What do you really need to know about the creation of a work of art?

What do you really need to know about the creation of a work of art?

Michaela Preiner

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July 2022

Jan Lauwers created a multidimensional artistic masterpiece with his "Needcompany".

[A few decades ago – I don’t know if it’s still the case today – you learned a lot in art history courses. Especially styles and their geographical distribution. You studied buildings, paintings and sculptures and made comparisons. And if you had already enjoyed lectures on iconography, then you were also able to interpret the message of individual works of art that was hidden from the layman. When one had finished 8-plus-x semesters and was allowed to put an academic title in front of one’s name, one suddenly found oneself often in the embarrassment of being able to give only the most rudimentary biographical information about artists. There was almost no space devoted to them in studies; if there was, then one acquired them oneself or read up on them in acute need. For works of art themselves, however, there was and still is an unwritten law: if they are good, they do not need biographical supplements.

Jan Lauwers, Belgian theatre director who originally studied painting at the Academy of Arts in Ghent, sets many scents in the direction of artwork creation and its biographical background with his new play “All The Good”. It was presented as part of the Impuls Dance Festival at the Volkstheater in Vienna. With the Needcompany, co-founded by his wife Grace Ellen Barkey and himself, he offered the Impulstanz audience at the Volkstheater insights into the genesis of a special work of art. In doing so, he did not focus on an iconographic approach and its philosophical background. Quite the opposite. The only tentative progress of the development of the object, equipped with blown glass drops from a Palestinian glassblower, only forms the background for a vividly told family story that gets completely out of kilter at the end of the performance. And it also forms the background to a very subtle indictment of Israel. An indictment, however, in which there are no victors and vanquished, only losers.

But until this happens, the events – accompanied by live music by Maarten Seghers and three other musicians – intensify in a dramatic way. The parents Jan and Grace Ellen are put to the test by the relationship actions of their children Romy Louise and Victor Lauwers. There is the realisation that art actions today, no matter how shockingly intended, are neither shocking nor original. A coitus scene that takes place coram publico subsequently turns into a nightmarish event of a traumatised former Israeli combat soldier.

The women, Grace Ellen, Romy Louise and Inge (Victor’s partner) press the gas pedal with their feminist interpretations when it comes to new ways of looking at historical works of art, but also current art productions. Nevertheless, they all give the impression of not being able to consistently defend themselves against male dominance. Grace Ellen is abruptly interrupted by her husband while she is talking about her artistic work. Romy Louise defends her partner Elik to the hilt against her mother’s questions. She knows that Elik killed as a former Israeli soldier, but she does not want to hear any more about it and is happy to leave these events in the unspoken past. Inge Van Bruystegem only steps out of the role of studio handler when she talks about the life of Artemisia Gentileschi. That Renaissance painter who was abused by her teacher and wrote art history with her self-portraits. The fact that the painter was given thumbscrews to check her incriminating testimony, but that nothing else happened to her tormentor afterwards, is an injustice that Elke wants to make drastically clear to everyone. To do so, she even takes the risk of inciting Victor to commit a repeat offence. A sensitive young man who, however, completely refuses to do so.

The unrestricted ruler of the family events, however, is Jan Lauwers, who has his alter ego portrayed on stage by Benoit Gob. Although Lauwers initially explains the scenery and introduces all those involved, he then always remains in the background observing and hardly intervening. In between, works of art are shown again and again, and Jan briefly lectures about them. Then there is dancing and singing – Maarten Seghers demonstrates both his beautiful bass and melodious tenor in two performances. Again and again, the ensemble is annoyed that the electric drive for the glass-fronted work of art doesn’t work properly. For a change, a fox bites off the head of a pigeon in the best Dada manner and again and again a rat pushes itself to the front of the stage to present its view of things in a know-it-all manner.

One scene replaces the next, costumes are changed and after the revelation that the artist Jan Lauwers abstains sexually so as not to disturb the energetic flow of creation for his glass artwork, there is a real crack in the family-friendly woodwork. The banal fact of sexual abstinence completely upsets the family structure. This is followed by a story of infidelity that has happened, is happening and will happen countless times on this earth in an almost identical constellation.

Thus, one has completely distanced oneself from the current production of art, but also from the historical considerations of various works of art. Now there is arguing, reproaches are made, now one is deeply offended and no longer sure whether a harmonious family life will ever come about after this argument. It is now the fullness of life with all its distortions that comes to the fore.

All questions of art theory are blown away. The audience can ask themselves these questions after the performance. What remains is the realisation that a work of art lives from narratives. Of those that arise ad hoc through association, but also of those that are reported about it. If the object rotating on its own axis with its blue-turquoise glass drops were in a museum, then nothing at all would indicate its genesis in the midst of a family tragicomedy. Then the unwritten law would come true that a good work of art does not need biographical attachments to be good.

The intelligent show opens more questions than answers. It covers more than it shows – leaves the audience in the dark as to which statements are to be taken truthfully and which follow purely a theatrical dramaturgy. The only thing that seems certain is an eternal cycle. A cycle that is actually stopped by a never-ending run around the art object by all the ensemble members. Props are picked up, dragged along, dropped again, only to be picked up again by others. The eternally human – the doing – remains as the constant of a creative process. A production like something out of a picture book: clever, funny, profound, varied and entertaining. And a production you can watch several times!
This article was translated with deepl.com

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