Alexandre Singh (born Bordeaux, 1980) won the Prix Meurice, awarded by Le Meurice hotel in Paris to a French Contemporary artist, in 2012 for his work ”The Humans”, a three-hour long play for which he wrote the script and songs and designed sculptures, sets and costumes.
‘The Humans’, a film of which was shown in early 2014 at Sprüth Magers gallery in Mayfair, brings together the origin of the world, Woody Allen, Aristotle, Shakespeare, the Nestlé bunny and countless other influences to create an artwork which winningly blends philosophical profundity with absurdity.
Alexandre Singh (pictured below) and I met on a surprisingly hot March afternoon in the bar at 45 Park Lane (which belongs to the Dorchester Collection, as does Le Meurice). This is an edited version of our conversation.
JS: Tell me how ‘The Humans’ came about.
AS: Actually I had it lodged somewhere in my cerebellum for six or seven years. For a long time all the work I’ve been making has been storytelling in one form or another, often with art in the art world as a subject matter. I think it’s a very mythological medium, each work of course moving more and more closer to traditional narrative structure like a short story or a radio play so I can find out how to do a theatre play.
I was invited by Defne Ayas, who was the new director of Witte de With [a Contemporary art centre in Rotterdam]; she mysteriously sent me an email one day saying, ‘I have a new job’ – she didn’t state what it was – ‘are there any big projects you’ve always wanted to do?’
This is the kind of email I sadly never really get, usually they’re quite the opposite, and so she invited me to Rotterdam and I was forced to work under the public eye to develop a project which was done in a semi-public way and after eighteen months in Rotterdam we made the play.
JS: There are things like Woody Allen and Greek myths and the Nestlé bunny in ‘The Humans’; what gave you the idea to bring such diverse influences together? How did you think they would actually synthesise?
AS: Well, in a sense they use of random iconography, high culture, low culture. It’s very Aristophanic and it’s very comic and my intention was that if you sew all these things together very tightly and you really make a very coherent universe, people after a couple of minutes might really consider. Perhaps on a page where you read the words it feels eclectic and genius but I think once you’re immersed into the world it sort of makes sense.
Watch a trailer for ‘The Humans’ here
JS: You’re exploring the Apollonian and the Dionysiac, which people have been exploring for 150 years now.
AS: 2,200 years.
JS: That’s true but especially again since Nietzsche. What new do you think we have to say about it? What are you trying to add to that debate?
AS: The play itself borrows its structure a little bit from two sources. One is Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’, in which you have the Queen of the Night, who represents the primeval, the irrational, the feminine and madness, and her counterpart Zoroaster, who represents freemasonry, the masculine and the sun, rationality and order – everything that woman is not – and in that sense it’s very Greek, it’s very misogynistic. And then there is also Prospero in Shakespeare’s ‘The Tempest’, who also has his counterpart Sycorax.
In a sense it’s this eternal struggle, it could be good versus evil, I’m not trying to say anything new about it, but it’s just I think stories happen in that space between two massive plates rubbing up against each other, that heat and energy, you know, or (without wanting to make too disgusting a metaphor) the lubrication.
JS: Do you think the art world and the art-going public are more receptive to big projects these days?
AS: I don’t know. I know the institutions of the art world are, I can’t say in general, less receptive to them for the understandable reasons that they’re expensive and they take lots of time, and the art world is very entrenched in the spirit of the age which is an attention span of three months before an exhibition moves out and another one rolls in.
JS: You talk about the one to three month time span which I think is almost very generous: I thought you were going to say one to three seconds and I was going to say that’s probably exactly right.
AS: I was talking about the institution, it’s just a given. I don’t know who invented it or why, for what reason, that commercial solo shows are one month, two months if the gallery does not have that much money and they can’t afford to make the next show. At an institution like the Serpentine, it will be three or six months depending on how expensive the show was to make for them. It’s not, ‘Oh this show is fantastic, it must be in for six months, it’s an important work,’ it’s for practical reasons.
