Arms, tentacles, branches, grapevines

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Arms, tentacles, branches, grapevines

Grotesque and the art of Alexander Vantournhout

An Interview by Franziska Trapp

In the theatre CC De Spil in Roeselare, Belgium, a white rectangle, short side in front, is created by six rows of dancefloor, underlining the depth of the proscenium stage. The surroundings are kept black, while yellowish lighting creates a warm atmosphere. In complete silence two tall, male performers with naked torsos, dressed in yellow-beige shorts, enter the performance space. They remain standing at the right side of the stage, placing their left feet in a diagonal next to each other. One look at the feet, one look in the eyes. Change of position. This time, their arms are aligned. One look at the hands – which is longer? – one check of the shoulders. Are they at the same height? Slowly they raise the aligned arms then, bending their elbows and taking a careful look; do the lengths of their forearms differ?

Through the Grapevine (2020) is the seventh performance created by the Belgian artist Alexander Vantournhout. For fifty minutes, two male performers, Alexander Vantournhout and Axel Guérin, explore the possibilities and limits of the individual proportions of their bodies and physical strength. While retaining a constant mutual physical contact, they align parts of their body, intertwine their arms and legs, unite their torsos to establish equilibriums and knot their limbs to create “a sprawling space full of nodes that are deposited and in turn form new nodes, webs and pathways”1. Due to the beauty of the appearance of these ephemeral body-sculptures, the decomposition, coarsening and repetition of (simple) body movements and the play with exaggeration and deconstruction of body proportions, the audience is left in awe. At the same time laughter (and sometimes) aversion is produced in response to the entwined and rampant bodies that resist any appearance limited to human traits. Insects, creatures, tentacles, branches, (grape) vines (!) – despite its pure form, the performance creates a complex fictional universe that one could describe as GROTESQUE.

In the frame of this fourth edition of VOICES, I invite you to dive into “Through the Grapevine” while following the reflections of Alexander Vantournhout, who I met for an interview in Brussels in February 2023.

Aneckxander (2015), Raphael (2017), La Rose en Céramique (2018), Redhaired Men (2018), Screws (2019), Through the Grapevine (2020), Snakearms (2021), Contre-jour (2021) and VanThorhout (2022) … The creative, kinetic potential of physical limitation, the play with hyperbolic proportion, the subversion of common movements - these are all themes that are reflected throughout your oeuvre. With each new performance, it seems that you go a little deeper into their exploration. What is your interest in these themes?

I am interested in the extraordinary, in everything that is a bit twisted, thereby, for me, it’s very important that the spectator is not getting completely lost. Despite the subversion and twists, I want my audience to have the possibility to be emphatically involved. Thus, I search for things that are still very relatable. Through the Grapevine starts extremely simply. The first 10 minutes are based on the search for symmetrical movements that everyone can do, that everyone can relate to. Thus, at least at the beginning of the performance, everyone can find an entrance. And I like that people have the possibility to see themselves in our bodies: “Is my body more similar to that of Alexander, or are my proportions more like those of Axel, the second performer on stage?” The act of recognition is very funny. If you see yourself in somebody else, you are often urged to laugh.

What was the main inspiration for Through the Grapevine? Everyday life observations? Artworks? Moving your own body?

In Through the Grapevine I was very interested in proportions and their relations. If you look into everyday life, you will see how much they are at stake nowadays. When I was young, I wanted to become a professional footballer. My body proportions were ok for this task; however, they would have served even better if I would have chosen to become a professional in judo – a sport that I also took part in during my childhood. As you can see, those choices are not only related to passion, but also to your body-proportions. Furthermore, with regard to Axel and me: It’s very interesting that in a boxing match, Axel would always beat me, no matter how good my technical skills would be. He has only ten centimetres more reach; which is enough to hit me, while I cannot even reach him. Therefore, regarding equity, proportions are very much at stake. I am tall, I can usually see everything at concerts, performances, or if something is going on in the street. If your body is smaller however, you are sometimes excluded. Nowadays, body proportions are also used to recognise people from very far away – in airports for example: They don’t only use face recognition or fingerprints anymore but scan the walking gait. Because you have certain proportions, you walk in a certain way. Thus, you are recognisable by your individual walking pattern.

We learn about every little muscle in high school. We can even name them in Latin. But we don’t learn what our bodies consist of, how they are individually constituted. “Ah, I have longer arms than other people”. This knowledge is very relevant, not only for injuries. It leads to interesting questions: What makes a body a body? What is individuality in movement?

You explained how your art is influenced by your observations of society. Let’s turn the question around and ask in what way your work relates to society. How does the multitude of beautiful forms that arise in Through the Grapevine from the simple combination of two human bodies, subvert, undermine and question cultural and social systems of order? How do they contribute to current political, economic, ecological, and social urgencies?

In Through the Grapevine, everything that is on stage is serving the concept of proportion. On the one hand, this creates a very aesthetic impression but, on the other, it builds an awareness about how proportions are linked to agency. Let me give you one example from the dance studio: whenever someone has more reach – be it with regard to his or her arms or his or her legs – this person is allowed to lead. But there is a certain problem with this practice: it’s the opposite of equity. This person has an advantage due to his or her body proportions which leads to a higher level of agency. Thus, even though Through the Grapevine is not explicitly political, it is creating an awareness of the entanglement of agency and bodily forms.

Talking about difference: you and Axel have very beautiful, muscled – one could say “normative” – bodies…

Yes, indeed, we work with athletic bodies, and this is something I sometimes regret. In recent years, I have been in contact with companies and festivals that focus on working with differenty abled artists and I am very interested in further developing this work. However, my creations are based on very deep personal contact and an ongoing evolving practice. For Through the Grapevine for example, we had a very long research period: we were in the studio for 18 weeks. Axel, who I’ve known for nine years, was part of The Red Haired Men, a performance in which we’d already discovered the sitting-standing-height difference, without getting deep into it. We used it as a starting point for the new creation. Having said this, I think it will take at least five more years before I will focus more deeply on research with non-athletic bodies and different abilities on stage.

Even though Axel and you are similarly athletic, you make us grasp the individual particularities of your bodies. Is this an act of subversion?

Yes, that’s definitely something I have in mind. Axel and my bodies are perceived as being quite similar. And yet there are so many individual differences to explore. This is a very interesting starting point for the spectator that we wouldn’t have had if obvious differences had been made from the start.

In what way are your reflections articulated in your movements? Can you provoke change through movement?

I am convinced that if everyone could recognize the huge variety of differences regarding proportions of seemingly similar bodies, we would have fewer discussions on gender or colour difference. From my point of view, difference would generally be much more accepted.

If we could all sweat, if we could all have a more bodily practice together, the world would look a little bit nicer.

What would you like your spectators to experience while watching your performance? Is there something – a feeling, a thought – you would like to provoke? Irritation? Laughter? Unease?

I am not really thinking about the perception of my performances but rather focusing on what we are doing. However, I love it when the audience is divided. It’s interesting to play with a variety of receptions: When one person finds an element funny while another is scared at the same time: one is disgusted and another laughing like hell.

1 Serres, Michel (1999): Die fünf Sinne. Eine Philosophie der Gemenge und Gemische. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp. S./p. 407. Translation by the author.

Watch the Trailer of the discussed performances Through the Grapevine (2020) and VanThorhout (2022).

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