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STUART SHERMAN: AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER STICKLAND / 2006

An interview with Peter Stickland conducted at Camden Arts Centre, June 2006. Peter Stickland studied at the Architectural Association in the 1970’s, and went on to join seminal performance group The Theatre of Mistakes. He also wrote about, and worked extensively with Stuart Sherman including his adapted performances of Faust and Hamlet.

Robin Deacon: When did you first become aware of Stuart Sherman’s work?
Peter Stickland: It was 1979. At that point he was doing his portraits of people, places, and his spectacles, mainly in small performance venues, downtown Manhattan. That was the only outlet he had for his work. Prior to that, he did perform on the Staten Island Ferry. That’s how he started out. Later, he moved to Europe and become more involved in bigger productions. But at that time it was really his little solo’s that were working and his films of course. And he was incredibly busy – a totally new piece every three months or so.

What would you say is the significance of Stuart Sherman’s work in the short history of conceptual art and performance, and to you on a personal level?
For me, he was the best example of performance art, because he had nothing to do with theatre, and it was truly abstract, and it was definitely to do with meaning and language, and therefore he was really looking at things really hard. And he’d found a totally new way of expressing this which nobody else was anywhere near really, and because of its careful consideration, and real intensity, it just stood out, and it was the only thing that I felt in performance art terms, a great affinity to.

Do you share my view of Stuart as an ‘unsung artist’? If so, why do you think it is that his work is not more widely known and disseminated?
If you’re in the avant garde, then you’re not going to have a big audience - that stands to reason. Most people didn’t have that level of sheer intelligence and sophistication. There is an awful lot of theatre-ish activity, and dance activity and visual activity that didn’t actually settle anywhere near Stuart’s level of meaning. And I would think you would have to be somebody who was looking for meaning as seriously as he was to have really appreciated it. What’s interesting with his work is that sometimes you know exactly what he’s saying – amazingly so…with such little information, but it was incredibly clear. And other times, you would just have to accept that…despite the delight with which you were being entertained, you were outside of meaning. And I don’t think that suits most people, you’d have to be really hungry for something special to love it.

You said that the understanding and reception of his work was different in the European and American contexts. Why do you think this is?
From my point of view performing in New York, we definitely felt European. There was a lot of structural, formal reasons for doing things, and I think in America, those structural, formal reasons were very poorly regarded. Everything was much more upfront about passion and less about a deeply intellectual activity, and in Europe, there was still a demand for that level of deeply intellectual activity. I’m sure there were plenty of deeply intellectual Americans, but it wasn’t going to find him a public. His main saviour in Europe was Ritsaert Ten Cate who was the director of the Mickery Theatre in Amsterdam who really loved it, and had a budget to put on foreign work. He really took Stuart to heart. They also financed the very big productions such as Faust and Hamlet which were really quite elaborate in terms of the machinery they required, the numbers of performers and the rehearsal time. In Paris there was kind of a good following, and they really enjoyed this thing which again is kind of on the edge of understanding, but aesthetically, it suited them…whereas in America, they wanted to get it ‘straight’.

I talked about notions of slapstick and deadpan relative to Sherman’s work which you seemed to take issue with. How would you characterise his work?
I think slapstick is completely the wrong word. Slapstick is played for laughs, and it usually involves some victim or other. Stuart was just fast, and I think the only thing you could say with slapstick is you get about the same amount of information. The speed with which he was operating with these objects has some kind of affinity with just kind of playing around, but if you don’t consider how precise everything is, and how deeply its involved with meaning, in slapstick, its just not that genre at all. It terms of deadpan, basically, Stuart wanted to disappear. And he disappeared in the middle of the stage in front of the public, but only because it was very important that you focussed on the objects, because the objects were telling the story, Stuart wasn’t. So he actually devised a very clear way of inhabiting the performance space which allowed us to focus only on the objects. He loved Buster Keaton, but it wasn’t a kind of Keaton trick. He wasn’t interested in his actor-ish movements being read as something, he was literally trying to get himself out of the picture, and just make the object perform. But he was a puppeteer rather – the puppeteer disappears, he’s just pulling strings, you’re just looking that the puppet. His puppets were objects. In terms of the avant garde, that’s terribly interesting, that the object, the material world takes all the meaning. And that’s performance art, because we don’t play characters, were not interested in whether it’s Mr Jones or Mrs Jones, we’re doing a job, and the job is absolutely clear and were just carrying it out to the best of our ability.

We talked a little bit about the fact that Sherman never really transcribed his work. You read out an extract from a daily writing exercise that Stuart wrote near his death. Why do you think he started this form of writing?
It’s difficult in some ways because one doesn’t know whether – how much he was suffering from his illness and whether he didn’t have enough energy to carry on. I think one could kind of cast that aside and say that he first played with his films and his little one man shows, he moved into very large productions – he still carried on doing the little shows, and loved them enormously, but he was always a writer. Fundamentally, he is a great writer, without writing any words, and this is true of many performance artists. So here you have a genre of people who are writing and not actually expressing their love of writing in terms of putting words to paper. Somehow, it’s looking for a new form, and it’s a critique – somehow words don’t always necessarily do everything that you want them to do.

Do you think that’s the direction his work might have taken?
He was less worried by it, and I think he could easily see how his sense of play could just be borne by the writing. But I think it’s very interesting that he was less concerned towards the end about the problem that words had as an inherent means of communication. There wasn’t any big structure, system or demand other than that this is my bit of writing for today. I think he would probably have got to writing in the end…I think he would have done more.