The question would be, ‘Are very long films more popular now, are very long plays popular?’ and in the theatre, for example, it’s not uncommon to see five, seven, nine, twelve-hour plays. When I was making my work there was a lot of hand-wringing from all the venues because it fell into some – there was an article in the Guardian about this, what is the perfect length for a play, and they said the perfect length for a play is 45 minutes. Every reviewer said this for the most shallow reason: it was that they can go to it, have dinner and then go home before they need a babysitter. They said it’s 45 minutes or it’s five hours and it’s very difficult anywhere in between.
JS: Do you think that people do sit through your entire work?
AS: Yeah it’s about, probably in a gallery context about 5-10 per cent, which I think is quite good.
JS: Do you feel if people don’t see the whole thing they have missed out the whole experience, or do you think that actually you can see fifteen minutes?
AS: Actually you could cruise YouTube and watch Dirty Dancing in two minutes by tracking through it very quickly and you would get an impression of it. Obviously I would rather every single person watched it three times because to be honest they would get a lot from it, well, I would hope, because there’s a lot of detail and a lot of thoughts in it that you wouldn’t necessary see the first time round.
JS: Is the artwork itself the script, or the performance, or the video, or all of them? Where does your work lie?
AS: It’s in all those things but a play is something that deep down is intended to operate on the page and to possibly be performed again by somebody else. Theatre itself is a mutable form. You can’t encapsulate it in the way that you can with a film.
JS: So would you be happy then if other people wanted to perform it?
AS: Yes, I would be ecstatic if somebody really did, but I can’t to be honest see it ever happening. Yes, I would be a) intrigued and b) happy writing something that people felt they could say something new about. Quite a lot of it’s to do with the staging and the costume and the songs and how they are interpreted, and I think that’s probably the attraction more than the text. I wish it was the text but I don’t think it’s as strong.
JS: In your experience, is the Contemporary art world becoming much more homogenous around the world? Eighty to a hundred years ago, different movements developed in quite different ways in different places; now I see Contemporary art as generally working in the same stream around the world.
AS: Yes, that’s true, there’s that, and at the same time it remains surprisingly provincial. You could probably tell me who’s a good thing right now, who’s hot, what people are talking about and I’m sure people in New York would have no idea.
JS: What about film art in general? Do you think we’re more accustomed to it, receptive towards it, people know a bit more about it?
AS: Film art rather than video art?
JS: Oh, I was using them interchangeably. What do you mean as a difference?
AS: When I think video art, you sort of conjure Bill Viola and three screens with static on them and someone taking Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ and looping one second of it, you know, the Eighties and Nineties, but then when you say ‘film art’ I think of Steve McQueen or some kind of production values.
JS: Do you think that’s changed over the past few years?
AS: Well, there’s technological change: it’s become less – not cheap, but much less expensive to make very ambitious things that have a cinematic quality… There’s a also a tendency in art to deconstruct pretty much everything; it’s the first move, maybe because it’s easier to smash it down than to build it up. You know, like Miley Cyrus with a wrecking ball: it’s not Miley Cyrus building lots of stuff out of Lego.
JS: Potentially less sexy but I see. Who’s the Miley Cyrus of the art world?
AS: So what would be the definition of Miley Cyrus?
JS: Would you like to move into the sort of films that Steve McQueen’s moved into? Away from the art gallery into the cinema?
AS: I actually have a couple of things that I’m writing in my bag at the moment, yes, I would very much like to make cinema.
AS: It’s the opportunity to make something coherent that’s engaging. It’s a question I ask myself: should I write a book, should I write short stories, should I make television? Not that I’m saying I have the option for these things but should I think about trying to find a way to do these things?
The fact that it will exist for a long time, that it can be something you can experience on a DVD at home in bed, on a plane, in an archive 50 years from now – it’s immortal in that sense and also hopefully because the way it’s received can change.
I wouldn’t want to make films that are commercial flops but there’s an opportunity for it to be looked at with fresh eyes, and also there is a challenge in making something that people who don’t know you, don’t know anything about you, will be seduced into and will appreciate. That’s a challenge because I think the art world can be very forgiving in that sense because it cultivates a culture of ‘I like what you do no matter how obscure or self indulgent it might be’.
