Afternoon Dust

Forest, Trees: Jan Martens' 'Sweat Baby Sweat'

Sweat Zucchini

As long as you’re here I am too.

You think this is a love story, but it is not.

It is what it appears to be.

Not accumulating enough weight to leave a mark. Not gathering enough speed to break orbit. Almost saying a lot. Not saying anything. A word on the tip of the tongue, never quite tipping over into sound.

I can’t see the forest for the trees (but

what is a forest but trees?)

There is no trick, no sleight of hand, no tease, no withholding anything. “What you see is what you see” (Frank Stella). You would like to read a narrative, to understand the reason for this or that movement, to place it into context. You tune in, expecting to hear a message that could be rejected or appreciated, refused or obeyed. You have great faith that such a message will be given. You are sure that your attention will be rewarded. Maybe you are not listening hard enough, or looking closely enough. If you wait patiently, then surely all will be revealed.

It is so close.

So close to appearing.

And yet it turns out that all there is to see is what is there. A forest of potential meanings is given, but all you see is trees. And you feel frustrated, and disappointed, and let down, because what is there just isn’t enough. You want to see, but you are blinded by images. When he shoves her, or when they kiss, you were sure that this is shown because it means something more, because it performs some narrative function, or helps articulate a symbolic message. But it is simply a shove, or a kiss. You want to read this as a representation, but it is not; it is a repetition. It is a movement that never quite becomes a gesture.

Words appear. You hope they will clarify the situation. After all, that is what words are for, isn’t it? But they only confuse things more. The words come from songs about love. And need. And violence. So there you go, here is your narrative. Except it’s all mixed up: the declarations of love mixed up with those of hate, the getting-together words with the breaking-up words. We should be together, we should love each other forever, we should get going, you should go. Should.

Sweat Baby Sweat is hard to watch, because the images never link up into a story, the signs never organise themselves into a meaning, the words never quite manage to say anything specific, even though we want them to. (The choreography promises nothing: it is our expectations that make promises the dance can’t keep.) It is hard to watch because it is still mimesis. It takes aim at meaning but (deliberately?) misses. But maybe this is a relief. Maybe this is a way to free words, images, and movements from the impossible burden of transcendent truth that we would like to lay on them, or to give them right of passage between several different truths. Maybe a kiss doesn’t have to mean the same thing today as it did yesterday, or be subject to a single dominating narrative. Maybe these movements and words do not have a story of their own, but instead provide a sort of frame on which many different stories could be hung.
Which means that you, the viewer, must stop trying to read, and start writing.
Response to Jan Martens’ Sweat Baby Sweat at Theater Frascati WG, Amsterdam, 23/10/2011.

Picture: Sweat Zucchini by Johannes-Konrad, Creative Commons Licence