The artistic practice of Pieter De Buysser (°1972) is diverse and is not easy to capture. As a writer, theatre maker and film maker, he is based in Brussels, the centre of political Europe, where he clearly feels in his element. His work demonstrates a broad perspective on the continent and close involvement with the major political issues. De Buysser’s international interest developed as a student: after studying literature in Antwerp, he obtained a master’s degree in philosophy in Paris where he studied among others under Badiou, Rancière and Derrida. It is perhaps no coincidence that these thinkers are known to have developed ideas that demand a fundamental revision of the course of history and the future. The Parisian roots in philosophy have an impact on all branches of De Buysser’s oeuvre. Yet his work is not difficult; his writing style is so graceful that it seems as if the texts tell themselves. But above all, he succeeds in giving voice to the grand and comprehensive by allowing the small and seemingly trivial to speak. Seen the other way around, a mythical dimension often sinks through in everyday life. In his work, this does not result in absurdity, but a polyphony that prefers harmony over conflict, enchantment over silence.
Talking everything open
It is significant that De Buysser chose the name Lampe for the company he founded in 1999 to produce his texts, often under his own direction or acted by himself. The name refers to the hunchback servant of Immanuel Kant, the thinker who made reason the heart of Western thinking. In creating the character, De Buysser interweaves fact and fiction in a way that is characteristic of him. He imagines that Lampe was banished to the basement of the master’s house in Königsberg. In the shadow of rationalism, Lampe is said to have written three criticisms at the edges and margins of Kant’s main works, namely the critique of affected reason, of power and of pragmatics. De Buysser turns each of these criticisms into a theatre trilogy. After completion of the project, which lasted more than a decade, Lampe reportedly disappeared to where he came from.
In Het Litteken Lip [The Scar Lip] (2001), the first of the three trilogies, three men each receive a letter sent to them from Königsberg in 1790. The present, past and future of their lives are described in minute detail. ‘Here are the words you come up with’, is stated after nine days at the bottom of the ever-changing text. Is it they who make up the words or is it the other way around and are they travelling on terrain that was established in language long ago? The inability of the characters to formulate a clear answer reflects the crisis of postmodernism: man is alienated from himself. A paralysing observation, you would think, but for De Buysser precisely the reason to explore the limits of language and attempt the impossible. He juggles words in search of new forms and ambivalent meanings in the hope of finding something that escapes categorical thinking and still opens new horizons. A irreducible remainder that reminds us of what reason cannot grasp: there, according to the author, who thereby confesses his faith in language, lies the beginning of hope. Or as one of his characters puts it: ‘He told me the story of the changes, while he metamorphosed from a herring to a squirrel family to a healthy parsley bunch. He talks everything open.’
In a sense, De Buysser has developed his own variant of the fable, the style-characteristic par excellence of his attempts to reconcile the grand with the small. The traditional genre illustrates a general truth or wisdom based on an example – often with a satirical tone, even more often preachy. The storytellers in De Buysser’s fables also search through the imagination for ultimate beauty, goodness and truthfulness, but they know they will never find it. This is a political project: an unceasing search for a new beginning, without ever developing a blueprint for the utopia. The story remains unfinished and the revolutionary character seems to be hidden therein. His debut novel De Keisnijders [The Cesareans] (2012) takes place on a wasteland in the middle of Berlin, where a round, core-less wall has been erected. This no man’s land will not be the location of a plot or a classic story. Rather, it remains an open and indefinable space, where countless fables come together that make no claim to fixed beliefs or rigid schemes. Take the fable of De vetplant en het representatieve meubilair van de zonovergoten praktische zanger [The succulent plant and the representative furniture of the sun-drenched practical singer]:
It started with Monika, the woman who’d been delivering bread to them three times a week, for years. When Lis told him she couldn’t help laughing her head off. Back home again, she finally dared to send that letter she’d been brooding about for so long. That very same day Monika scored a big hit with the fable she told her girlfriends at the bakery, they retold it at home to their children and husbands, some of them started to throw old furniture out, a number of them signed up for tap-dancing lessons for the first time… by the next day the fable had sneaked through school gates and the revolving doors of offices, and from that moment on, could also be found online. […] A wave of petitions started for the most radical-solidarity bills and citizens initiatives, and there was a real run at the cinemas and bookshops for several days on end, not on cookbooks and car books, but on fist-thick, life-changing novels, poetry and classical philosophy that sold like Monika’s proverbial hot cakes.
Thinking the world differently
After among others the lecture performance An anthology of optimism (2009) with Canadian writer-performer Jacob Wren and Book Burning (2012), a monologue in collaboration with visual artist Hans Op de Beeck that De Buysser himself presented in various locations in Europe, he wrote Landschap met springwegen [Landscape with skiproads] (2014). The text is the story of a love that changes history. Driven by passion, Zoltan tries to find his Francesca. The young boy pursues her on his horse Abbas. The search leads the characters from a different time into the present, into the world of an ordinary family with ordinary problems: adolescents, unemployment, adultery, alcohol. In the end, no one is who he thought he was. The stage is full of objects that played a unique role in our history, including sand from the cave of Plato, a recess in the dining table of Thomas of Aquino, Pavlov’s bell. These things are there as tangible testimonies to the ambition of great thinkers to subdue history. They have forced world history into a philosophical, religious, economic, psychological, cultural and political harness. They form landmarks in a history that understands itself as linear, efficient and irrefutable. De Buysser’s most abstract ideas about history find tangible form in the very concrete space of the stage. Which makes them small and handy, but no less metaphorical: the theatre becomes a space in which the actor – by manipulating the objects – can move the beacons of our thinking literally and figuratively. Things are not fixed, he seems to tell us, their use is what determines them.
