French channel Arte has just started rebroadcasting Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s 1990s murder mystery TV series. At the very heart of Lynch’s landmark show is the ongoing battle between everyday small town North American life and the darker forces of death and the irrational that menace, yet concurrently complete it. Even after over twenty years it still has the capacity to disturb and entertain in equal measure.
The shadowy, dark forces explored by the show eminate from the Black Lodge, steeped in local legend as the place from where the ‘evil’ in the local woods emerges. Deep in those woods lies the portal to this place shrouded in death and mystery that appears to lie outside our ability to understand the world. It is this space outside time that ‘This Is How You Will Disappear‘, Gisèle Vienne‘s perfomance piece, part short play, part contemporary dance, part art ‘happening’ immediately evokes and appears to reside within.
The similarities with Lynch’s TV, show, however, stop there. Whilst Twin Peaks explored the tension between the logic and understanding of everyday experience and the the darker forces of incomprehension, ‘This is How You Will Disappear’, which premiered at the 2010 Avignon Festival and is currently touring the contemporary art festival circuit, plunges straight into the latter.
The performance takes place in a painstakingly recreated forest clearing, shrouded in fog, completely withdrawn from the security of the familiar and everyday. Indeed a recognisable world outside the forest is only hinted at. The performance’s text, provided by US writer Denis Cooper centres around three characters, a gymnast, her coach and a lost rock star, all of them who appear to have conventional existences outside the forest, but are all trapped by or hiding in the forest’s darkness. Their fortunes will tragically collide.
French cultural output has never shied away from embracing the dark side of human thought and experience; the writings of the Marquis de Sade, Maurice Blanchot and Georges Bataille are a clear testament to that. Indeed Blanchot and Bataille have been explicitly cited by Vienne and Cooper as direct influences on their work. The interesting aspect of ‘This is How You Will Disappear’ is how it takes the experience of incomprehension and attempts to bring it to life in front of an audience, an experience that directly implicates the viewer as participant. In the performance, what we don’t think, the thoughts we don’t dare to have are given centre stage.
Perhaps most immediately striking aspect of the performance is the work of Japanese artist Fujiko Nakaya who has created intensely dramatic living fog sculptures for the show. These combine with the lighting and video projections to overwhelm the forest on occasion, spilling over the stage, filling the auditorium and blurring the distinction between spectacle and audience. The viewers are thus directly transported into the forest beyond thought in an experience that is concurrently both exhilarating and claustrophobic.
This effect is reinforced by the show’s music, provided by the black pope of heavy drone Stephen O’Malley, perhaps best known for his Sunn O))) work, here collaborating with Peter Rehberg. Fog, light, video and music/low frequency noise all combine to strikingly physical affect In this way, the title ‘This Is How You Will Disappear’ frames the show both as a consideration of the characters and their metaphysical states and a declaration of visceral intent from Vienne/Copper/O’Malley to their audience.
Whilst undoubtedly a hugely affecting work, the shows sheer audacity and excess resonate strangely with the audience in the days and weeks following the experience. In a post credit-crunch age of supposed belt-tightening and financial austerity, how can artists justify the sheer ridiculousness of such a scale? Bringing together big names from around the world to collaborate with video, live sound, live action (even live falconry – seriously), doesn’t come cheap. Maybe the answer is to be found in Georges Bataille’s La Part maudite– his general economic treaty celebrating pure, excess as an end in itself. Maybe we shouldn’t try and justify it.