Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant: The Subtle Epiphany
The photographs can be jarring. The video documentation can seem acutely intense, almost aggressive. But the live performance impact of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions at Skylight One Hanson, featuring a cast of more than 100, was much more subtle.
I wasn’t certain that I was even going to write about the Tableau post-performance. I knew I didn’t want to write a review–and this recollection certainly does not fall under that category. I was expecting to experience some extreme visceral reaction, some epiphanic episode. In short–the former, no; the latter, yes. But this revelation is of the slow-burning variety, and I am still unpacking what I witnessed. It is accurate enough–albeit reductive and facile–to label the Tableau as performance art. Beyond that, in terms of labels, the performance adds up to more than just the sum of its individual artistic components.
Although the Tableau is based on Small’s photography series The Delirium Constructions, photography itself is not an active part of the live performance. Although this latest performance does contain choreography (by Vanessa Walters), the movement, restricted almost entirely to the upper half of the body, is not exactly dance. That being said, its inclusion was reminiscent of the inclusion of ballet in French grand opera. The music of Tableau Vivant, under the highly capable direction of Rima Fand, was an ever-present force, and yet, decidedly this was not a concert. Not the reason for attendance, the music was entirely encapsulated within the whole drama of what was transpiring on the stage. The performance also lacked many of the time-tested conventions of concertgoing–the persistence of picture-taking (no flash of course) being perhaps the most obvious departure from traditional concert etiquette. Neither was the performance a piece of theater. While acting did indeed take place, there was no explicit over-arching narrative, no dialogue, no named characters. Then, of course, there was the wedding ceremony officiated by the Small herself.
Essentially, one could say that it’s easier to identify Tableau by determining what it is not than by pinpointing what it is. I would maintain, however, that while labeling such an artistic endeavor is not of paramount performance, ascertaining the identity of Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions means having to look somewhere unexpected. Not photography, not fully dance, not a concert of music, and not theater.
The common adage is that art imitates life. Here, in the world of Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant, life imitates art. The tableau has all the trappings of performance, culled from various mediums and artistic disciplines. Yet ultimately, Tableau Vivant is, somehow, not performance. The term performance implies that the “performer” puts something on–a character, an onstage persona, a musical manifestation of the composer, etc. Here, the performer actually takes something off–and no, I don’t mean his or her clothes (although there is plenty of that as well). The cloak of performance itself, of pretension, is discarded. The outer shell, which one erects in order to hide the true essence of him or herself in our daily moments, is shattered. In its place, the performers are simply themselves, responding to the seemingly artificial environment with genuine emotions and organic responses. Performance has given way to experience. The participants of Tableau Vivant aren’t creating a performance–they are living a moment.
We the audience members were witnessing their lives, much in the same way that we witnessed the young couple’s wedding. This was life, clothed in the trappings of art, yet somehow gloriously unadorned. And I envied it. It seemed to me that the real, ideal experience was not the viewing of this scene, but being an active participant in it. I was struck with the fullness of the participants’ activity, which reflected back to me my relative inactivity in that moment, playing the role of the empty voyeur. And somehow, I suddenly was the one in the harsh spotlight. I was the tragic actor, who had been called once again to this stage to perform my mundane role of onlooker, and I obliged.
To be a witness to this event firsthand only meant experiencing it secondhand. Sarah Small’s Tableau Vivant of The Delirium Constructions is incapable of categorization unlike any work of art I’ve ever witnessed, and I wanted to be a part of this world that the artist had unveiled, this world of reality unfurled.