I travelled to Catalonia for the first time in 2015. Over the winter months, the Santa Mònica Arts Centre in Barcelona played host to Figures of Doubleness. Puppets, Machines and Strings, an exhibition offering a wide panorama of the tradition and current state of local figure and object theatre. In parallel to the exhibition, which compared classical puppet theatre with contemporary contributions, and as part of the IF Festival, three artists were invited to take part in residencies and perform. One of them was David Espinosa.
Espinosa, who comes from the world of contemporary dance, worked with toy objects for the first time in 2012, putting together a solo. The core idea was: What kind of production could be created with an unlimited budget and the biggest theatre in the world? The answer emerged in the form of Mi gran obra (My Great Work), a production that actually takes place in a miniature model. A choreography involving delicate miniature figures takes place on a polystyrene stage right in front of the audience’s eyes (the third and final row needs binoculars to watch the piece). The writer’s subsequent work – including a scale representation of all of Shakespeare’s plays, the classic Don Quixote and the complete history of humanity – remained loyal to this principle.
David Espinosa’s artistic journey is, arguably, representative of many others within Catalan object theatre. The artists I have met over the years have had very different aesthetic roots and have developed specific focuses in their performance, depending on their background. These artists have nothing to do with the French tradition of object theatre, which first coined the term and has often been taken as an aesthetic reference point. Instead, I have witnessed stimulating individual attempts at generating theatrical material with objects that, according to my visual experience, are unusual.
This is also the case in the work of scenographer Xesca Salvà. In her piece Cases (Homes), two spectators equipped with earphones become voyeurs of one of three miniature homes. In the first, a block of flats, a peep show can be seen through the window and sex workers’ appointments can be heard. In the second, a single-family home, the spectators can see each other through the large windows as they listen to the stories of an old, single woman, and they slowly transform into her. The third home is an empty space that, brick by brick, turns into a city, the streets of which are probably roamed by the homeless women the spectator can hear.
Or in the work of CaboSanRoque, made up of sound artists Laia Torrents and Roger Aixut. In their large-scale installation involving sound objects, No em va fer Joan Brossa (Joan Brossa Didn’t Make Me), they explore the work of the multifaceted, avant-garde artist who gives the piece its name. On a large surface shrouded in artificial fog and through the interplay of light, sound and movement, the objects generate an immersive experience: paper mountains rustle, metal screw tops throb, typewriters clatter diabolically and neon tubes buzz among fragments of poetry and original voice recordings.
These three examples stand out for me because, in contrast with the French object theatre aesthetic, where everything on the stage is contextualised thoroughly through performers and language, they concentrate on the object explicitly and the artists take a back seat or, in the case of these installations, are not present at all.
Another especially significant example of an artist who disappears from the stage, through intimate, poetic movement in his interplay with the objects, is Xavier Bobés, with whom the Schaubude Berlin has been working for years. The range of his work is broad. In Cosas que se olvidan fácilmente (Things Easily Forgotten), he invites five spectators to a round table to reveal part of his family history during the Francoist period. With the ‘El Solar’ collective, he investigates the history of materials and the culture of the object in cities. In his latest production, Corpus, he works with fragments of a sculpture and questions bodies’ permeability and plasticity.
Generally, it is impressive how artists resist the aesthetic tensions to which they are subjected and manage to take on and give shape to their chosen themes, which are often socially engaged. This is especially visible in the work of the Señor Serrano Group. In this case, the objects are recorded with a video camera and projected onto a screen that overlooks the stage. The team accompanying Àlex Serrano, Pau Palacios and Bárbara Bloin combines political material and pop culture to create impressive thematic tension. In A House in Asia, for example, they use miniature models and superimpose the house where Osama Bin Laden hid in Pakistan; the house where the assassination of the terrorist was rehearsed, on a military base in North Carolina; and the house in Jordan where Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012) was filmed. In doing so, they question changes in the perception of the media.
It is likely that the development of these artistic stances in Catalonia, characterised by a genuine interest in a language of things, is the result of the genre and tradition of object theatre being less deeply rooted here, along with the current institutional permeability on the theatre and festival scenes.
In any case, the artists mentioned above make pieces with powerful political statements that would be unimaginable without the productive tension between their various object theatre artistic backgrounds.
TIM SANDWEG is the artistic director of the Schaubude Berlin, the Produktionshaus für zeitgenössisches Figuren- und Objekttheater and the Theater der Dinge international festival, which regularly showcases productions from Catalonia.