I’ve analyzed bones, muscles, blood, sperm, urine and tears. The body is like an incredible paint box, a laboratory, a battlefield. Everything that comes from it is very important.

Your work is based on improvisation. How does your idea of a production, the initial concept evolve?

At first I try to be very naïve. I tell my actors that I don’t know anything, although I already know how it will all turn out. It’s a bit like playing a blind man, who is being led by guide dog to his destination. However, the blind man turns out to be a seer. He knows where the dogs are taking him. I close my eyes and I know where I should be. Still, improvisation is an incredibly important tool for me. For example, I want the actors smelling each other – through the sense of smell, they discover one another, get to know one another from head to toe. Improvisation also serves to hone one’s imagination and physical reflexes. It is therefore a training for them rather than for me. Thanks to improvisation, the actors can believe that they’ve discovered something on their own. They’re proud then, and work better – they glow. It’s very important for the actors to believe that on stage they’re the heroes of an ancient tragedy. It’s beautiful. And obviously I learn a lot from them as well.

How much control do you maintain over the actors’ improvisation?

As an artist, I have to be a dictator. This is the only profession in the capitalist Western society that allows me to be one. Usually I have to say: “no, no, no, no, no, no, yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes.” I set up the rules, I design the structure. But I allow the actors to venture outside the wall I’m constructing. They struggle with the structure that I’m trying to impose on them. The entire dramatic conflict revolves around that struggle. Thanks to their strength and their ability to transcend themselves, the actors break out of the structure. That’s where theatre, drama, and beauty is born; that’s where you see the production come to life, become flesh and bone. I’m nothing without my actors. But they in turn become more beautiful when I’m a dictator. Bear in mind that I never force my actors to cross certain boundaries. I propose situations, and they – if they treat their work seriously – make the choice whether to go on of their own volition. All serious artists have to face this decision.

And do you cross boundaries yourself? You still act as a performer…

I sometimes do performances. But they’re always one-offs – otherwise I’d end up in a hospital, or get arrested. I did my last performance at the Louvre. It was a five hour long homage to Jacques Mesrine – the famous gangster and enemy of the state, who was active as an artist in the late 1970s. My performance dealt with metamorphoses and escaping the biggest prison in France.

When you work with actors, do you look for individual gestures, a movement coming from within, or do you rely on certain clichés, on method?

I never use the word method, for me it’s a guiding line. I’m a blind man, and my guide dogs are leading me to where I’m supposed to be. I’d rather use the term guiding line, because method is too dogmatic for me. I think it’s very important to teach your actor to think, to use his imagination. The moment you accept your imagination as a tool is the moment you gain access to truthfulness. Truthfulness (as opposed to truth) can be achieved through concentration and imagination. It is like making love. It’s this moment of complete concentration: imagining someone’s skin and consciously penetrating it, physically or metaphorically. It works both ways – from the inside out, and from the outside in. The surface is very important to an actor’s work. Without it, there would be no depth.

In your work, you sometimes refer to actors as “warriors of beauty”. What does that mean?

An actor that I would call a “warrior of beauty” is someone exceptional, because he defends beauty with all his might. I think “warriors of beauty” must approach their work very seriously. They make themselves objects of their own study. This is a very big challenge. “Warriors of beauty” need to keep looking for the terra incognita – the places where they lose all points of reference, and even themselves, in order to discover their roots, and enter a new plane of consciousness. Discovering these states is synonymous with the search for beauty. There’s this Flemish word, ‘redeloosheid ‘ (meaning un-reason) which encompasses both reason and its opposite. This un-reason comes from the inside – it’s the domain of unbridled anarchy, passion and love.

And what is this beauty that the actor searches for? What’s your perception of it?

Beauty is very important to me. I need it. It’s something that can exist outside of any sort of ideology or aesthetics, which can be manufactured. Beauty is a harmonious, vibrating sequence, independent of all ethical or aesthetical guidelines. It is freedom. It’s akin to a butterfly, which dies when you grasp it by its wings.

The influence of advanced technologies on the life of contemporary European societies is growing. What is your attitude towards these technologies and using them in theatre? Your work is, after all, very organic.

Would you rather be kissed by a computer, or by another person? My answer is: “another person”. I still don’t own a computer or a cell phone. For several reasons. One of them is that I like to look people in the eye. I like to smell their scent. We’re animals, we smell each other. Telephones, iPods – they’re all wonderful tools of communication, but the essence of theatre work, writing, or creating any sort of art is perception through touch. Great art is made by man. And man is beautiful – if you can’t touch, feel, or smell him, you’re missing out on quite a lot.

In your last production, “Orgy of Tolerance” (which premiered in 2009), you presented a very critical attitude towards European society. What does being a European mean to you and how do you see Europe’s future?

To be honest, I’m not European. I’m a very young man from Antwerp – a provincial artist. But it is this provincial quality that makes me universal. I say I’m very young, because becoming a young artist takes a whole lifetime. Concerning yourself with systems and political structures – the stuff EU foists upon people – is a waste of time. Don’t forget it’s all about economy. And the power of economy as such is of little interest to an artist.

But it’s becoming more and more important in our lives. Great corporations are ever more often cooperating with politicians from the top echelons of power.

Just look at the Middle Ages. Take Bruges, for example. It was the New York of Europe. That’s where all the important artists worked, and where the money was. This link between art and capitalism has always been there. Why did artists crave money? Because it meant better quality, being able to use the best possible materials. When 15th century artists needed lapis lazuli – the blue stone required to paint the Virgin Mary’s garments, they had to go to Afghanistan. It took six months to obtain that stone. Its price was exorbitant! And nothing has changed in that regard.

In order to do their job and create beauty, artists have to take advantage of the system. A good artist is always keenly aware of the spirit of his times, and opposes it. I don’t have anything against capitalism. The thing is to use it properly. I don’t have anything against money. As for corporations becoming more important than politicians the world over… it was similar in the 15th century, when politicians were trumped by the Church. It was all about the money then, too. And that’s how it has always been. But we have to be clever. I keep repeating to my actors and dancers that just because we’re surrounded by various ideologies doesn’t mean our work has to be suffused with them. I don’t have to tailor myself to the ideology of the National Opera - which is my employer. I can remain independent. Drawings I create end up at museums or galleries, therefore entering the realm of money – but that doesn’t mean they become tainted by it. A good work of art will always prevail and serve as a tool for reflecting on society, adapting to its evolution.

Your next production is “Prometheus Landscape II” (premiere planned for January 2011 – ed.). In 1988, you staged “Prometheus I”. Will you be drawing on that production, or is it a completely new endeavor?

Ancient Greek theatre lies at the core of how I perceive this medium. All ancient gods and heroes are very important to me. Prometheus was the man who brought fire to humanity. Sometimes I feel that as an artist, I have this fire, and I pass it on to other people, other artists. We form a team, which I really like. Of course, there’s the question of who contemporary society’s heroes are. We live in a world that bars us from using fire. Fire is banned from every fucking museum or theatre. In this sense, we are also barred from being creative. We think about the contemporary world, about Prometheus, we keep talking about fire, but we can’t start one!

Interview by Dorota Semenowicz and Katarzyna Tórz

Poznań, June 30, 2010

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