One of my favourite artworks is Joseph Kosuth's One and Three Chairs (1965). It’s an installation in a gallery that comprises a chair against the wall of the gallery, a 100%-scale photograph of that chair on the wall to the left, and on the wall to the right, a large reproduction of a dictionary entry for the word ‘chair’.
At first glance it might feel like the art work 'is' a real chair with two representations of a chair attached, but its structure is more riddling than that; in fact wherever the artwork is installed it's a different chair and therefore a different photograph too. It’s the dictionary definition that remains the same, while the chairs come and go. Seen that way, it becomes unclear whether the definition represents the chair or the chair represents the definition. And what of the photograph? It seems both more and less than the physically three-dimensional chair. It's existentially thinner, stripped of the ability to show us any other angles on the object, but it also seems more definite somehow; the chair in the room is just any old chair and could have been anything else but, since it is a photograph of that any old chair, the chair in the photograph has to be that chair. The physical chair is arbitrary while the photograph has necessity.
The seemingly redundant tautology of the photograph alongside the thing photographed also plays tricks on the mind: is it the same chair? We look for the trick and we examine both chairs carefully. All this exasperated scrutiny also, quite quickly, starts to strip away the quotidian functionality of the chair; aesthetic attention consumes its to-be-sat-on-ness and leaves us, even in the case of the 'real' chair, with an art-chair, an object, both oddly provisional (any old chair) and supreme (the intense consuming object of attention for its own sake). Eventually though, the muteness of the image just continue to ask us some basic questions about how we come to know things: seeing them? representing them? forming concepts of them? Or perhaps all together, in a kind of trinitarian echo (One and Three Chairs)? Or none: are there, in fact, any chairs here at all? Has art eaten all the chairs?
If Tim Crouch doesn’t know this artwork, I’ll eat my chair. But if he doesn’t he should, and if he does, it’s clearly had no small impact on Adler & Gibb, his new play, set in the post-Kosuth conceptual art world of New York but, even more importantly, animated by just the same conceptual art questions that Kosuth and his Art & Language contemporaries introduced. In Adler & Gibb an actress (Louise) and her coach (Sam) are making a movie about an enigmatic pair of artists, Janet Adler and Margaret Gibb; the actress is playing Adler and she has broken into the abandoned ruins of the artists' rural home to do some in situ improvisation. But the house is not abandoned and Louise is surprised to be confronted by the real Gibb in its remains. In that moment, theatrically, we momentarily might feel like we are watching the photograph being confronted by the chair. Except, of course, that both of these images are 'fake'. Amelda Brown as Gibb is no more real than Denise Gough as Adler.*
Indeed, both of them have their origin in a play text, a verbal structure, akin to a dictionary definition; in Kosuth's work, I am reminded of Plato's notion of forms (the perfect and metaphysical versions of everything that is imperfectly and contingently rendered in our world) and how it seems similar to the way language works: for Plato there is a form of a 'chair' of which all merely actual chairs are inferior representations; one might say also that we have the abstract linguistic definition of a chair which covers but is not exhausted by all the world's real and possible chairs. Plays stand in relation to productions a bit like that (but only a bit); not in the strictly Platonic sense that they contain all the versions of them but they remain distant and (usually/often) unchanging, while each production, indeed each performance of them, is different and there can be no perfect realisation of the 'actual' play.**
This is explored by Crouch and his collaborators across the length of the show, which begins with an almost entirely bare stage, just some functional trestle tables at the back and side and a lectern on the forestage at stalls level. A young art student begins doing a presentation and occasionally pauses to ask for a new slide, at which point the story of Louise and her confrontation with Gibb begins, with an acting exercise:
SAM. You're wearing a blue blouse.
LOUISE. I'm wearing a blue blouse.
SAM. You're wearing a blue blouse.
LOUISE. I'm wearing a blue blouse.
SAM. You're wearing a blue blouse.
LOUISE. I'm wearing a blue blouse. (p. 3)
Except, Louise isn't wearing a blue blouse. She is naked in fact, in two senses: literally, she's wearing virtually no clothes; metaphorically, the actor is permitted very few of the props of characterisation: 'Lines delivered out, facing out - no adopted accents, no gestures. No actions,' the preceding stage direction insists. (Lines delivered straight out is the contemporary short-hand, from Forced Ents to Crave, for refusing to be fictional about your theatre. I think it goes back, in a way, to Beckett's Happy Days which is fictional but draws some of its power on bringing the actor and the character ever closer together through the performance, so that eventually the fear we are watching may be the actor's as much as the characters. I set out this thought a bit more fully here.)