JS: ‘The Humans’ is not plot-driven, unlike most Hollywood movies.
AS: Its structure is anecdotal which I realised when I was writing it, and I realised unfortunately that it was too late and I couldn’t change it because the structure is mythological and myths are not character-driven strictly.
A couple of characters plop into the universe somewhere, a cow licks a ball of ice, they ask where the cow or the ball of ice comes from, and from the melted water, the earth and the sky are born and then they make love and they have their children and then something happens to them (it’s usually something happens to them) and so they are in a world where things are happening and they are reacting to them, whereas in David Mamet, strong-character-driven drama, or Pinter, three people in the room and they drive each other crazy, everything is a result of the characters’ antagonisms.
Yes, I think you do need to have that quality but I think you can make cinema that doesn’t utilise those principles and it does exist. Experiential. Is that a word?
JS: Yes, definitely a word.
AS: Maybe something like Tarkovsky is perhaps not strictly character-driven but it’s very atmospheric. You could, if you sat down, probably think of a completely new way to make an engaging cinema experience, something that wasn’t necessarily a documentary or a drama, and there’s many opportunities.
Not that I think one has to do these sort of things and overturn the way we think about what cinema can be, so there are other ways to approach it, but I think character-driven is an interesting restriction: it’s the vast majority of films and stories that are told because we sympathise mostly with the experience of other human beings. You can write a film where it’s really an inanimate object that drives the plot. In most of these disaster films, the principal character is the meteor or the tidal wave.
JS: In fairness, in those films that meteor often has more personality and acting in them than whoever the star is. Let’s talk about the Prix Meurice. What does it mean to you?
AS: Well I’ve never won a prize before actually. I have the little – it’s not really a trophy – make sure they change that next time, I want a trophy. It’s a little, very thick piece of card.
JS: It’s a piece of card?
AS: Very, very thick.
JS: So a certificate?
AS: A sort of a certificate is a good idea too! Just the experience of winning something is unusual. I wasn’t expecting it in any shape or form and having any support for this project was very useful and very much appreciated. They’ve been following this project for two years, which is nice.
JS: Do you think in a very busy art world which has proliferated beyond all imagination that prizes are one of the ways artists have to get noticed? Do they play a more important role than just being nice to get?
AS: I don’t know, it could be, that’s not necessarily a good thing though. There’s a question I think we have to ask about the way everybody’s operating within any professional sphere: are they doing it for the public, are they doing it for artists or are they doing it for themselves? And I think that’s the sort of question you have to ask about any prizes.
Obviously everybody is working for some society but I think it’s a very generous thing they do. I think the money goes to production which is a very good thing and all these things help, small steps, and if they can shine a light on somebody that is very influential.
But then if you ask an artist it’s a bit of a strange question because they always wonder how can you make a distinction between six people and say this person is better than that person and get into Oscars character. But it is a useful tool to interest people.
JS: Do you think that film art is not appreciated then in the same way that a painting is appreciated?
AS: Not by oligarchs, no, not to the same extent. Of course it’s very brave to buy one [film artwork] and put it in a mansion somewhere. I don’t want to speak ill of the people or (hopefully) the hand that feeds me, but then obviously it’s not as safe an investment as if you invest in a blue-chip painting. It’s great, you can put many on your walls, just look how many two dimensional things are on this wall. It will definitely appreciate in value.
Was it Walter Benjamin who spoke about the aura of an artwork? [Benjamin thought that original artworks had an aura, while reproductions or photographs or presumably film art did not.] That’s something that’s in play, but those things distort the way culture looks at art, because the people who are on the boards of museums are invested financially and emotionally and psychologically in saying, ‘This is important because I own it and I have lots of it.’
It’s similar to other cultural spheres: people don’t own ballets, Andrew Lloyd Webber owns the rights to musical but he doesn’t buy and sell them and you can’t put a musical on your wall.
JS: Does money pervert the way art is made?
AS: Absolutely, but it distorts everything, it distorts the way countries are run and distorts, you know, even ballet. People pander to it and people pretend not to pander. What do you think?
The winner of the seventh Prix Meurice will be announced in October