42 Observations on Peter Greenaway
inspired by
"100 Objects to Represent The World"

Article by Dan WARBURTON

1. "The way most people see reconstructed drama right now is in a box with a ratio of 1 to 1.33... I've been fascinated by this breakage of the frame... " So said Greenaway in his interview with Josh Cody. Well, he hasn't got there yet: the constraints of the screens in front of, behind and at either side of the stage space here reinforce the idea of that frame, imparting a sense of claustrophobia and, paradoxically, two-dimensionality.

2. This "prop-opera", which started life as an exhibition, could therefore perfectly well exist as a film (though Greenaway probably wouldn't consider it one).

3. "I would say that there has been no cinema yet. Nobody... has made a film which cannot be manifested in any other art form." --Greenaway, op.cit.

4. Quite where this work fits into Greenaway's projected opera series "The Death of Webern" hasn't yet been made clear.

5. Maybe "The Death of Webern" has died a death, like Greenaway's abandoned TV series "Fear of Drowning."

6. Throughout "100 Objects...", a woman "sleeps" in a bed, front stage-right, only to get up and walk offstage at the end of the opera. I couldn't help thinking that this element, presumably transposed directly from the original exhibition, might have been better left out here.

7. Similarly, the character Mercury, in the exhibition responsible for carrying 100 suitcases "from A to B", is here relegated to stage accessory, clearing up props and rubbish and occasionally flexing his muscles.

8. Perhaps if the stage hadn't been cluttered up with objects (some of which--the rowing boat, the Christmas tree--didn't really need to be there at all: a photograph would have sufficed), there would have been more space available for the characters physically to express themselves.

9. That said, what little action there was onstage (the bath scene, the execution of Mercury, Adam's attempted rape of Eve) was curiously dated, very seventies, and at odds with the hi-tech sophistication of the projection and lighting.

10. If the stage business was somewhat retro, what can be said about the photographic images? Haven't we seen enough of Lenin, Stalin, Freud, Einstein, Kruschev and Kennedy by now?

11. Perhaps someone should remind Greenaway that Robert Wilson's "meditations" on Freud and Einstein are already a quarter of a century old.

12. Josh Cody, in his commentary on the Greenaway interview three years back, refers obliquely to surrealism in Greenaway's work. If there is a case to be argued as such, I would say that the surrealist influence is far more evident in Wilson's work than in Greenaway's--the inherent mysticism of objects as objects (the heritage of Duchamp, via Rauschenberg).

13. In Wilson's work, a chair can become something other, a cultural icon, a sculptural object in its own right (how may other theatre directors have had exhibitions of their furniture?); for Greenaway a chair is, and remains, a chair.

14. Indeed, the obsessive cataloguing and displaying of objects (not only in this work: one thinks also of the opening scenes of "Drowning by Numbers") seems ultimately to divest them of any magical--in the theatrical sense--properties they might otherwise have.

15. But what the hell is an object anyway? Does"wind" qualify as an object? (It's on Greenaway's list as one, along with "cloud", "water", "snow" and "ice".)

16. Is "God" an object? Any devout believer seeing this show might be excused for taking offence at the cynical (re)presentation of God, and of religion in general (or, as a non-believer, so I imagine).

17. Surely a baby isn't an object. Agreed, object sounds better than thing. But "100 Things To Represent The World" doesn't quite cut it...

18. So what about the music? On learning that it was created at IRCAM, I was gleefully half-expecting a work of abtruse complexity ("at last Greenaway has found his musical intellectual counterpart! None of that oom-pah-pah Nyman rubbish this time!")...

19. Imagine my surprise, then, on hearing Jean-Baptiste Barriére's very traditional semi-concréte music, complete with cows mooing, pigs grunting, trees falling, gratuitous doppler effects and general coups de thétre éléctroniques... What would Boulez think?

20. Well, if he sanctioned this, may we look forward to the doors of IRCAM being thrown open to Pierre Henry to finally clean up those muddy early 50s masterpieces of musique concrète?