Through the first half, though, the actors and the set are slowly dressed. They actors are brought clothes, they adopt accents, they start to talk to 'in character', they turn and face one another as if we're not there, pieces of set are brought on. But the production is keen to remind us that what are watching is not the restoration of 'normality', as if a theatre of visual resemblance is the proper way of doing theatre (it never really has been). At one point, Sam and Gibb have been clothed and now they are furnished with props: a mallet and a shotgun, respectively, which are indeed the items with which one character is breaking into a property and with which the other is defending it. But then, like they've dialled it even further, these props are replaced, the mallet with a large plastic lobster and the shotgun with a tennis racquet, a baguette, a length of green piping, and a plastic lobster. We've gone from a linguistic representation of the object, the gun and mallet evoked in dialogue ('what you got in your hand, some cosh is it? Some hickory stick' p. 30 ) to a literal visual representation, to a metaphorical or nonsensical representation - idealism to realism to surrealism in three steps.*** The point is, surely, to remind us that realism is just a point on the dial; we don't need to approach it and we can go past it too.
Before I went, I'd been warned that the first half is difficult. I disagree; the speech to audience and the slow build up of realistic theatrical trappings is enthralling. It's the second half I found difficult, because having so problematised the notion of realism, I found the realism sinister, tautologous; it started giving out meanings and signals which I usually ignore when naturalism is more naturalised (why are they pretending to be these people? what motives do these actors have for being realistic?). In addition, the story veers into peculiar territory in the second half that tests realism as well. They kill the dog; they dig up Janet Adler's body; they force poor Margaret Gibb into acting a scene from the movie. Here, again, it's finely balanced. On the one hand, there are moments of real emotional cruelty and exploitation, particularly as Margaret seems intermittently confused and may even think she is seeing her lover back from the dead. But on the other hand, the story is rather ridiculous, with the exhumation and the obsession seeming so outré as, in this context, to draw attention to the artistic decisions made by the team. Too much narrative can be as disorienting as too little. In the second half I found reverting back to the student's ongoing commentary about the artists reassuringly alienating.
Some of the print critics focused almost exclusively on the story and the satirical messages it may contain about the movie business, which they seem to take at face value. To one it’s a ‘satire on the cult of the artist’. To another it ‘satirises mercilessly the biopic industry’. To a third, it seeks to 'joyfully satirise academic descriptions of artistic creativity, and to comment on how film-makers, art critics and biographers vampirise the lives of artists'. Having decided that satirical commentary - these 'messages' - are at the centre of the performance, it relegates the formal aspects of the performance to the margins, one predictably regretting 'that the playfully experimental form dominated the intriguing content'.
What these reviews betray is a peculiar theatrical assumption that content is important and form is trivial, which is an assumption I think the show's energy is all about undermining. The Telegraph review even begins with a list of Very Important Topics that the Royal Court should be addressing - 'Carnage in Syria, returning chaos in Iraq, turmoil in Ukraine' - and laments that instead Tim Crouch has chosen to offer an 'elaborate doodle on the margins' (the same phrase is used by The Arts Desk: 'the last part of the evening feels like the playwright is just doodling in the margins'). To make art about Syria is serious; to reflect on art about Syria is, it seems, trivial and self-indulgent.
Which is odd, because the play I saw was an exploration of exactly the responsibilities art has to reality that, watched attentively, would make most people think twice before recommending a series of plays on the horrors in Syria, Iraq, and Ukraine. The play seems to me to be exploring how certain ways of making art might eviscerate and consume reality. It's embodied in the main story, which takes Louise and Sam into acts of murder, desecration, and physical and emotional trespass. But it's not just a comment about Hollywood; there's a killer detail late in the play when Margaret Gibb recalls the early days of their withdrawal from the art world:
She started to get confused a little, you know. A little out of sorts. She must have been just over 50 by then. I don't know dates. When we started to build this place. She started to forget where she put things, to have difficulty remembering words. This gave an interesting quality to the work (p. 77).
The word 'interesting' is fairly non-committal but it suggests something of art's relentlessly omnivorous character that it can also grab dementia to feed itself.
And the theatre is part of the same thing. It's one of the most ordinary things that theatre can do to take an object and turn it into an image. The Prague Structuralists of the 1930s - the first to offer a theatre semiotics - had a kind of slogan that they repeated in many of their articles: 'everything on stage is a sign'. That is, you put a chair on a stage and it stops being a chair, it becomes an image of a chair, a representation of a chair, and it becomes symbolic, deictic, iconic of the kind of life that might be lived around that chair. It becomes a theatre-chair and its original function is suspended, but at a distance. Roland Barthes talked about this in 'Myth Today', an exuberant essay that accompanied the miniature cultural analyses that made up his Mythologies (1957), where he showed how culture turns denotation (strict and direct representation) into connotation (where the image is now pressed into service of a second-order additional set of meanings). He talked about an image of a black soldier saluting the French flag which (in the context of the Algerian War) could not simply be a photograph of one soldier and one flag, but instead becomes an image of the faithful and loyal worldwide Francophone family. Here lies ideology and art does it too: consuming the chair, the soldier, the flag, the dementia, the mallet, the artist, the stage. In Adler & Gibb's most hilariously memorable line, Louise realised that the dog she has just killed was the puppy originally submitted by the two artists for the Whitney's collection but rejected by the Museum: 'I killed the fucking art-dog!' (p. 65).
