Nonsense! She Said: Marvin Gaye Chetwynd Pantomimes Politics in Paris

The bad news is Brexit. The good news (other than the recent British election) is that British humor, of the nonsense variety, is alive and well and still exported to the European Union. So it appeared in a performance at Le Plateau in Paris by the British performance artist Marvin Gaye Chetwynd. To an English ear, the title of her performance, Clic-Clac, is a piece of nonsense or an onomatopoetic rendering of the sound of hooves, but in French it actually refers prosaically to a sofa bed. This one function disguised within another (bed and sofa) and covered, moreover, by a nonsense term, as if its upholstery, or costuming, gives a clue to what never, intentionally, seemed to cohere in Chetwynd’s performance.

The first thing that came to mind, even before any relevance of content, was that we were witnessing a children’s pantomime, a lark in the park not to be taken seriously. When one of the performers said “mind the tableaux,” it was not another instruction to pay attention to the poses of the performance, but rather for the crowd to watch out for the paintings on the walls (it took place within an exhibition of Kaye Donachie). In fact, poses never cohered into tableaux but constantly fell apart or never got there or were amateurishly composed, wobbles and all.

Ostensibly, two unrelated episodes or narratives intersected or slid over or under one another, played out or repeated in the different rooms of Le Plateau. One was the story of the gigantic engineering project, called the Mega Tomb, built to enclose the crumbling concrete sarcophagus hastily put in place after the Chernobyl disaster. An incident that seems forgotten in the distant past, Chernobyl was still an environmental disaster, like a slumbering monster beginning to wake. At Chernobyl, constructed adjacent to the nuclear reactor in a zone of lesser radiation, the tomb was then shunted over top of the reactor. In the performance we were shown a battered cardboard model of the reactor, from underneath as well, revealing its flimsy construction; then elsewhere the troupe enacted, through tippy-toe pantomime with arms arching over, the sliding of the Mega Tomb over the reactor model, the latter now quivering on the back of one of the crouched performers – ready to implode. Clic, the reactor uncovered; clac, the reactor now enclosed.

The performance, too, was like the reactor – a machine gone a bit awry. Instructions were necessary, intervening in the flow of events, and contributing to the “chaos.” We were told somewhat frenetically what was going on, or that an episode would repeat in another room, or to follow a ragtag procession through the streets of Belleville to another building where the performance would conclude. But rather than an admission that the performance itself failed to convey its subject, something else showed through these instructions – but we would have to wait.

And then there was the general “amateurish” quality of the performance, particularly its “dance” elements. If one were mean-minded, one might think that the somewhat clumsy coordinated rolls on the floor, with the photocopied paper costumes like children’s aprons, crinkling loudly, or passing leaps – one task-oriented, the other balletic – were parodies of the current fashion for dance in art galleries. Not so. They were decorative flourishes bordering a declaration.

So the other, obscure episode begins to make sense, the declamation decorated by these flourishes, the dancers surrounding a pair of readers: a gameshow host and contestant. It was based on the one-time notorious media event of L’abbé Pierre winning big in 1952 on Radio-Luxembourg’s gameshow Quitte ou double (“double or nothing”). The iconography of the Abbé (memorialized negatively, albeit, in one of Roland Barthes’s Mythologies), with his famous physiology with owl-like eyes, repeats on the costumes, and the Abbé, now played by Chetwynd’s father in a hooded habit, rehearsed his winning answers in the performance. In real life Abbé Pierre applied his substantial prize money to his social enterprises. Subsequently a severe winter in 1954 led him to an appeal for the homeless and impoverished, the success of which resulted in his establishment of the association Emmaüs, a quasi-anarchist organization for self-organized economic betterment that became a model worldwide. Abbé Pierre’s role in its foundation is captured in the 1955 feature film Les Chiffonniers d’Emmaüs. Coincidentally, a “chiffonnier” is a ragman but also a piece of furniture, a high chest of drawers. If we looked or listened closely enough, could we find a whole hidden furnished apartment in this performance?

Clic-Clac was a performance in search of a conclusion and until that end was found all this would remain very loose-ends. As we joined the pilgrimage from Le Plateau to DOC, a squatted, decommissioned technical school, its woodworking and metal shops and abandoned machines reconditioned, its classrooms turned into artists’ studios and let in a vibrant, new, self-organized community, Chetwynd explained how she had just discovered the place and decided that it was the apt conclusion to her performance – its community fulfilling her beliefs. There the sarcophagus was laid to rest. And the two episodes slide together: clic … clac. Now, too, we understood the liaison between the two episodes in the circulating “cigarette girls,” modeled on Hollywood films. On her laptop/tray, one showed a BBC documentary on the Mega Tomb. The other’s fascinator hat was a repurposed DVD container, whose liner, conveniently repeated in the accompanying ’zine, tells us of Garbage Warrior (meanwhile playing on a mini-monitor on her cigarette tray), a renegade architect building off-the-grid communities, running afoul of authorities, and lending assistance to disaster-struck communities worldwide.

If you look beneath it all, Chetwynd’s work is about freedom. Clic-Clac was somewhat more somber in look and content than Chetwynd’s other bright performances, yet they’re of a piece. Behind this one’s mayhem lies an affiliation (i.e., taking the law into your own hands) – that eventually, on our arrival at DOC, made political sense of the performance’s nonsense. Pantomime is political, being a forum where the disenfranchised have always underhandedly expressed themselves. No wonder its audience is primarily children. And in children’s cheap craft materials that Chetwynd admits a liking for, we recognize her comments elsewhere on their “low economy” as being double-edged – political, too.

“Clic clac” is the noise a sofa bed makes, snapping into place, as it adapts itself from one use to another. “Clic clac” is the transformative binding of nonsense and politics, one underlying the other in Chetwynd’s anarchistic performance. Clic clac. Vive le clic clac!

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