“an existential struggle for meaning that made Giacometti’s eyeballs dance in front of his head”
You can tell that Hôtel de Rive is not UKIP territory. A German, French, Swiss co-production based upon surrealist writing accompanied by alpine horns, l’Hôtel is foreign. The show has Vorsprung durch Technik design credentials. It looks expensive, it runs well, has done 60+ outings since 2011, and – critically speaking – has definite and appealing hybrid form. But what, exactly, is it doing on stage? There’s your existential question, especially if you’re not in the Euro zone.
A search engine helps, which is a bit of shame, but Hôtel de Rive needs its back story. Its subject, Swiss artist sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966), had to stay in Geneva during the German occupation of Paris between 1942 and 1945. Biographies now headline this period as coinciding with his ‘critical transition period [beginning in 1935] … when he questions his work and tries to find a new way of looking and translating what he sees.’ He took a room at the Hôtel de Rive and his sculptured figures grew smaller and smaller, some barely a few centimetres high. They were imagined on a wide and shifting flat surface and not in anything as reassuring as three dimensional space. Insomnia took hold and Geneva nights (as back home in Paris) were spent in bars and clubs. Shabby, grubby, a chain-smoker, ‘on’ six to ten cups of coffee a day, and not exhibiting his work for twelve years, the artist then was a long, long, way off 60 million pound auction prices and being the face of Switzerland’s 100 franc note.
But you can see where the hallucinogenic Hôtel de Rive is coming from: an existential struggle for meaning that made Giacometti’s eyeballs dance in front of his head, which – projected – is like a bio-exorcism out of Beetlejuice. There was appreciative if nervous laughter from the audience.
Of that anxious, frustrating and near impossible time Giacometti said, “A large figure appeared wrong to me, while a small one was intolerable, and then they became so minuscule that with a final cut of the knife they often disappeared into the dust … and tirelessly I began again, only to end up, a few months later, at the same point”; which might have been the crumbling, enervating effect of Hôtel de Rive. Fortunately its creator, Frank Soehnle, responsible for ‘Set and Play’, has given its animation more visual and literary coherence than you might think.
A more than nodding acquaintance with Giacometti’s The Dream, the Sphinx and the Death of T (tellingly published in Labryinthe magazine) would have helped a lot. I didn’t have a clue but now know, for instance, that the Sphinx – outlawed and closed down in 1946 – is/was the celebrated, bizarre, brothel in Montparnasse. Its pleasures are, surely, represented in l’Hôtel by hot trombone and a shimmying, bejewelled, and wasted puppet with a purple flower for a head whose petals fold delicately when she settles into an outsize wine glass. See it, and more, on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TguqiDIXGfM .
Single actor, Patrick Michaelis (who has to be Giacometti), suffers sand pouring over his head, then a wee demon of a puppet- familiar on his skull, then a yellow spider, then outstretched, skeletal arms protruding as if from the back of his coat. Did I appreciate the following elucidatory text on a screen somewhere: “A blind man extends his hand in the void (in the dark? In the night?/The days pass and I dream of catching, stopping that which flees”? No, I did not; Giacometti’s 1952 haiku-like poem probably was evident somewhere but there were too many available options: actor’s voice, electronic voice, chalkboard, tablet screen, revolving PC monitor, big screen. And the music plays all the while: on conch, muted trombone, synthesiser, and those impressive alpenhorns.
This breadth of choice, I suppose, derives from the show’s extended title, Hôtel de Rive – Giacometti’s horizontal time (lost to UK marketing), where linear narrative style is discounted in favour of a segmented disc on a single plane. A different event is contained in each segment that narrows to a single, all-inclusive point. Got it? Anyhow, the show does actually close with an up-tempo approach to the artist’s last work, Paris sans fin, a series of 150 lithographs of that city.
I’m pleased that I know more of Alberto Giacometti’s life and art. I liked watching Hôtel de Rive work its inventions out but it was a slow, creepy, ride. Accomplished, skilful, polished; but really just an assembly of clever components, I felt.
Reviewer: Alan Brown (Seen 6 February)
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