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Monday, September 8, 2008

Culture Clashes and Slammed Doors in Pichet Klunchen and Myself

Posted by Alison Hallett on Mon, Sep 8, 2008 at 2:27 PM

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The staged dialog between avant garde French choreographer Jerome Bel and traditional Thai dancer Pichet Klunchen takes place on a stage empty save for two chairs, stage lights up. The two men sit, facing one another; one clad in simple black, compact and lithe, the other unshaven and kinda schlubby, wearing a green windbreaker and shorts. It's immediately clear who's who.

Bel begins asking Pichet questions about his work, and Pichet explains that he practices Khon, a highly codified, centuries-old dance in which every single gesture has a literal meaning. He demonstrates some of the meanings: Here is rain falling, here is a woman wiping away a tear.

It's interesting, if you find learning new things simply for the sake of learning them interesting. (Ain't nothin' wrong with that.) This is art that is completely graspable, assuming you've got the decoder ring, and as Pichet explains the significance of every gesture, it's gratifying watching the meaning of his dances unfold. Interesting, gratifying, but also an exercise that no one in this audience will ever be called upon to repeat: These dances are closed circuits, internally consistent but externally irrelevant. Pichet is an expert in a form of dance that is certainly beautiful but also virtually dead, a cultural commodity only kept alive because it can be sold to tourists. (Pichet has dedicated himself to trying keep Khon alive by reeducating audiences about the dance.) I think the key, though, is that the audience can be taught exactly how to read it, can be told the "correct" way to understand this dance.

Which contrasts directly, of course, with the controversial, open-ended work of highly regarded contemporary choreographer Bel, who spends his time pushing toward the future rather than excavating the past, and the show changes its tone entirely when Pichet begins asking questions of Bel.

Bel here defines contemporary art as "finding new forms of art that represent the contemporary world." Because he's, you know, French, he drops the obligatory Guy Debord/Society of the Spectacle reference (representations of reality, "the spectacle," have supplanted authentic experience, and so on), and then he demonstrates his favorite dance move for Pichet: He simply stands, arms down, looking around. Looking at the lights, looking at the audience. At this moment, he is simply a man standing on stage in front of an audience. He's not representing anything, he explains, except for what he literally is. (I think it was at this point that audience members began leaving, including two in the very front row who didn't feel any compunction to close the doors quietly on their way out. There's something sort of hilarious about audience members at a contemporary art festival leaving when the contemporary art gets uncomfortable, isn't there? When the decoder ring is taken away? Or maybe they just thought he was full of shit.)

Finding new art forms requires exploration and experimentation, and that means never quite knowing what comes next. "If you know what you will do, you're not a contemporary artist," he says. He tells Pichet that he's "not interested in pleasing the audience." (He goes a little fuzzy on what it is he is interested in.) And when Pichet asked him if he ever refunds the money of disappointed audience members, he said (and I might be paraphrasing a little):

"If you want your money back, it means you didn't get what you were expecting. Which means you expected something."

That line is really the only thing I took away from the show, but it's enough. He also performed a fucking awesome lip-synch to Roberta Flack's Killing Me Softly that had me stuck in that scary place between laughter and tears for a few minutes.

It's rare to hear contemporary artists talk so frankly about what they do--and equally rare to hear someone ask questions of a contemporary artist without worrying about sounding stupid. Pichet Klunchen is full of ideas, probably nothing you haven't heard before, but certainly worth considering in both the context of this show and the context of the festival as a whole.

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