Rotterdamse Schouwburg, Rotterdam, Netherlands.
The Humans is a theatrical production developed, written and directed by the ever-ambitious artist and writer Alexandre Singh. The show premiered at Rotterdamse Schouwburg’s Festival De Keuze and toured to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York as part of Performa 2013. The Humans is Singh’s directorial debut, but considering his progressive foray into performance- based narrative – from Assembly Instructions Lecture in 2009 toThe School for Objects Criticized at the New Museum in 2010 – developing a full-scale theatre piece seemed a logical step forward. For The Humans, Singh assembled a cast of actors, musicians, choreographers and costume designers. Insisting on full creative control, however, he singularly wrote the script and meticulously hand-made each sculptural object – from theatrical masks inspired by Honoré Daumier to intricate golden coins. He also created the set, whose three parts featured a caricatured wooden outhouse, a geometric mountain and an inventor’s workshop for Greek-style figurative sculpture, above which hung a constellation of platonic solids.
Singh is focused on connecting and collapsing cultural and historical references. His play is a creationist tale, muddled in folly and failure. Its plot hinges on the rhapsodic musical interludes of a chorus of sculptures turned into humans at the behest of egocentric spirits toying with the creation of their own likenesses. Misguided spirits Pantalingua and Tophole challenge the existence of a seemingly false god, accidentally release the sun and the moon into the skies when heedlessly digging up gold and silver, and attempt to thwart the patriarchal authority figure Charles Ray (named after the LA-based artist) by teaching his perfectly sculpted slave labourers how to shit, establishing their ‘humanness’ and releasing them into the volatile throws of hunger, lust and greed. The structure of the play is modelled after ancient Greek satires, but mixes the dialectical rhetoric used in plays like Aristophanes’ The Clouds (423 BCE) with the crass and scatological language of Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s hit cartoon,South Park (1997–ongoing).
This production is a culmination of Singh’s own intensive research and a year-long residency at Witte de With, where he hosted monthly presentations and discussions about his work in progress, titling the talks after the French term ‘Causeries’. As an addition to the project, Singh catalogued his visual research on Tumblr and his literary research in a compendium of excerpts called The Humans Reader (2013). The resulting accumulation of information re-emerged as esoteric references in nearly all elements of the play, from Shakespearean and Kabuki costumes to Baroque choreography and Woody Allen-inspired comedy. However, these perfunctory associations seemed undigested, burdened by a stubborn adherence and conservative approach to historical influence. Singh’s chosen historical plays and filmic references are themselves riddled with rich critiques based on the dominant social structures of their respective eras. While the depth of these critiques comes from the establishment of complex relationships between characters, the cursory name-dropping in Singh’s The Humans seems an inadequate substitute. Instead of criticizing, challenging or building upon his references, he merely consumed and regurgitated the information he sourced, presenting it to the audience as a vacuum-packed meal.
As a result, The Humans functions more like a wilfully pedantic visual collage and presentation of arcane material than an engaged theatrical experience, offering little room for the audience’s own imaginative discovery. The internal logic of the story and the narrative in The Humans is diffused by non sequiturs and shifty bearings in plot and character development. The fault lies in trying to do too much: Singh draws you into a whirr of history but never into the depths of any one narrative thread. Yes, humans are consumers, and they shit, and have troubles organizing hierarchies. Life is messy, but why re-iterate these things without adding anything to the conversation? What more can be learned? What is at stake and where is the chance for resolution? Considering the profound depth of resources the artist gathered during his residency, Singh presents a shallow and cynical view of humanity with unfounded wanton morals that a contemporary audience are hard-pressed to connect with. Bearing in mind the combined efforts of the cast and crew and the good intentions of the artist from the outset, it is sadly a play I walked away from having seen a lot and experienced very little.
First published in Frieze Magazine, Issue 160, January-February 2014.