21. Or even to Panasonic, Mike Paradinas and Robin Rimbaud, to create a real ass-kicking progressive techno album?

22. Joking aside, for all the technical mastery of Barrière's work, the musical element was oppressively rich and pretty monotonous--each of the hundred objects was "introduced" on the tape ("Item number..."), spoken and sung.

(23. Incidentally, the "child's voice" which sings the numbers and names of each object is in fact that of Kaija Saariaho, fine composer in her own right.

24. One wonders why was she merely used as a singer and not entrusted with the composition of the music.)

25. Presumably Greenaway wanted it a musical uniformity to serve as an uncompromisingly "perfect" backdrop to the textual/visual argument.

26. However, the illustrative element of Barriére's work seemed to be curiously at odds with the espoused ideological (musico-linguistic) purity of the IRCAM aesthetic, not to mention its being a direct throwback to an era where music was unashamedly programmatic.

27. All in all, it was clear that Greenaway considered the musical element as having the same importance as the other constituent media, no more, no less.

28. As such, it's only one of a bewildering number of elements involved here. Spoken text live (Adam, Eve, The Serpent), spoken text on tape (Thrope), text displayed visually (slides), sung text (the child's voice), objects/people on stage, photographs of objects/people, music, lighting... With so many media in play, the content of any "message" as such are necessarily simplified to the point of near crudity. In short, the more sophisticated the multi-media element becomes, the more difficult it is to communicate anything other than the most basic ideas.

29. So did it succeed? Well, technically yes. Certainly the most successful hi-tech parade since Reich's "The Cave" a few years back. That said, you come away from this work feeling sullen and depressed, thanks to Greenaway's unrelenting systematic seriousness and cynicism. Personally, I don't very much like to come away from a show feeling like shit.

30. I know, you can remind me of Braque's dictum: "Art disturbs us; Science reassures us"... Essentially true. You don't exactly feel like a million dollars coming out of "Wozzeck" or "King Lear" or"Happy Days" (the Beckett play, not the TV sitcom, you slobs!). But Shakespeare, Bchner and Beckett at least treat the horrible reality of the human condition with humanity.

31. Ultimately, that was what was most lacking: the gasp of pleasure from the audience when the baby was brought onstage was a spontaneous expression of relief, a reassuring sign of genuine humanity in an otherwise emotionally glacial landscape.

32. True, Greenaway has never been interested in characters of any great warmth or depth--his women tend to be somewhat cold and scheming, while the men come across as unwitting pawns in their game. Our sympathy for the plight of the male characters (the Draughtsman in "Draughtsman's Contract", Stourley Kracklite in "The Belly of an Architect", Madgett in "Drowning by Numbers") is tempered by their brutish sexuality and obsessive ambition.

33. So maybe Greenaway's Adam and Eve in "100 Objects..." are not supposed to be real people at all, but rather symbolic representations of the human condition as Greenaway sees it.

34. Even so, when they say: "We are hungry", one wonders why Greenaway had them shout the line in declamatory town-crier style, rather than actually sounding as if they were hungry.

35. The other speaking role, that of the Serpent (i.e. the Devil), was no less unsympathetic, though executed with sadistic enthusiasm by Claudia Boulton.

36. The resemblance to Cruella de Ville, complete with long cigarette-holder and garish cabaret make-up, was striking.

(37. Shame that Barriere couldn't have added a touch of Disney in the music--a blast of sleazy Berlin-style cabaret from time to time would not have gone amiss--but would have surely been ideologically out-of-bounds for IRCAM...)

38. She arrived onstage holding a live snake, which unfortunately got put into a glass box within thirty seconds.

39. Visuals aside though, her constant sniping cynical asides got to be a bit tedious after twenty minutes or so. Perhaps someone should remind Greenaway of William Blake's idea of Satan.

40. Cynicism doesn't have to be dry and depressing--it can actually be fun at times (even a nightmare vision like "Naked Lunch" contains some side-splitting humorous writing).

41. Anyhow, in the spirit of the fast-approaching third millenium, the entire work (I suppose that includes extracts of Barrière's music?) will be available online as of March 15th 1998, at a specially-created website (http://www.tem-nanterre.com/greenaway-100objects). So have a look and make up your own mind.

42. I wanted to think of a hundred things to say about this show, but I could only come up with forty-two.