bojana mladenović


Review of One piece (not published as yet)

In ‘One piece’, the public is seated along a catwalk in a narrow corridor made out of shiny golden ribbons. At the fare end of it, you see a glimpse of an concert piano. Chairs are lined up on each side of this corridor, so that you look the persons opposite you almost directly in the eye. You will watch your fellow-spectators as much as you will watch the performer, is the thought that immediately strikes you. If you see the performance in the morning, you actually met them already, because breakfast was served before the start of the performance. In the evening, you are bound to socialize with them afterwards, because drinks are served after the performance. In both cases, an everyday ritual –having breakfast in the morning or having a drink in the evening or after work- is ‘corrupting’ or interfering with the social ritual we know as theater, a ritual that is considered to be a parallel world outside of or next to, but strictly separated from, normal life. One more thing is remarkable: on every chair, there are two cards with questions.
The performance opens in a startling way. Mladenovic enters the catwalk-corridor stark naked and sits down on a chair in the middle of the corridor. She repeats this routine several time, and every time she dresses and undresses again. At one moment, she also plays the piano while singing (very badly, actually, but on purpose as I gather) with golden gloves with long sleeves on. That is at least ‘performance’ as we know it, even if its quality is slightly strange. At that point the audience has the opportunity to ask questions, but this questioning is tightly controlled. Only those questions are allowed which are given on beforehand on the small cards on the chairs. Whenever some member of the audience transcends this rule and forwards another  question, the performance is interrupted in an unexpected way..
This game of questions and answers has a certain complexity to it that you only discover along the way. The answers of Mss. Mladenovic –usually she writes them very shortly before the performance, so as to reflect as closely as possible her state of mind at that moment- are divided into two stacks. Whenever the audience puts one of the two questions they find on their seat, an answer is given from the first stack of cards. Something odd happens however when spectators chose to ask a question of their own. In some cases, Mss. Mladenovic takes the second stack of cards and presents them to the person asking. This person thus can choose his ‘own’ answer to his own question, which Mss. Mladenovic then reads aloud. But sometimes, something else happens: Serbian musicians come in through the gold ribbon curtains and start playing. After some time you understand why she sometimes offers an answer, and sometimes lets the musicians in. An answer is denied and music is offered instead when the question concerns the identity or desires of the performer. In some versions (not the one I saw) the performance was concluded with a record playing music from a Serbian youthchoir from the Tito-epoch, notably a song about the beautiful Serbian countryside.
‘One piece’ has in this way a very keen power-balance between spectators and performer. The question is of course: what is there to be gained or to be seen? The thing is that this question can’t be answered in a general way. This work certainly is very different for every spectator. In the performance I saw for instance, two schoolboys (probably originating from Maroc) , who had, by way of homework, to go to a theatre piece. Obviously they couldn’t believe their eyes when they saw the strange ritual that was performed here. For them, the meaning of dressing and undressing was, on the whole, certainly very different from mine. Not being accustomed to an art-tradition in which almost no taboo still holds, the actions of Mss Mladenovic must have seemed to them a willful trespassing. That nobody else in the public reacted strongly must probably have bewildered them even more. They were arguably even more at a loss with the answers which Mss. Mladenovic produced in reading at high speed, in a high-pitched, even tone from the cards. This was even more the case because the answers very often only had a quite random relation to the question.
My reading of the events then was quite different. I read nakedness as a double message. On the one hand, of course, the fact that the naked performer is so close to the spectators and vice versa, produces effects that are remarkable. There is, even if you’re completely trained to ‘neglect’ this fact by reading it as an ‘artistic statement’, it actually affects you in many, even erotic ways. It breaks up borders, it makes you extremely aware of the fact that you are (active as) a spectator, but the formality of the construction at the same time prevents the action from becoming obscene or pornographic. This awareness then opens up a space to listen attentively to what the woman in front of you has to share. And in a sense, that is remarkably little. But this is the real paradox of the show. There is something almost mesmerizing about the specific, staccato tone of voice in which Mss. Mladenovic speaks. Even more so is the extreme effort she makes to be as complete as one can be, not omitting any possibly relevant detail about herself, without however becoming pathetic or self-explanatory. Her nakedness in this sense gets a specific meaning: while it is also understood as the state in which people are totally open to each other, here you feel that even utter nakedness does nor bring you one step closer to the person you see. Nakedness is conventionally understood as a sign for truthfulness, but it is not in itself truthful. It is what it is, it is only the spectator that makes it into something meaningful. Mss. Mladenovic makes us aware of that.
The same goes for the texts, that are supposed to make you look into the inner person in front of you. But the more the performer speaks, the less grip you seem to have on what is really at stake for her, the less also you seem to know about this person. So this stream of words as well as the utter ‘openness’ implied in the nakedness at the start of the performance only seem to make the person in front of you more distant, less easy to understand, more enigmatic. It becomes evident that no conclusive word can be said about her, that we do not even remotely come near tot any kind of closeness and understanding. But because of that, and this is the absolute paradox of ‘One piece’, you are, as a spectator, triggered to fill in the gaps, to complete the story as if it were your own. There is a bizarre kind of energy about this piece: everybody is riveted to an enigma, which, utterly, proves to be not only the enigma of the performer, but your own as well.

Pieter T'Jonck

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