Sprüth Magers, London
24 January – 29 March 2014
It all sounds like so much fun. A reworking of ancient Greek comedies, with sculptor Charles Ray epitomised as a Prospero-like figure ‘seeking,’ as he says, ‘pure form in geometry’ on an island supposedly run by a deity who communicates through an air conditioner and a Nespresso machine. His demigod offspring try to disrupt celestial machinations, only to bring about the calamitous creation of humanity itself. Alexandre Singh’s three-hour play The Humans (2013; video 2014) has singing, dancing, existentialism and toilet humour, and oodles of nods to The Tempest (1610–11), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1590–96), The Jungle Book (1967) and Dumbo (1941). But as Singh has said himself, ‘I often prefer reading plays to seeing them.’ Contemporary comedic musical dealing with theological and philosophical issues it is. The Book of Mormon (2011) it is not.
Singh’s ambitious theatrical debut is a verbose mashup of origin stories and theosophy, about the struggles between rational, Apollonian traits and wild, Dionysian emotions. Desire is the engine that moves the plot, whether in the suppressed tryst that produced the demigod protagonists Tophole and Pantalingua, Tophole’s unwittingly incestuous love for Pantalingua or the humans’ own unleashed anarchic cravings. But tellingly, those desires are always offstage, mediated only by language; even N, the silent rabbit embodiment of earthly, bodily fecundity, can only be understood through translation by her daughter Pantalingua, a hyper-intellectual Victorian dandy. Singh seems to take his commitment to the dramatic genre very seriously, filling his play with familiar stock characters, whether plucked from Shakespeare or The Office; Tophole seemed written for Martin Freeman or Richard Ayoade, and the human Prime Minister is, inexplicably, an overweight Scouser.
With its constant musings about determinism, of course we know what’s going to happen: the statues made by Ray will become humans, their transformation marked by donning Greek drama and commedia dell’arte-inspired grotesque masks; the humans will make their own pathetic pantheon from the comedy of errors we’ve witnessed. Singh’s version of dramatic irony, though, isn’t so much to lead us on a cathartic journey through a well-told tale. It seems more to want constantly to point to its overstuffed trunk of references to Nietzsche, Leibniz, Hegel, Kant and on and on. For a newly written parable about the search for meaning in life, what Singh mostly seems to be saying is that contemporary culture hasn’t added anything particularly insightful to the debate; it’s just good for a few quick butt-in jokes.
Singh took pains to emphasise the theatricality of this work; that despite it being shown only within the framework of the Witte de With in Rotterdam and Performa 13 in New York, it is meant not as a visual artist’s project, but as musical theatre in itself. The video documentation of the performance is accomplished but loses some of the allure that (I’d imagine) the live performances held; instead we end up focusing on the microphone scratching and sometimes incomprehensibly muffled voices of the humans behind their masks. Despite that, and surprisingly, this exhibition does the project a favour. Rather than just the ‘sellable bits’ from the stage, the drawings, props, sculptures and character portraits shown here at least give the ideas more room to breathe, and allow the audience more of their own ways in than the hermetically sealed creation on stage. Perhaps, as in his earlier installations, Singh’s strength lies more in the creative suggestion of intertwined, referential narratives than in their realisation.
Originally published in Art Review, Vol. 66 No. 3, April 2014.