A Living Archive: The Performance Territory as Social Interstice

The relational aesthetics of 'Isabella's Room' and Jan Lauwers' theater work with Needcompany


Together with his choreographer wife Grace Ellen Barkey, visual artist and theater maker Jan Lauwers formed the Flemish theater collective Needcompany in 1986. The aesthetic richness of their multilingual and multimedia performances is the product of a collective elaboration on their meanings, effects and outcomes, while embracing the potential for individual manoeuvrability within a sphere of sociality. Lauwers leads a group of artists who contribute to the final mise en scène. His emphasis on giving individual artists the opportunity to experiment with and develop their work has enabled joint ventures and new artistic alliances within the company. According to Lauwers, artists join the company because “they want to think about things and make conclusions. . . . It’s like a think tank” in the corporeal and the linguistic sense of the term.[i] Ultimately, it is through this multitonality of artistic expression that Lauwers engages in an open dialogue with his audience.

Sad Face/Happy Face is a trilogy of plays. The first part, Isabella’s Room (2004), is a reflection on the past in a series of interrupted monologues. The second part, The Lobster Shop (2006), is about the precarious future. It tells the story of the tragedy of Axel, Theresa and their son Jef who dies under mysterious conditions, which is once again counterbalanced by humor, music and dance. The third part, The Deer House (2008), is the fragile present, and it commemorates the loss of dancer Tijen Lawton’s brother, Kerem Lawton—a photographer who was killed during the war in Bosnia. All three stories are intrinsically linked to the excesses of the past century, the terrors of the present and the nightmares of tomorrow.

This article is about the first part of the trilogy, where the tensions between archival facts and cultural memory, the dead and the living, race and gender politics, humor and outrage, guilt and responsibility underpin the central action of the play. Lauwers claims Isabella’s Room to be a multimedia and multilingual living archive, where the dynamics of individual and collective aesthetic and social engagement (re)produce and (re)activate the space. It, therefore, becomes evident that certain assumptions about relational aesthetics are central to Lauwers’ concern with the subject of (non)human nature. My emphasis is on the relational dimensions of the interdependent individual and group, human and object encounters—as provoked and managed through forms, patterns and functions of sociability in symbolic time and space—in Isabella’s Room.

Nicolas Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (1998) has provided the theoretical anchor for the study of the mutual co-occurrence and spatial relations of object and human in contemporary art. The question addressed here concerns the significance of Bourriaud’s approach to the analysis of (un)bound subjectivities in Isabella’s Room. While Bourriaud maintains that theater is a space for private consumption which, unlike visual arts exhibitions, does not “tighten the space of relations” or allow for immediate and ongoing “transactions with the subjectivity of others,” this discussion sets the context for designating certain aesthetic criteria by which onstage action in Isabella’s Room is equally “a factor of sociability and a founding principle of dialogue.”[ii] My approach is oriented toward a recognition of performance as experience. It accounts for the performative turn of the 1960s in Western art and society and is thereby set against the backdrop of broader social and cultural processes—a new appreciation of the aesthetic encounter as an ephemeral social event in its own right. This article reviews the theoretical implications of creating and experiencing Isabella’s Room with reference to Jan Lauwers’ theatrical apparatus.

An Ethnography of a Loose Memoir

On an open white stage, large panels with color photographs hang from the flies. A display arrangement of a large collection of ethnological and archaeological artefacts—predominantly African and Egyptian icons which are too small to be recognized from the auditorium—exhibited on tables, small bureaus and special pedestals occupy this somewhat phantasmal, museum-like theater space comprising Isabella’s “room.” The “room” and its objects, which, as we are told, are mixed among several fakes, constitute a surreal landscape where the dead mingle with the living, and, together with Isabella, they tell the story of her life, dance and sing on the stage in an open and inviting way which is characteristic of the artistic vision and the versatile, visual-arts based, large-scale productions of the Needcompany ensemble.

Viviane de Muynck in Isabella’s Room, 2004. Photo by Maarten Vanden Abeele.