In 2015, Pieter de Buysser established the ROBIN production structure together with theatre maker Thomas Bellinck. Within this structure, three of his pieces premiered in 2017 alone: The After Party, Le Rire des moineaux [The Sparrow’s Laughter] and The Tip of the Tongue. The latter is a multimedia astronomy performance in which science and fiction come together while the audience in reclining seats watches a video projection on a dome of a planetarium. The mysterious Grace and detective Raymond board a ship with a particle accelerator. Once they arrive in a whirlpool somewhere in the South China Sea, they end up in a parallel universe, while remaining connected to the narrator in the planetarium through a quantum particle at the tip of his tongue. What follows is an exciting journey to the end of time and space. Here too, the immeasurably large – quantum physics – takes shape in the concrete and manageable – a detective story set in the Brussels planetarium. There the production could be seen, after its premiere at Kunstenfestivaldesarts 2017, on the eleventh of each month. The piece does what good science fiction does: through strong imagination, use the building blocks of the present to build a future that is far away and yet so close. This is characteristic of how De Buysser repeatedly and playfully explores the limits of our thinking and imagination, looking for new perspectives that help the world think differently, with the ultimate goal of changing it.
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Written by Kurt Vanhoutte en Joeri van Spijk
Translated by Dan Frett and Rina Vergano
Kurt Vanhoutte is professor of Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Antwerp, where he helped to establish and currently coordinates a Masters programme in Theatre and Film Studies. He is founding member and director of the Research Centre for Visual Poetics. His basic line of research investigates the effects of science and technologies on narrative and stylistic characteristics of performance art as well as the ensuing impact on contemporary notions of theatricality.
Joeri van Spijk is following the Masters in Theater and Film Sciences at the University of Antwerp. He is also an artistic assistant at Het Zuidelijk Toneel and works as a dramaturge.
- Het kan vriezen en het kan dooien (1992) – in collaboration with Benjamin Verdonck
- Othello, de koffiepot (1993) – free adaptation of Shakespeare
- Een kleine remedie tegen het vallen (1993)
- Het lekt (1993)
- 100 redenen om revolutie te verplegen, een dramatisch poëti-politicologisch aftelzwijntje (1997)
- <O> Artaud, Joyce en de houtworm (2002)
- Nachtzon* (2004) (translated to German by Benoit Ophoff published by Henschel Schauspiel Verlag and English by Rina Vergano)
- Een zonnige verschrikking (2005)
- De vuurweg, fire away (2006)
- Trotski en de ijsbijl (2006)
- De maten van het mogelijke (1999)
- De Zoete Kaan, een toneelgedicht in een vorig en voorlopig bedrijf (2000)
- Een kleine doortocht buiten verdenking (2000)
- Het Litteken Lip* (2001) (translated to German by Andreas Ecke, published by Henschel Schauspiel Verlag)
- Lotus Drive* (2002) (translated to French by Daniel Franco)
- De vader en het hert (2002) (translated to French by Anne Vanderschuren, Italian by Gianni Poli published by il melangolo)
- Stranden* (2003)
- Het onthaal van Ismael Stamp (2003) (translated to Tsjechisch, French by Anne Vanderschuren published by L’Arche, English by Rina Vergano, German by Franz Rabe published by Henschel Schauspiel Verlag and Norwegian)
- Aangesproken, de as en de boter* (2003)
- Het groeien van de bomen* (2004) (translated to French by Anne Vanderschuren)
- Eekhoornbrood* (2004) (translated to Czech, Polish, English by Pete Connelly, Norwegian and French by Anne Vanderschuren)
- Condor Unlimited (translated to German published by Henschel Schauspiel Verlag and English by Pete Connelly)
- Robinson, de vrouw en de neger* – adaptation of a novel by J.M. Coetzee
- Dood en ontwaken (2007)
- Glanzen* (2007)
- Isaac and all the things he doens’t understand* (2008) (translated to English)
- Lof der speculatie (2009) (translated to English)
- De Judaspassie (2009)
- An Anthology of Optimism (2009) – in collaboration with Jacob Wren
- Nachtevening* (2009) (translated to English and French published by bij L’Arche)
- Metselvariaties voor beginners (2010) (translated to German and French published by L’Arche)
- MUUR (2010)
- De ongelooflijke veranderingen van meneer Afzal (over zijn glazen been wordt niet gesproken) (2011-2013) – published by Literarte
- Book Burning (2012) – published by Bebuquin (translated to Czech, German, English published by Oberon Books and French published by L’Arche)
- The myth of the great transition (2013) (translated to English)
- Landschap met springwegen* (2014) (translated to Czech, German, English by Jody Hruby, Miles O’Shea and Pieter De Buysserpublished by Oberon Books and French published by L’Arche)
- Immerwahr (2015) (translated to Czech, German by Uwe Dethier and English)
- De zonder zon zon (2016) – published by Bebuquin
- Le rire des moineaux (2017) (translated to French, published by L’Arche)
- The Tip of the Tonque (2017) (translated to English and French published by L’Arche)
- The Afterparty (2017) (translated to English and French published by L’Arche)
*published by De Nieuwe Toneelbibliotheek