Marlene Monteiro Freitas dancing the wild side of Beauty
The grotesque face and body appear throughout the history of arts and take innumerable forms from the Greek Gorgons, to the whimsical and ornamental frescoes of Nero's Domus Aurea in Rome and the influence they exerted on the art of the Renaissance, Leonardo's grotesques, the insolent proliferation of hybrids in the works of Bosch, the troubling portraits of Cindy Sherman, way through to the extravagant and clownish character heads by Messerschmidt and the toothless old women in Goya’s Caprichos and Black Paintings from the Quinta del Sordo, with their grimaces and ugly faces. As a category of modern aesthetics – rather different from the satire and caricature that highlight the work of the negative to condemn and to rectify it – the grotesque is generally associated with the transgressive world of the night and the uncanny, where transvestites, fools, hybrids, automated and wild figures abound and jostle without a shadow of criticism or blame. «The grotesque aesthetic does not condemn what it represents, it is limited to notice the fragility of the boundaries between the human and the animal, the passionate man and the monster, what is beautiful and what is ugly, the good and the bad».
The fragility of boundaries (if any) between inner conflicts, tensions and torments and outer appearance, that is to say, the depiction of the mind’s motions and of the heart’s «passions» (synonyms of emotions in Descartes’ works or of Pathosformel in Warburg’s) – is a major approach of the face in arts. It is now, in the field of live performing arts, brought to its climax by the Cape Verdean dancer and choreographer Marlene Monteiro Freitas.
The solo performance Guintche, created in 2010, confronts the spectators with a mysterious and unfathomable character, alone on stage yet multiple, whose body is split into distinct dynamics. At the rhythm of the percussions, the hips of the enigmatic and decadent figure, at once hyper-contemporary, kitsch and archaic, whirl in a relentless and uninterrupted mechanic. The face, on the other hand, devotes itself to a prodigious series of metamorphoses, an infinite multiplication of ‘baroque’, excessive and disconcerting faces. This expressive density would have nourished the tradition of physiognomical perception – the talent, Lavater wrote, «to make known the inside of man by his outer appearance» and which today is referred to as morphopsychology.
The figure’s facial mimics, in an extreme and permanent tension, are pushed to the very limit of the deformed and of what is bearable. This formal polychromy, which unfolds itself in a raw, expressionist energy, is simultaneously referring to the carnivalesque frenzy and to some kind of absurd mechanical automation. All of these contribute to blur boundaries, shifting the realms of social appearances and of boring conformism, disturbing the banality of conventions and norms, thus attaining a dangerous primeval core raising fascination among the audience.
The furious rhythm of the percussions together with the succession of the gestures, the metamorphoses of the faces and expressions seem to evolve towards a state of hypnotic trance where genders, species, identities merge and where «passions» – pride, divagation, fear, pity, despair, desire, venality, suffering – make their way to the outer surface of the visible. Like a glove of flesh turned inside out, it all come up against the limit of the blind eyes painted on the eyelids of the dancer. Through the excess, the energetic discharge and hubris, affects and passions would thus eventually lose all consistency and become pacified.
Guintche portrays an ambiguous and hybrid presence, distant however close, a powerful, rapacious, voracious and empty otherness, both male and female, tramp and sorcerer, predator and prey, trickster and puppet, animal and robot. The automated gestures of this machine-body, dancing its anatomy to freedom, gleaming and overflowing with vitality, animated by convulsions, play out the exuberance of contrasts and the law of transitions that produce the inevitable passages from an image to another image, from an idea to another idea, from an object to another object, from a figure to another figure, from an other to another other. Objects, like images, ideas, figures and others are deliberately or not assimilated, digested, integrated into the body’s matter, transformed, distilled and discharged in some sort of new idiosyncratic and marginal world’s organization. This mechanism of perpetual creation of oneself in the relationship to the world and to the presence of others happens «[…] because the [perceived and assimilated] object had already at its disposal a complete margin where one had already felt the preexistence of objects yet to come, and of an entire field of virtualities and potentialities which one already knew were capable of being actualized».
But what is exactly this roaring silent cry, expressed by a gaping mouth that swallows and spews fake pulpy lips, freaky hands, black tainted fingers, tongues and intrusive stuff? Is it a tragicomic mask, a mask of illusions and truths that veil and unveil, an abstract and supernatural being, stripped of all glory, hunting some invisible entity with exorbitant eyes that see nothing, or a caricatured tracked ghetto backslider trading wicked gazes that speak nothing? Is it the theatrical play of behind the scenes, an imposing bodyacting of beyond the body? The transparent expression of the opacity of being, the exhibition of the invisible crowded interiority, or more broadly the sacred «horror of life producing and defeating with ease its monsters and miracles»?
Guintche is haunted by the Dionysian figure of the maenad, the ecstatic bacchante who, in the sacred delirium and the madness provoked by the communion with the god, tears her preys with bare hands, in a movement of fury, far from the city, the rules and the cultural prohibitions that guarantee the social and political order. This figure has also been developed in her penultimate show, Bacchantes, Prelude for a Purge, created in 2017 at the Teatro Nacional Dona Maria II, in Lisbon. The cathartic is indeed a key element of the scenic work of the artist, in which frantic imagination operates through free association and creates unexpected passages between the forms of pathos. Together with catharsis, this practice of free association allows ties to be forged between Marlene’s aesthetic, affective and figurative research and the surrealist, dada or psychopathological approaches.
In the theatrical outburst of affects and emotions, deeply rooted in the early religious and medical practices, we purge, purify, set in motion and put into action. The rituals of trance and metamorphosis, the choreographed disorders and the theatrical representation of the most violent impulses all act as elements of a collective purge, made effective by the mechanisms of mimetic identification. «With Dionysos, the music changes. At the heart itself of life on this earth, alterity is a sudden intrusion of that which alienates us from daily existence, from the normal course of things, from ourselves: disguise, masquerade, drunkenness, play, theatre, and finally, trance and ecstatic delirium. Dionysus teaches or compels us to become other than what we ordinarily are, to experience in this life here below the sensation of escape toward a disconcerting strangeness».
Guintche, like Bacchantes, by acting and actualizing an exuberant and ephemeral condensation of the existential, emotional and energetic human potential and by the dynamic pattern of setting all this overload in movement, exults in a variation of incarnations, sensations, emotions which is as demanding and disturbing as it is joyful and liberating.
^ I. Barrena, L. Vazquez, «La beauté hideuse des corps ou la dégénérescence du ‘corps naturel’ au tournant des Lumières», Queste n.°7, Saragosse, 1994, quoted by Lydia Vazquez, in Dictionnaire Européen des Lumières, Paris, PUF, 1997, p. 608.
^ Michel Delon, «Physiognomonie», op. cit., p. 990.
^ Antonin Artaud, on the concept of the «BwO», the «Body without organs», from the radio play To Have Done with the Judgment of God, 1947.
^ Gilles Deleuze, «Michel Tournier and the World Without Others», The Logic of Sense, translated by Mark Lester, London, The Athlone Press, p. 305.
^ Roger Caillois, «L’enfer de la nature», in Vocabulaire d’esthétique, Paris, Gallimard, 1946.
^ Jean-Pierre Vernant, Mortals and Immortals: Collected Essays, Princeton University Press, Princeton / New Jersey, 1992, «Divinity», chap. 11, p. 196.