In Isabella’s Room, Viviane De Muynck, one of the leading actresses in the troupe, plays the character of Isabella Morandi—a feisty blind woman in her nineties who lives in her Paris hotel room surrounded by the artefacts. The fictional life story of Isabella begins in 1910 and spans almost the entire twentieth century up to the present day. Isabella “has witnessed” the pivotal events of the past century: World War I and II, Hiroshima, the development of modern art, the famines in Africa, the Vlaams Blok in Belgium—just to name a few. The inevitability of death, love, suffering, violence and the pursuit of happiness are recurrent themes in the play. “What a waste of time is pain,” she proclaims.[iii] Such thematic multiplicity informs Lauwers’ theatrical apparatus, transfiguring the dense metaphor of this rather claustrophobic performance “room” throughout the different sections of the ninety-minute show. In this view, the “room,” which holds all the artefacts Isabella inherits from her father after her mother’s suicide, with its exotic objects and ghostly inhabitants—doubly intensified by visual effects, music and dance—collectively operate as a memory machine of all the horrible events of the twentieth century.

The performance Lauwers has created commemorates the life of his father, Felix Lauwers, a doctor by profession and an amateur ethnographer, who died in 2002 leaving an ethnographic collection of about 5800 objects from ancient Egypt and black Africa which were displayed in the family home: “And when such a collection is just handed to you, you also have to decide what you’re going to do with it. It’s an ethical question too, because many of these objects were probably stolen from their original creators and ended up in a setting where they don’t belong,” states Lauwers.[iv] Isabella’s Room contains biographical and autobiographical elements and combines fragments of Lauwers’ family history with the life of Isabella, who never existed, and the men who are important in her life. Further, it is noteworthy that all cast members remain onstage for the duration of the entire performance, including Lauwers who not only observes but also reacts to the action of the play and joins with some of the choruses in singing. Lauwers, however, does not make a piece of theater around the life of his father. Rather, he creates a woman narrator because “women are tremendously important, but are never given the position they deserve.” He claims to take part in the performance only to “obliterate” himself from it: “[T]he simple fact that I am there onstage without taking part in the action makes sure that it is no longer about me,” he says.[v]

With Isabella being the central figure, nine performers (excluding Lauwers) reveal the secret which dominates her existence—the terrible truth which lies hidden beneath the exotic image of the “Desert Prince,” and her quest for him which does not lead her to Africa, but rather to a hotel room in Paris cluttered with objects and people from her past. Isabella was abandoned on the doorsteps of a Carmelite convent. She grows up in a lighthouse on an island with Arthur and Anna, her foster parents. “I called myself Isabella, the ‘Desert Princess,’” she says. The narrative proceeds from her own reminiscences, corrected and enhanced by other characters: Arthur and Anna, her longtime lover Alexander—who gradually sinks into madness after surviving the Second World War—and her teenage lover and grandson Frank. Sister Bad and Sister Joy—who represent the left and right halves of Isabella’s brain—dance, act and sing onstage and, in effect, contribute to the fable-like elements of the play. Also, although mostly silent, the “Desert Prince”—the specter of her non-existent father who, as her foster parents tell her, disappeared on an expedition—is present onstage as a full contributor to the physical action. But we learn from a letter Arthur left Isabella after his death that her foster parents are her real parents after all. It, therefore, becomes evident that the performance is structured around blending and separating elements of memory, imagination and archival facts.[vi]

Isabella’s “Room” as Social Interstice

Isabella registers at the Sorbonne to study African anthropology and moves into the hotel room in Paris to study the ethnographic collection she inherits from her father. In a long interlude where Lauwers experiments with physical movement vocabularies and a deliberately uncoordinated stage setting, each character presents an object to the audience while Isabella listens: a small bronze figure, a walking stick, a bronze libation vase where the slaves kept their master’s tears, a petrified whale penis, slave shackles, a small ivory tattoo knife, an Egyptian mummified falcon, a chainmail mask, a stuffed head of a tortoise which Isabella hates (Sister Bad, the intuitive right side of Isabella’s brain, tells the audience), and even the Desert Prince declaims a short statement about a small statuette. The characters begin to shout louder as the music grows into a crescendo ending the inventory and bringing the cast to a standstill. However, Isabella, who, as Anna says, likes beauty only if it is “useful,” hangs her keys on an African fetish, uses the libation vase as a saltshaker and keeps the whale penis behind the door to protect herself from housebreakers. This has caused outrage in some performing arts critics’ circles, condemning the work as being racist, disturbing and offensive. Janelle Reinelt suggests, however, that these artefacts which are “the detritus of colonialism, left-over testaments to brutality, and evidence of the ransacking and appropriation of culture” trigger each audience member to question their own position with relation to not only Lauwers’ mise en scène but also their personal “encounter” with the past through his unique and compelling half history/half myth memory apparatus.[vii] In fact, Lauwers sees “all good art” as being a “self-portrait of the observer,” in the sense that “[o]ne sees what one has learnt.”[viii] In this view, the “room” becomes a living museum of human and object interactions interlaced into twentieth-century history and life—a “social interstice.”[ix]

