Gombrowicz: Interhuman + Interform
Zbigniew Bzymek and Kuba Falk’s Gombrowicz: Interhuman + Interform starts with a critique of the inflexibility of science and ends with an attack on the pomposity of humanism. Its ratty intelligence and roving quality is fitting for the peripatetic, scathing intellect of Witold Gombrowicz, whose definition of being a person seems to have been to recognize that one is absurd.
And indeed, there is something a little Diogenes-in-the barrel-like in Gombrowicz’s self-imposed exile from Poland, though it was also pragmatic, an escape from the outbreak of World War II and later an avoidance of his country’s domination by the Soviet Union. He wrote his Diary, the source from which the play’s fragmented script is plucked, during his long years in Argentina, not as a personal journal but rather as a regular feature in a Parisian émigré literary journal, beginning the work in 1953 and continuing it through his death in 1969. By working with Gombrowicz, his fellow Poles Bzymek and Falk (a theater and video artist and a performance artist, respectively) shrewdly situate the mercurial author in the contemporary, a place where his skepticism is right at home.
The unpretentious, spare, funny, jagged Interhuman + Interform—developed by Bzymek and Falk in part as resident artists in Baryshnikov Arts Center’s BAC Open residency program—begins with a prelude in the form of a projection of the four cast members’ faces morphing into and out of that of Gombrowicz, whose words they will soon be voicing in turn more or less continuously over the choreography. The first words of the piece are the well-known first words of the Diary:
The inescapable air of egomania that colors Gombrowicz’s parody of the daybook format is stripped away by Bzymek and Falk, who intercut the lines’ delivery and repetition by Danusia Trevino with the first burst of the author’s disdain for the modernist scientism that was taking hold in his day, spoken by Viva Ruíz: An excessive respect for scientific truth has obscured our own truth.” A few moments later, Ruíz underscores the sentiment: “We do not become real in the realm of concepts but in the realm of people.” Gombrowicz has much in common with his more-celebrated contemporary Georges Bataille, whose Critical Dictionary (1929–30) includes in his definition of the informe, or the unformed, the following critique of overconceptualization: “For academic men to be happy, the universe would have to take shape. All of philosophy has no other goal: it is a matter of giving a frock coat to what is, a mathematical frock coat.”
Gombrowicz, who might have simply called this frock coat a straitjacket, similarly derided what he called Form, capital F. Such imposition contrasts with little-f form, the articulation out of the base that we humans struggle to achieve. Bzymek/Falk wryly pair a narration on the subject with a sequence in which the performers traverse the floor like primordial ooze, crawling on their bellies, overhung with a projection of motes flitting like the view of a drop of pond water under a microscope. At other moments the performers run back and forth over the same expanse. The contrast created between the fast and the slow suggest a clash between the human and the technological, scientific development outstripping our ability to assimilate it. The frenzied back-and-forth leads nowhere. The human recognizes itself in the mirror but remains severed from that other world, the one of representation and an illusory freedom, as the performers do in other sequences, pressing themselves futilely against the long, planar expanse of dancers’ mirrored wall in the John Cage and Merce Cunningham Studio.
The notion of struggle, and a struggle with technology in particular, extends to the show’s ingenious use of video as both an image and a prop. Most of the show’s video is shown on two monitors that are lugged around by the performers. Comically but necessarily padded around the edges and linked to the directorial cockpit with a similarly swaddled umbilicus, the screen is hefted as if it bears a weight much heavier than its real one. The actors carrying it seek help or lift it onto their shoulders like Atlas supporting the world. Elsewhere in the script: “We must remain persons, our role depends on the fact that the living, human word not stop sounding in a world that is becoming more and more abstract.”
While the human and the technological confront each other throughout Interhuman + Interform, Bzymek and Falk don’t fail to invoke a related subject of Gombrowicz’s writing, the traditional separation of the human from the natural. Both he and they approach it with characteristic ambivalence. At one juncture in the piece, a stripped-to-the-waist Falk dons a handmade paper-plate mask before beginning a frenzied dance to improvised flute music that he recorded. Here the work’s creators cleverly skewer the danger of falling prey to primitivism as a notion of escape; the face on the mask is that of a clown. Nevertheless, the rationalist detachment from the natural world—a particular focus of Falk’s solo work—remains pernicious. Gombrowicz calls the human “antinature,” first in a tale involving an unsavory, imposed choice between Christ and “Cortes,” a rationalist and “scientific” Marxist friend of the author whom he nicknamed after the conquistador. The notion later comes up in a second parable involving four people trying to decide what to do with a gravely injured dog.
Gombrowicz’s spiritual forebear Diogenes was, as it happens, identified with dogs; the school of philosophy that he founded, Cynicism, takes its name from the ancient Greek word for canines. He seems to have admired the freedom that dogs have, their lack of material need, and their essential honesty. By these criteria, Interhuman + Interform is very doggy. Bzymek and Falk’s collaboration adopts an ultramodest performance mode that rejects psychology and makes the most of limited means. The performers wear street clothes, and most of the props were scavenged, including an extraordinary mask donned for a dance number by Alessandro Magania, a 3D cartoon of an old diving helmet made from a construction bucket and utility light that the principals found at Brooklyn’s Dead Horse Bay. Ultimately, like Diogenes, the style of presentation leaves a great deal to the piece’s interlocutor, something like a moral responsibility to decide what to make of things oneself.
Despite his seeming lack of optimism. Gombrowicz, too, at least recognizes the imperative to do something. In the scene of the dying dog, the humans fail the animal by failing to put it out of its misery; they all dwell on their justifications for how they ought to act, but none of them acts at all. It’s this capacity to undermine one’s own best intentions, this essential human ludicrousness that Bzymek and Falk sift from the Diary’s corpus. The clown figure that appears in Falk’s goofy escapist dance crops up again in the monologue the two have chosen to end the piece. “It is not a coincidence that precisely at the moment when we desperately need a hero, up pops a clown,” Falk intones. Something is needed, we’re all sure of that—a hero even. But how to be heroic seems beyond even the fierce intellect of Gombrowicz.
Domenick Ammirati is a critic and fiction writer based in New York. A frequent contributor to Artforum, his writing has also appeared in publications including Art in America, Frieze, BOMB, Dis, Mousse, Pioneer Works’ Broadcast, and exhibition catalogues for Josh Kline, Josephine Meckseper, and Frances Stark. He publishes a bimonthly Substack on contemporary art, books, music, and wine called Spigot.