Throughout the production, the props, set and costumes are provided by two children who are given instructions about what to do. Children on stage have a fascinating relationship with realism; I was reminded of the (young) choir that I saw performing in David Greig's The Events last year. The untrained youthful performers offer a different kind of realism, a imperviousness to theatrical semiosis. They seem to stay children, because of their delightful disorderliness, their unprofessional behaviour (in the best sense), even when they are trying to be orderly professional. A stray glance or nervous twitch of the hand which a professional actor would never do and we're reminded of their spontaneous actuality. On the other hand, of course, they do participate in the semiosis, because, as we see then assemble the set, it begins to look a little like kids playing with a doll's house, roughly dressing their dolls, inserting the furniture, choosing the wallpaper. The image is ambiguous: on the one hand, it suggests something of magic of dressing-up, of play-acting; on the other, maybe it implies that all of these make-believe is a bit... childish.
This is rather typical of the whole gorgeous thing. Adler & Gibb has its dog and kills it too. It is both a gripping, original, well-told story and an ambitious, riddling and at times brutal interrogation of the claims of art and the means of theatrical representation. At some point we realise that the student and the actress are the same people. The younger Louise, as a wannabe art student, was making a pitch for a scholarship by presenting her thoughts on Adler and Gibb. The fact that she appears to have failed and instead has made a sideways move into acting appears to have left her with mixed feelings about the artists she once so admired. She now seems obsessed to a point where she both wants to reify and destroy them - and what better way to reify and destroy something? Make art out of it. You want to have the dog and kill it too? Make it an art-dog.
As ever, Tim Crouch, Andy Smith and Karl James have made here a piece of work that is ferociously theatrical and deeply ethical in its questioning. Not in the earnest English way, but this is art that uses its own methods and its own areas of expertise to ask profound questions about why we're all here, watching this stuff.
I won't pretend Adler & Gibb was easy viewing; I won't even pretend I completely understood it all and the clashing textures of representation that it brought together but it was completely fascinating from beginning to end, wholly captivating, often hilariously funny, pounding the stage with wave after wave of thought, beauty and feeling and, most of all, it piled ambition on ambition. If anyone tells you that the theatre is safe or middle brow or boring or escapism, just tell them you were there when Adler & Gibb was at the Royal Court and they couldn't be more wrong.
* Or rather: Denise Gough as Louise as Adler - an interesting qualification, reflecting on that wonderful moment in Tim Crouch's An Oak Tree, maybe my favourite moment of theatre of the century so far, where we are invited to look at a piano stool as a tree as a daughter. That moment is hugely, profoundly moving for all its verfremdung, but it's also a massive mindfuck too: how do you look at a chair and imagine it to be a tree that has turned into a man's daughter without changing its substance? And yet, here, in Adler and Gibb, it's easy: we are very used to these layered substitutions in theatre: here is an actor playing a different actor playing an artist. That we should find that deeply peculiar set of mental switches simple is, to me, one of the reasons why narrative fictional theatre remains at its heart a conceptual art practice, albeit a normalised one.
** The three-way comparison (dictionary-play-Platonic forms) isn't quite right of course. The dictionary definition actually comes after the meaning is formed (when lexicographers examine the language and try to work out what we mean when we say particular words), so I am using the dictionary definition as an emblem of the meaning of a word. The forms are at the other end of things, genuinely giving rise, if we are to believe Plato which no one does, to all of the real existences in the world. The play text is a little bit more in the middle: (a) because, as I said, no one, not even Arnold Wesker, thinks plays give rise to everything in the productions of them and (b) because some play texts are more a priori than others. Pinter's clearly just arrived and were done. The published text for Complicité's Mnemonic is a document of a collaborative process.
*** The lobster is the clue that we're being asked to reflect on realism's shadow; it's an icon of surrealism, even a cliche of surrealism, and therefore - since surrealism is probably the modernist art form that has most widely burrowed its way into public consciousness - an icon of modernist and conceptual art practice. The lobster specifically may remind us of Dalí's Lobster Telephone (1936, look! a picture!), which was one of Dalí's more radical offerings, a 'design' which obliterated the functionality of the object, which, of course, is what art does all the time (see the art-chair, see the art-dog). It's a chain of reference to continues to reflect on art as creative (and sometimes uncreative) destruction.