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Claude Wampler's Present Absence
Kaaitheater-Studio, Brussels, BE, May '01

P r e s e n t A b s e n c e ( b y C l a u d e W a m p l e r )

If we Europeans talk about modern or contemporary art in the US, the only thing you'll get to hear is Sonic Youth, Andy Warhol, Amish Kapoor, Cindy Sherman and just very maybe Cy Twombly and JM Basquiat. And when it comes to theatre and other on-stage performances we can hardly think of any name. However, as we all could predict: they exist!

One of them presented her new performance at the Kaaitheater-Studios in Brussels, during the KunstenFestivalDesArts (kfda). Her name is Claude Wampler. She lives in New York and has quite some curriculum. With Present Absence Wampler tries to find an answer to the question if a performance is possible without the physical presence of the performer himself. I had seen quite some interesting avant-garde theatre before. However, none quite like this one. The reason for that might be that we just don't get to mix up all kinds of disciplines into one performance. Maybe we stick too much to our roots, 'our' Shakespeare (I speak in European terms here). They even reconstructed the old Globe Theatre in London. Might be nice for tourists, but I guess we all rather hop into the building next door: Tate Modern, which has things that are far more interesting than the Globe Theatre.

However, what makes it so great? At first, there is this stage... The designer, John Tremblay, said it's some kind of a negative print of a catwalk. I guess that's how you could describe it. During the play, Claude creates a very mysterious atmosphere about herself. There is this over enthusiastic girl in the audience. Claude mostly walks around in her trench, which is part of the stage. The audience can only see her head. Sometimes, because of two mirrors at each side of the trench, the audience can see other parts of her body too. If she isn't in her trench, she's on stage. You can't see her very clearly because they used backlight. You only see her silhouette. With only one single sentence, she destroys the entire hype she has created around her during the show: "we must never forget that this is only art".

Some plants were hidden in the 'real' audience. One of them is an over enthusiastic girl who applauds every time she gets to see Claude. There's a couple that argues all the time because the guy has to fart quite frequently during the show. Another couple consists of a man who starts singing during the show. His wife lights a cigarette shortly before the end of the show. Finally yet importantly: one plant has to strip off during the show (that was me). The audience is disturbed by these plants, and doesn't know whether it's real or not, whether they are actors or not. You can't trust anyone.

After the show, many spectators didn't applaud at all. Probably because they weren't sure, whether the show was over or not. They were confused. As a plant, I saw Present Absence about six times. You might think it gets boring at last after the third time. IT DOESN'T. "But what was it like then?", I hear you asking... Well... I read a very interesting comparison in a Belgian newspaper:
"The atmosphere is something in between Twin Peaks and a concert of Sonic Youth" (De Morgen Bis, 25/05/2001). Quite a compliment here, huh?

The whole thing was worked on by several artists. The marvellous stage was designed by L.A. painter John Tremblay. Dramaturgy was done by Bruce Hainley. One of the most impressing things on stage was the light. It was designed by Yves Godin, and it was as important as the other actors (light can be an actor). The sound was great too, thanks to Christof Migone, together with the Belgian band Steamer Cry Wolf, who has just released their first album on Arsonist Recordings. I don't know what's happening next. I heard they might be going on tour with it, maybe to Cologne etc... However, they weren't sure about it. Not yet.

A Belgian magazine for Dutch (Flemish) literature (and other arts, I guess), Dietsche Warande & Belfort (it's available online), has published a very interesting article about Claude Wampler and the Cult of Claude.

Copyright © 2001 Jan Ackenhausen e-mail address

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