His first foray into full-length theater, artist Alexandre Singh has taken on nothing less than the creation of our world. “The Humans,” which is being presented this week at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fishman Space as part of Performa 13, focuses on attempts to disrupt the formation of the universe through its own constructed reality of pop culture, Greek comedies, Shakespeare, and the sculpture of Charles Ray.
“It’s not in any sense talking about art and the boundaries between art and theater, it’s really a theatrical play,” Singh told Hyperallergic, emphasizing that although he has mostly worked in visual art and has taken on this new medium, it’s not so much a clash between the two as an evolution of using narratives. For an artist still in his early 30s, Singh has had an impressive visual art career, including an installation at Marfa, group shows at the New Museum and MoMA PS1, and his own exhibition earlier this year at the Drawing Center. Yet since spring of 2012 he’s been grappling with how to merge disparate influences of not just the visual and the textual, but how to get a character from P. G. Wodehouse to interact with one more derivative of Woody Allen neurosis.
Singh has done performance lectures before, but this is a show with a 19-person cast and he’s wearing a whole haberdashery’s worth of artistic hats from writer to director to set designer. He developed “The Humans” with Witte de With Contemporary Art in Rotterdam using a gallery of the museum as a workshop from April of 2012 to January of this year, and it had its world premiere there in September. “I came to really appreciate the value of all the creative team and the collaborators,” he said. “I worked on the set, but essentially I was leading the iconography and the masks and the writing and it became a guerrilla kind of project.” And while the strokes of Singh as the creator are definitely there in those knowing intersections between things like the Commedia dell’arte-esque unsettling masks and the quotes from Milton and spurts of Shakespearean iambic pentameter, there’s also striking influence from the actors who spiritedly embody the characters themselves as well as costuming that is impeccably done by Holly Waddington.
“Each of the characters is inspired by a character from a painting or a type,” he said. There’s a universe of characters from James Gilroy, from Honoré Daumier, those inspired by Weimar-era soldiers and prostitutes, there are a couple of characters inspired by Proust, and every character’s costume is very rich and detailed.”
“The Humans,” which opened last night at BAM, consumed the small Fishman auditorium space with a split stage: half a tumbled together forest with a cartoonish tree and outhouse, the other the refined studio of Charles Ray, which serves as a creator of the first people — Grecian automata draped in classical robes and dusted with white powder. (Yes, that is the Charles Ray of contemporary sculpture, who likes to play with proportions, especially those of the human body.)
In the center of the set is a mountain peak topped by a suspended air conditioning unit and a can of Nesquik chocolate that tumbles down one side. It’s here that two spirits — the Dionysian “Pantalingua,” whom Singh describes as “very reminiscent of characters from Oscar Wilde and P. G. Wodehouse,” and the Apollonian Woody Allen-derived Tophole —rebel against the unseen creator Vox Dei (meaning the voice of God, and here actually being the name for God). They also clash with their parents, with Pantalingua rebelling against her carnal rabbit mother, and Tophole struggling with his inability to please his father Charles Ray.
What ensues is described as a sort of “accidental Paradise Lost,” where all the spirits’ attempts to thwart the dawn of creation go haywire and result in the complicated humans we are today. “If you think of the Miltonian universe, Adam and Eve are as much the children of Satan as God,” Singh said. And the music and the scenery warps along with the corrupted statues of humans, switching from Gregorian chants with blasts of the Litany of the Saints to 1920’s and 30’s swing, just as Charles Ray’s vision of a refined being dedicated to work turns into a hungry beast wanting pleasure and to consume.
Experiencing “The Humans” does require some stamina, as it’s a three-hour long play that often dips into follies that can drag a bit long. Yet if you’re interested in theater, the influences of art’s obsession with forms, Shakespeare, Wodehouse, and scatological humor wrapped around a frame of the Greek satire of Aristophanes is an intriguing experiment. It will be interesting to see where Singh, who is established as a visual artist but new to the world of more direct theater, takes this as a next step into his career. As he said of the way he brought in a theater thesis-worth of influences into “The Humans”: “You take what’s appropriate and you draw a new language, and it’s an ancient form. There’s nothing new in the stories, it’s about how you tell it.”
The Humans is presented by BAM and Performa at the BAM Fisher Fishman Space (321 Ashland Place, Brooklyn) through November 17.