Elaborately designed by artist Than Hussein Clark, ‘The Violet Crab’ at David Roberts Foundation (DRAF) is a Menippean composition and mise-en-scène, which ‘opens its doors to questions of how the erotic, the melodramatic, and the tragic might satirise the rules of production in the present.’
Curators Vincent Honore and Nicoletta Lambertucci assume the roles of producers and alter egos of Comete Robert de Montesquiou and Marchesa Luisa Casti (patron and ‘living work of art’), while the artist channels a group of protagonists from Kander and Ebb, who worked through a collaborative process with their performers to develop their own characters, to W.H. Auden and the radical French Fumistes.
Clark urges that ‘the white cube of the gallery must no longer be so terrified of the black box of the theatre’, as he undermines the ‘spatial and temporal architectures of the exhibition-making’ to ‘rearrange the hierarchies between subject and object and performance’.
The non-descript gallery spaces are transformed into a cloakroom, backstage, main stage, lounge and shadow theatre – allowing for the audience’s encounter of the performers’ transformation throughout the embellished staging. More than 100 works from the collection and new commissions from Allison Katz, Shaan Tariqu Hassan-Syed, and Carter Mull throughout create the backdrop. In the cloakroom, a reader lounges by the fireplace and Pierre Huyghe’s ‘Name Announcer’ disrupts the fourth wall to the main stage – transforming the audience to actors upon arrival. On the main stage, an exquisitely painted Boudoir grand becomes ‘The Violet Crab’ protagonist. And backstage, Helmet Newton’s erotic polaroids test their poised nude subjects before their final capture.
A rhapsodic series of acts enfold from different positions. A tarot card reader, pole dancer, live drawing, and director of a fashion shoot all become a confusing assemblage of speech, performance, and props. During the exhibition, evening rendez-vous with host Anja Dietmann and artist Than Hussein Clark, perform songs inspired by historical cabaret and the vibrant invertebrate protagonist. These acts include performances by stand-up poet Matthew Dickman, ballet interpretation of Christodoulos Panayiotou’s intimate philosophical letter, and ‘glamourous serendades’. The acerbic and surreal act of Chiara Fumai juxtaposes these, as she performs as a medium for the spirit of Ulrike Meinhof – and thereby represents manipulation of both object and subject to overcome nature.
Achieving its goal to satirise the modes of cultural production and at times contrived structure of making, the exhibition is best in Zhana Ivanova’s Horatian menage-a-trois with members of the audience, and male striptease, imagined by Pipilotti Rist. Both display reversals of commonly produced objectivity and subjectification, as the artworks are skillfully instrumentalised as a scenographic device.