Go Deeper

A New Rousseau from Sebastienne Mundheim

Posted September 10th, 2011

The punning title of Sebastienne Mundheim’s 2011 Philly Fringe show, Paris Wheels and The Ready-Maids present . . . Not the Henri Rousseau that Some of You Know . . . gives away a lot and very little all at once. Remounted and reblocked for a smaller space than its sold-out run at the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts in April, the show opened this morning at the Crane Old School in Kensington.

If you guessed that the show integrates ready-made objects, Paris, Ferris wheels, and the painter Henri Rousseau, you’d be right. Sebastienne, perhaps Philadelphia’s preeminent puppeteer, was commissioned by PIFA to create a piece based around that festival’s Paris-a-century-ago theme, but only had three months to compose it.

“I didn’t have a design,” she said. “We just kept making stuff. The first idea was that the ready-made”–like Marcel Duchamp’s famous urinal–“was somehow important–that there’s a relationship between this object and the art market.”

“I come from a big family of academics and the burden of argument weighs heavily on me. A lot of my work is a fight between the argument and the playfulness,” Sebastienne said. She mentioned something she had heard a member of British Parliament once say: “Sometimes what we lack in political thinking is trust in the intuition of the poet.”

“Not having time meant not analyzing it a whole lot. I made a lot of work, aesthetic decisions, and moral decisions–I trusted that as our objects grew, the story would come,” said Sebastienne.

And if you guessed that this Rousseau is repurposed to other ends, well, you’d also be right.

“Rousseau died in 1910 so this is not historically accurate. I ended up making a little parade about Paris, and I decided a story needed to be part of the parade. In this story of Henri Rousseau I have him go out and comfort dying soldiers with hopeful images. Is that enough for the artist to do? Envision beauty and remind us it’s still there?”

After the jump: Rousseau for the children? You betcha. Also: the moral quandary of the socially engaged artist. Something for everyone!

“I like stories that remind us that the life of the mind and the interior life are endless. Are you an ideas person, or a things person?” Sebastienne asks. “The issue is ironic because I make all this stuff. An irony is in the preciseness of making all this stuff out of cardboard and calling it important.”

“[For PIFA] I didn’t want to make a rarified thing about an artist of the past. I asked myself, how can I use that to be honest about that time period and make it relevant to now.”

Sebastienne sees her role as twofold, about both storytelling and social consciousness–about, as she said, “being considerate of giving the audience a joyful experience but thinking about things that aren’t so joyful.”

Even through that, she said, “I feel a moral responsibility to be hopeful. [Rousseau] does try to do right in the world by maintaining his vision even though all this destruction has happened.”

She pointed across the room to her Rousseau, who sat on a chair, head and shoulders slumped forward. “He is a solitary sad little guy,” she said.

Rousseau, Sebastienne said, has been thought of as a “colorful primatist,” but she found much more to his work, and to his life.

“This idea that he went to the zoo and observed the animals in these unpleasant little cages–the animals are pretty fierce in his paintings. I liked that he worked in a toll booth as a customs checker, and could identify smuggled animals and set them free.”

Sebastienne’s work has a delicacy that enforces itself.

“I believe in the nontoxic, low-impact stuff,” she said. As such, much of her work is assembled from cardboard, and ends up being quite fragile. “Making things that are really fragile involves constantly remaking them,” she said, and on my second visit to the studio, pointed out a bird that she had just deconstructed and reassembled.

“What I really love is how beautiful it is when the performers come in and their movement is very minimal. They bring this other layer of life–this activation of space. One of the benefits of working with fragile things is that performers must be careful not to break anything. It’s not precious, it’s necessary.”

Sebastienne’s work is a hybrid of visual art and performing arts, and in her scheme the objects are primary.

“I build the props before I even think about the performers. I think about the visual experience first. If I was just given four performers, I wouldn’t know what to do with them,” she said.

On my first visit with her to the performance space she mapped out how the stage would be set. Since, she’s created a box of scrims, 13 feet high by 20 feet deep by 30 feet wide. Behind them, lights project to create an opalescent light box, where, as she put it, “this world lives.”

At Kimmel, the show was in the Hamilton Garden, and if you saw the piece, you know that the scale was different–much more open, much larger. But even in the bigger scale, Sebastienne found that the show works for audiences as young as three years old.

“There are so many visual surprises,” she said, and from having been to rehearsals, it’s probably best I hold my tongue about them. Surprises also come from her younger audiences, from whom she’ll often take questions after performances.

“They ask questions like, ‘Why did Henri Rousseau get old?’ And, ‘How do you make things that are pretend seem so real?'” she said. Questions, I might add, that adult audiences often have but won’t ask out of perhaps a misplaced sense of pride (or, perhaps, I’m just speaking for myself).

“I almost never have a dramatic story. It’s not dramatic, it’s more like poetic description. I had one kid say to me, ‘This story is really sad.’ There were people for whom there were tears. Rousseau ends up seeing the world around him destroyed. It’s my own dilemma as an artist too. Is it enough to live in the world of imagination? Or when do you do something?”

Paris Wheels and The Ready-Maids present . . . Not the Henri Rousseau that Some of You Know . . . opened this morning at the Crane Old School White Space, 1417 N. 2nd Street, Kensington. It runs September 11, 13 to 15, 17, and 18. Mulitple shows per day on weekends, times vary. $15.

–Nicholas Gilewicz