Last night, I had one of the great aesthetic experiences of my life. I was at the invited dress rehearsal (which is a fancy way of saying the “final test run”) of TPO’s Kindur, one of the productions playing as part of CHF’s Stages, Sights, and Sounds. It was truly galvanizing, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since I left the MCA. It’s avant-garde theater, cutting-edge performance art, and high-tech spectacle all rolled into one breathtaking hour.
Compagnia TPO's Kindur
Part of my aesthetic shock had to do with my utterly confounded expectations. Never having seen TPO live (and believe me, the web clips don’t even begin to render the experience), I had come to the MCA in mind of the conventional paradigm of “children’s theater”: something along the lines of Broadway for kids, with broad acting, feel-good sing-alongs, and a well-meaning moral at the end. I’m not sure what I thought TPO would do along such principles, but I guess I imagined that its three Icelandic sheep would learn a valuable lesson about tolerance and compassion (not, as Jerry Seinfeld said, that there is anything wrong with that…).
Jasper Johns, Three Flags
The reality, however, is far more compelling. For one, TPO’s show is about Icelandic sheep the way Jasper Johns’s paintings are about American flags. This is to say that, while grounded in real-world inspiration, their genius lies in the formal manipulation of the seemingly familiar. So, yes, sheep are involved and Iceland is referenced – but just like with Johns, the drama occurs on a much higher level of abstraction and with the constant goal of aesthetic innovation.
Pipilotti Rist at MoMA
Another way of saying the same thing is that TPO produces avant-garde art. Yes, it comes in the guise of “children’s theater” – but its immediate reference points are some of the cutting-edge developments in contemporary art. The utterly striking visual world of TPO, for example, put me in immediate mind of the great Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist and her hypnotic, color-drenched films. Not since her remarkable installation in the atrium of New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2008/09 have I seen a similarly potent effect of visual saturation.
Rirkrit Tiravanija cooking pad thai
TPO are also masters of relational aesthetics. The influential avant-garde paradigm is characterized by an attempt to break the conventional relationship between art, artist, and viewer. Instead of confronting the audience with finished products (like Johns’s flags), relational aesthetics activates the viewer as part of the art work itself. A great example is the work of art star Rirkrit Tiravanija, who famously cooks Pad Thai at galleries and museums and declares the ensuing conviviality the work of art. TPO does something even more remarkable, not least because it involves kids. Somehow, they manage to turn the children in the audience into the protagonists of their avant-garde spectacle. Even as I write this, I’m not sure how they do it – but the result is visually and conceptually breathtaking.
John Cage preparing a piano
TPO also continues the avant-garde tradition of aleatorics, the approach to art making grounded in chance operations. John Cage, its pioneer, would doubtless be thrilled with the direction TPO has taken in this regard, rendering the aesthetics of anarchy through some of the most sophisticated technology currently employed in the world of theater. Indeed, the audience-generated wizardry of the show – simultaneously low key and commanding, but always integral to the proceedings – is one of its great pleasures.
TPO’s Kindur is playing at the MCA through May 15. Don’t miss this extraordinary show!
Tags: Kindur, Stages Sights and Sounds, children's theater, avant-garde, aesthetics