Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Is This a Dagger I See Before Me?

Performance As Valuation

Performance values objects: they so often enable it to operate. Performances' properties (props) may be found, fabricated or selected for their intrinsic qualities of dimension, appearance, texture and they may be included for aesthetic, decorative, functional or fictive purposes. But whatever their origin of market value, once selected by an isolated in the activity, the props become invested with other meanings. For, if the watchers are able to `bracket-off' performance as a separate network of meanings than they will search for, and generate, meaning in everything they see.

this paper examines a point of convergence between theatre and archaeology. Every aspect of performance is capable of semanticization. However prosaic or banal, nothing will remain neutral or simply decorative. As soon as we enter the theatrical space we know that we have to take the things we perceive for something else: for signs, stand-ins, for present substitutes which represent an absent world. Whatever passes the boundary and enters the theatrical space is declared significant. And this richness of meanings is only partly controllable. For although performance may have things to say (it is more or less suggestive or denotive) it is read and interpreted according to the expectation / experience / background of the watcher. It is equally connotative. Performance is thus characterized by omission. We take what we see for something else, a part represents the whole. Performance relies upon the mutability, versatility and multivalence of a fixed range of objects. They function as an aide-memoire, representatives of their type, suggestive of all others and evocative for the watchers of similar objects, similar occasions, of other times and other places.

This paper draws parallels between the theatrical property and the archaeological artefact. It examines the employment of objects in contemporary theatre. It goes on to draw parallels with the role of artefacts in contexts such as funerals and burials, suggesting that the composition of body and objects may resemble a stage picture, an arrangement which can be (which is meant to be) looked at by others, kin and strangers, but within which meaning is no less equivocal. The manifold meanings of these artifacts arise from the culturally determined preceptions (personal, social and aesthetic) of individual watchers. There is flexibility and mobility (and perhaps semiotic ambiguity) in their meanings. Indeed the versatility of what is so often a fairly limited repertoire, may leave more space for the engagement of the watchers.

This paper concludes by proposing a re-evaluation of artifacts through their inclusion in new projects and initiatives in contemporary performance, art installation and curatorial practice. This will involve artefacts in narratives of fact, fiction, fantasy and fakery in order to challenge and confound the orthodox categories of taxonomy such as age, authorship, nationality, material and ownership. It also creates a flow or slippage between classes and types of things normally kept apart, dissolving parameters, interpenetrating the four key moments in the workings of artefacts (the representational, the decorative, the functional and the cognitive) to reveal paradoxical relationships and continuities outside conventionally assigned identities.

author:Mike Pearson

original source: European Association of Archaeologists First Annual Meeting
01 March 1998


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