The conceptual center of the narrative in Isabella’s Room is an assemblage of objects and people with whom Isabella remains in mental conversation all her life and whose significance transcends objectification and defamiliarization. From this perspective, as Emile Durkheim suggests in The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life (1912), both the artefacts and the characters are considered “things” presenting themselves as “social facts” which, according to Nicolas Bourriaud, are reactivated through the intersubjective encounter of the spectator with the dynamic unity of onstage action.[x] For, as Freddie Rokem observes, it is “the repressed ghostly figures and events from that (‘real’) historical past [which] can (re)appear on the stage in theatrical performances. The actors performing such historical figures are in fact the ‘things’ who are appearing again tonight in the performance. And when these ghosts are historical figures they are in a sense performing history.”[xi] Indeed, the ghostly quality of both the artefacts and the characters in Isabella’s Room is a performance reality inextricably tied to a process of recycling the past (the stories, the physical objects and the places) which, in effect, produces a “specific sociability.”[xii] Moreover, as Hans-Thies Lehmann maintains, it is the instability and the diversity of the relational form of Isabella’s Room which allows for a dynamic relationship, where “being-together” evolves along with and through an “aesthetic of responsibility (or response-ability)”:

Instead of the deceptively comforting duality of here and there, inside and outside, it can move the mutual implication of actors and spectators in the theatrical production of images into the centre and thus make visible the broken thread between personal experience and perception. Such an experience would be not only aesthetic but therein at the same time ethico-political.[xiii]

This yields an inescapable and continuing process of negotiation with moments of subjectivity associated with particular performances, as these modes of sociability are recalled in new circumstances, historical periods and social contexts.

Lauwers believes that the experience of theater is a quest for an aesthetic confirmation of life: “I want the ritual of theater to become something like when people get together to sing.” Indeed, as Nicolas Bourriaud argues, artistic practice “resides in the invention of relations between consciousness.”[xiv] Isabella’s Room is an affirmation that life is worth living together.

Photo by Maarten Vanden Abeele (1)First Image: Eveline Vanassche
Second Image: Viviane de Muynck in Isabella’s Room, 2004. Photo by Maarten Vanden Abeele
Third Image: Maarten Vanden Abeele

 [i] Quoted in Erika Rundle, “Images of Freedom,” Performing Arts Journal 33, no. 1 (2003): 66.

[ii] Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, (Dijon: Les Presses du réel, 2002 [1998]), pp. 16, 22, 15.

[iii] All quotes are taken either from the website of Needcompany or from Janelle Reinelt’s chapter on Jan Lauwers in Contemporary European Theatre Directors whose original source is an unpublished manuscript of the play in English with which the company provided her. See Janelle Reinelt, Interview with Jan Lauwers, Frankfurt, Germany, September, 29, 2007.

[iv] Quoted in Pieter T’Jonk, “Because Women Are Tremendously Important,” De Tijd, September 21, 2004, accessed 1 August, 2014

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Janelle Reinelt, “Jan Lauwers: Performance Realities – Memory, History, Death,” in Contemporary European Theatre Directors, Maria M. Delgado and Dan Rebellato, eds. (Routledge: 2010), pp. 206-7.

[vii] Reinelt, “Jan Lauwers: Performance Realities – Memory, History, Death,” p. 214.

[viii] Quoted in Erwin Jans’ dramaturgical notes. See Erwin Jans, Isabella’s Room: Laugh and Be Gentle to the Unknown, 2004, accessed 1 August, 2014

[ix] Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, pp. 16-18. See Reinelt (2007) and (2010) for a discussion of the key characteristics of the “Europeanness” and the “humanness” of Lauwers’ company. She claims that although the company explicitly seeks international spectatorship, it is the Europeans who are addressed in performances like Isabella’s Room which refers to a “shared colonial past” and a “shared experience of twentieth-century horror.” See Reinelt, “Jan Lauwers: Performance Realities – Memory, History, Death,” p. 211.

[x] Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, trans. Joseph Ward Swain, (New York: The Free press, 1965 [1912]).

[xi] Freddie Rokem, Performing History: Theatrical Representations of the Past in Contemporary Theater, (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000), p. 6.

[xii] Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p. 16.

[xiii] Hans-Thies Lehmann, Postdramatic Theatre, trans. Karen Jürs-Munby (London and New York: Routledge, 2006), pp. 185-6.

[xiv] Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics, p. 22.