Jan Fabre gives people fits. The Belgian omni-artist (he writes, directs, sculpts, and had an exhibition at the Louvre) disconcerts some, perplexes others, and rarely receives unalloyed praise. Even when people like his work, they sound uneasy.
Many critics have groped around this feeling of distressed admiration, my favorite case being a 1986 review in the New York Times suggesting that Fabre might be a new Pina Bausch, Laurie Anderson, Peter Brook, and Robert Wilson—but also that the show in question was "numbing, often punishing" and that "half of Wednesday's audience had walked out."
Fabre, who will bring his Orgy of Tolerance to On the Boards this weekend, paints self-portraits with his own blood and covered the Belgian royal palace's ceiling with carapaces from 1.4 million scarab beetles. (The photos look lush and scary, like some glittering green, alien mold had colonized the 19th century.) Reviews of Orgy of Tolerance in self-described "family newspapers," like the London Evening Standard, demur that they cannot describe the action because it "pushes at what used to be called decency." Because this is not a family newspaper: sodomy with a rifle barrel, sex with furniture, women birthing consumer products, a shopping-cart ballet, more sex.
"I wanted to criticize the prevailing obscenity and cynicism of today's society," Fabre wrote me in an e-mail from Antwerp. "There were two things that stroke me [sic—I think]." The first stroke: that everything must be tolerated, to the point where everything is permitted. Fabre wrote of his dismay that Europeans are expected to negotiate and dine politely with members of the far right who "undermine all the values that we cherish." (The same argument, of course, can be extended to a related debate—whether the EU should include conservative Muslims.)
The second stroke: that sex has become a commodity. "All these commercials that promote telephone-sex lines—I tried it out and it is completely fake. They make money while the client is waiting on the phone and the only thing you really can hear is a recording. The shocking thing is that real and sincere sexuality is, in this way, reduced to capitalist merchandising." Fabre sounds surprisingly conservative: Tolerance is oppressive and sex is not for selling. (Since when?)
Rarely seen in the U.S., Fabre's company Troubleyn will perform in Seattle and Montreal before returning to Europe. Lord knows what Orgy of Tolerance will actually be like—it's received savage reviews in England—but the greatest threat to a performance is the ease with which it can be forgotten. Whatever this acclaimed/reviled Belgian brings to Seattle, people will probably argue about it for years.
In lighter Belgians, cirque-theater company Les Argonautes descends on the Seattle Rep as part of the Giant Magnet festival, including adult evening shows. (For those of you who prefer juggling to sodomy.)