Deconstruction Is Alive

Saadane Afif is a French post-conceptual artist who works with drama, poetry and music. He is especially interested in the procedural components of the art projects. At the 6th Moscow Biennale Saadane’s creative team worked both in the pavilion and outdoors, getting in contact with a wide audience. Marina Simakova comments on this process.

The performance of Afif’s artwork consists of free distribution of acid-green papers. These papers are filled in with short text fragments or quotes, written in big bold letters. The artist’s team hand the green leaflets to the biennale visitors and people who are walking around the large territory of VDNKh. The text written on leaflets is a set of random quotes from the Ubu Roi, a play that is widely known in France and has been also put on stage in several Russian theatres.

Ubu Roi (Ubu the King) is a play by Alfred Jarry that was written in 1894. Jarry himself later became one of the reference persons for the French surrealists. As for the play, it was first put on stage two years after it had been written, provoking a public reaction. It is the story of a Polish man named Father Ubu who decides to dethrone the Polish king and succeeds in doing this quite quickly. After taking power, he sends all Polish princes, judges, financiers and taxmen into a ‘stone hole’ and imposes heavy taxes on peasants. Consequently in a couple of day he simply gets rid of all those who actually support the Crown. Meanwhile, a 14-year old heir of the killed Polish king is going to take revenge for his father, while Ubu’s former accomplice wants to revenge Ubu’s unfair and cruel treatment of himself and other subjects, and soon a Russian army led by the Emperor Alexey is also joining the battle. All together they liberate Poland from a tyrant, forcing Father Ubu to flee. While sailing away, Ubu, who never admits to being wrong or failing, confesses that he does not have any regrets regarding the lost crown since this crown is too heavy.

It suffices to read only a couple of Ubu’s retorts in order to understand that he is absolutely stupid, greedy and pathetic; and he was created like this precisely to evoke disgust. At the same time, all these disgusting features of human nature look quite funny when they are brought together in one character and shown as if through a magnifier. Such an effect is delivered by actively used grotesque and the play’s atmosphere echoing Francois Rabelais (though being quite far from the Rabelaisian style). The plays on words especially abusive language (mangled on purpose), are used in the text of the play here and there. It is not really clear why this play was chosen for a contact with the Russian audience; its content and language distinctiveness is lost in translation, especially taken out of the context. However, we may assume that abolition of contextual reading as well as giving up the habit of interpreting fictional text as a whole, lie at the core of artist’s method. Saadane Afif is actually famous by his interest in deconstruction and relevant work with texts of other authors.

Finding itself in hands of people who are just passing by the pavilion, the text leaves the territory of literature, turning into a set of separate aphorisms without a story or a narrative link. At the same time, it becomes a small commentary on everyday life, and its sudden character is able to evoke various emotions. Afif’s team even conducted their own observation planned by the artist beforehand: people’s behaviour and reactions were captured on camera. And despite the fact that random and unusual text fragments on acid-green paper could have made the audience really puzzled, they were very positive about it: none of them threw a paper away. People read the text, interpreted it the way they liked, shared their impressions with others, and then put the green paper in a pocket or in a bag. This is how using a simple method of deconstruction (that has itself already been deconstructed many times and, as it seemed, was destined for oblivion) a forgotten French play was distributed and got its second life; it reminded that text is in many ways just a play of interpretations, occasions and circumstances, and there would have been no meaning without it.