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Re-performing Images of Violence and Beauty

Pavel Zuštiak / Palissimo
Bastard and Custodians of Beauty
LaMama | January 4 – 8, 2017

Palissimo. Photo: David Kumerman. Courtesy Palissimo.


“An artist’s duty, as far as I am concerned, is to reflect the times,” said the legendary Nina Simone some decades ago, referencing, among other things, the civil rights movement that fomented America at the time. I would argue that, as practitioners of art, we constantly absorb, process, and translate what we see, read, and experience; and what we are exposed to is sublimated into the content we produce in one way or another. Sometimes, those influences are referenced in the work more obliquely; at other times, more transparently. And often, the disparate threads of thought that recombine in our subconscious minds anticipate trends well before they manifest themselves in reality, endowing the resulting artworks with eerie prescience.

Such is the case with Pavel Zuštiak’s decision to restage two of his recent works, Bastard and Custodians of Beauty, I discovered, during a late-December conversation with the wildly inventive choreographer near LaMama Experimental Theater Club, where the works were being prepared for this revival. Initially, Zuštiak’s impetus to bring these works back to the stage was prompted simply by his desire to afford them greater exposure. However, as the November 2016 election cycle played itself out, to the surprise of many, he saw the two works taking on new dimensions, potentially making them more impactful now then when they were originally created.

After seeing the two works this January, presented in repertory at LaMama’s newest venue, The Downstairs, I share Zuštiak’s sentiment completely. I first saw Bastard, as part of The Painted Bird trilogy (inspired by the eponymous novel by Jerzy Kosiński), when it was presented at LaMama in 2013 by his company, Palissimo. I remembered this work vividly, largely due to the outlandish, rubber-man-like performance by Jaro Viňarský (which earned him a 2013 Bessie Award for Outstanding Performance), who occupies the stage solely until the work’s closing section. And yet, Zuštiak’s stark, evocative depictions of otherness, marginalization, and rebellion, rendered in bold strokes by Viňarský’s fearless performance, hits a particularly powerful cord in the present political context, as does the work’s final pièce de résistance. As the stage is suddenly inundated by an ensemble of over thirty performers, diverse in age, gender, and ethnic backgrounds, nearly each of them gets singled out at one point or another as they stand silently amidst the roving crowd, until they finally create a sort of a human carpet, laying themselves on the floor, face-down. As these actions conjure an oppressive environment in which everyone is vulnerable and possibly a target, they finally resolve in an image that evokes mass graves. The connection with current political affairs is as powerful as it is inescapable.

Justin Morrison (standing) and Nicholas Bruder. Photo: Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Zuštiak’s most recent work, Custodians of Beauty, also presented at LaMama under the auspices of Performance Space 122’s Coil Festival, is a beast of an entirely different nature. Presented as a succession of deliberately drawn-out fragments, the work negotiates in abstract visual and sonic landscapes rather than anchoring itself in a solidly narrative terrain. Similarly, Zuštiak’s deployment of physicality in this work is concerned with form rather than character. In its initial moments, the bodies of three performers, clad in somber black costumes, morph through a series of Rorschach-like shapes against a velvet-covered rear wall. Later in the piece, their nearly nude bodies gently roll across the floor, eventually rising through a slow progression of sculptural formations that are reminiscent of historic artworks from the Renaissance. The only break from abstract movement lands in the latter part of the evening, when the three performers get their hearts pumping (and the audience’s too) with a highly aerobic, bouncy sequence propelled by an endearingly retro techno score.

Zuštiak traces the origins of his latest piece to an art magazine feature he stumbled upon in his native Slovakia while rehearsing for a different project there several years ago. The article was concerned with the art world’s rejection of beauty as a criterion for evaluation of artwork, in conjunction with Pope Benedict XVI’s Vatican summit in 2009, during which he quoted his predecessor, Pope John Paul II to an audience of 250 artists from across the world, to say: “This world in which we live needs beauty in order not to sink into despair. Beauty, like truth, brings joy to the human heart, and is that precious fruit which resists the erosion of time, which unites generations, and enables them to be one in admiration. And all this through the work of your hands. […] Remember that you are the custodians of beauty in the world.”

Indeed, albeit in a resolutely different manner than Bastard, Zuštiak’s Custodians of Beauty—as well as Pope John Paul II’s quotation itself—resonates powerfully in our current political echo chamber. In the aftermath of what is likely to go down in memory as the most divisive U.S. election cycle to date, and the resulting contentiousness in this nation’s ideological sentiment, the uplifting message that transpires from this work serves as a powerful reminder never to underestimate our best human selves.


Ivan Talijancic

is a time-based artist, educator, and journalist and co-founder of WaxFactory. He is the Artistic Director of Contemporary Performance Practices program in Croatia, recipient of a 2020 Performance Award from the Café Royal Cultural Foundation, and a member of the Bessie Awards committee.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2017

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