Christian Rizzo gives people fits. Last week, an argument erupted in a Seattle restaurant at the mere mention of his name. "Oh my God, he's the worst!" one of the arguers shouted, going on to describe Rizzo as the epitome of vapid, pretentious, navel-gazing performance art. Another argued that Rizzo's performance is a ritual, a type of secular sacrament, slow but transcendent. Two people nearby joined the conversation, and a fifth, who had been sitting at the bar, wandered over to participate. The performance they were fighting over happened four years ago.
Rizzo has directed operas by Schoenberg at the Théâtre National de Toulouse and built exhibitions for fashion designer Christian Lacroix, but only made his U.S. debut in 2006 with the aforementioned polarizing performance at On the Boards, during which he smeared his face with Vaseline, rolled it in green glitter, and crawled across the stage wearing a stocking on his head and an animal hide on his back. (He made his New York debut—described in the New York Times as "long overdue" but "worth the wait"—two years later.) Some love Rizzo. Some loathe him. Few are indifferent.
People who are infuriated by Rizzo tend to focus on two peculiarities of his work: (1) He seems unconcerned with meaning (by now you can surely guess Rizzo isn't interested in the well-made play), and (2) he rips the body from the center of performance, using it as just one more medium (along with lights, music, and set pieces) to create bizarre stage pictures—that, again, may or may not mean anything. In Seattle, the contentious company Implied Violence has done much the same thing and inspired many of the same arguments.
At any rate, people in Seattle are still fighting about Christian Rizzo four years after the fact. He's coming back to On the Boards this weekend with b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau, a piece inspired by a 16th-century sculpture of a nymph by artist (and soldier and convicted sodomite and five-time murderer—or so he bragged) Benvenuto Cellini. It stars dancer Julie Guibert (who has danced for William Forsythe, among others) and Rizzo, who wears a bunny mask during the performance.
Rizzo spoke to The Stranger last week, on the morning after opening b.c, janvier 1545, fontainebleau at the Kitchen in New York. Rizzo is an eager conversationalist, both thoughtful and playful (and French—his ESL moments have been preserved below). He began the conversation by musing: "This new piece is very slow, like a ritual, and in a town like New York, where people are always running, how do you get them to sit for an hour of quiet time?"
You're a very polarizing man here in Seattle. Some people love your work, and some people absolutely hate it.
Well, my proposition is that I'm saying something. And when you say something, first you ask yourself, "Are you sure you want to share that?" Of course, you will have some enemies. I'm creating something very intimate and very formal and specific. Do people want to take that trip? You never know who in the audience is coming, the behavior and life of each people, and the time when they receive a proposition. Sometimes, even for me, I look at a thing and say: "Pah, it's not the right moment for me."
But I'm wondering about the reactions because it's part of the work—I'm not just doing it for myself. I always do it in a place, and it is in a sense fragile. To finish a work is to share it. But I love reaction—people have a reaction! When you say something and people critic the work, they're trying to understand something of themselves, even when they are against the work. Sometimes I get a bad reaction because people say, "It is not theater, it is not dance," but in this way I don't care. I push myself to do something, and I enjoy when we are pushing ourselves a little bit further. We are not going to the theater to see something we already know! Then it is better to cook or stay at home or with friends.
How old were you when you started to make artworks?
From the beginning? I keep doing things like I did when I was a child—for me, for example, when I look at a child playing at home, I can see myself like I was or like I am today, taking an object and going into a corner and creating a world around the form, and you know you have to follow it and grow with it. After the study, the work, you have some knowledge, but the base is still the same. You wake up and you need to do something. Before you go to sleep, you need to create a form.
Things get mixed between fashion, performance, painting. I was trying to organize something, but it was complicated during the '80s. It was a little bit normal in France to have painting and rock band and performance together. But it was—do you say sleazy? After a while, I was a bit bored by that, so I started to make more normal works.
I had a life where I would wake up, work, wait for the weekend, but I was also clubbing a lot. And as a clubber, it was a kind of performance—the right clothes, the right place to go, the right music, and you understand that you have already made creative grounds for yourself.
What kinds of jobs did you have at that time?
I did many things: working in malls, cleaning the floor. But I was also a TV journalist. I was working in a taxes office. I was selling things by phone for a long time. It was something I really didn't like, but I was good, selling stupid things to people. You try to say to these people that they need something they do not really need. I was a little bit ashamed every night.
You made this piece for Julie Guibert...
I was working on a commission for the Lyon ballet, and Julie was a dancer in the company. I was totally fascinated by her—she was walking, she was sitting, she always had the right movement at the right place and the right energy. I could see something special, an intelligence of the body.
When we start to work [on b.c], we were on it together. I was just showing the beginning of the movement and she would finish the movement—I knew I wanted the leg up, but I couldn't get it up all the way. I would take the flux and she would push it and it was like a balance. For me, this piece is almost only details, because I love that—to understand global things through details, because I come from history of art and paintings. These painters would often look at the light on the hand or the hair and then make the painting from that.
For this piece—what does it mean for someone to be alone onstage, out of their community, for one hour? But of course, it's not narrative because I'm always working on abstraction—but if you go deeper in abstraction, little lines of fiction will appear, little things in the space between the stage and the body and all the space around. I like this fiction to appear, and then I use it. First it's this woman alone with the bunny-man onstage, doing like an abstract ritual together. After that, the bunny-man disappear.
American audiences may look at your bunny--man and think of Donnie Darko...
Yes, Donnie Darko—Gummo also. Or Alice in Wonderland. It's funny because I have a lot of things around me connected to the rabbit. I was also thinking about a dead rabbit—like Joseph Beuys, when he was trying to teach to a dead rabbit the history of art. I thought: "Maybe this is the ghost of the dead rabbit coming back!"
What kind of shoes do you wear?
Sneakers. I like the high sneakers—more for basketball.
Do you play basketball?
Absolutely not! But I like the end of the '80s/beginning of the '90s style, not so much the modern.
Because of the design or because of the way it feels on your feet?
Because of the lines. I am formal! I am a formalist!