Le Jardin des délices / The Garden of delights, Philippe Quesne, Vivarium Studio, Festival d’Avignon 2023
Le Jardin des délices / The Garden of delights, Philippe Quesne, Vivarium Studio, Festival d’Avignon 2023 | © Martin Argyroglo

Your new work is based on the title of a famous painting by Hieronymus Bosch from the early 15th century. As it happens, titles are particularly important in your creative process. What brings you to this 15th-century Flemish painter?

It’s true that this is the first time I’ve used the title of an existing work – but having said that, The Garden of Earthly Delights was not the title given to the painting by Bosch himself, but rather one that has imposed itself through usage. Art history often permeates my work, and I have often drawn inspiration from painters such as Brueghel, Dürer and Caspar David Friedrich, for example, as well as from cinema and contemporary visual art. One of the historical hypotheses is that Bosch was inspired by the itinerant theatre troupes of the time. The connection between these art forms is not new. Beyond the title, there is something vertiginous about approaching this fascinating triptych. It’s spring, rehearsals are about to start, our exploration begins. It is not so different from starting from Hamlet or even from a blank page: the possibilities are very open. Interpretations of the painting have varied endlessly over the last 500 years, right up to the Surrealists, Philip K. Dick and the Flower Power movement of the 1970s. Even today there is no consensus regarding either the context of its production or its meanings. Our preliminary research led us to meet with various specialists and enthusiasts of the painting: the curators of the Prado in Madrid where the painting is kept, historians of the Middle Ages such as Pierre-Olivier Dittmar, great Bosch lovers such as José Luis Alcaine, Pedro Almodovar’s director of photography, and the French poet Laura Vazquez. We take it as it is, as a starting point, as an inspiring enigma, without trying to imitate or comment on it.

How do your theatrical creations resonate with this painting?

This piece is delightful because it allows us to travel through a vast historical, aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual and psychoanalytical territory... among others! In this way, it resonates with the work process we have been developing for twenty years with Vivarium Studio, which is a way of weaving a network of links and connections around a title and common memories, by calling on art history and the humanities, popular culture and the socio-political questions that inhabit us, the absurd and reflexivity. Bosch gathers his questions like clues about what he is experiencing or projecting, and he invites viewers to do the same investigation into themselves. Today, I am starting this process with a team of actors and creators: we are going through the painting, looking for clues about ourselves and our times, like in a science fiction film.

A small community organising itself, a kind of logic that is specific to an alternative way of inhabiting a territory, a disaster in the distance, nature reappearing in unexpected ways, unsettling the relationship between nature and culture... These are indeed terms that connect your shows to this painting, despite the differences between the time periods!

So it lends itself to a real rethinking! Every detail opens up hitherto undreamt fields to be explored. We are going to share in the destiny of a human community given over to a research experiment, to the construction of a possible, fantasised, poetic world, exploring its own path at a time when the world is threatened. In what way should the triptych be read? Is the surprising central panel a promise or a bygone past? Does Hell represent a nightmarish future or the present? Can we even hope to provide answers to these questions? These are the arguments for a good western. You cross the threshold of the painting and everything becomes possible, even though you have to find a way to inhabit it yourself, with what you find there.

Finally, there is something else, which is perhaps more personal: this year marks the 20th anniversary of my company, Vivarium Studio. Some of the performers in this show were already in La Démangeaison des ailes in 2003. When I go through the accumulated memory of our shows, I find myself in front of a marquee full of specimens and prototypes, and its adjoining menagerie: human-sized moles, scarecrows, dogs, birds, flying skeletons... and caves, vehicles, asteroids, mechanical pianos, artificial islands... A memory that in retrospect seems to me as diverse as it is logical and orderly – an impression not so different from the one I feel in front of the painting, which is very heterogeneous in appearance, full of unexpected details that are almost autonomous from one another, and yet organised, fluid, composed.

In Hieronymus Bosch, you find a painter who is depicting a period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance – like Albrecht Dürer, whose Melancholy inspired your show La Mélancolie des dragons in 2008.

Yes, there is the same tension between past and future in Dürer’s engraving with ist angel, pensive before the possibilities of faith and science. For example, when Bosch’s triptych is open, on the left, which is traditionally Paradise or Eden, stands a naked couple, in a neat landscape, with beautiful, serene animals. In the centre, a small group of humans coexist with other strange animals (huge birds), plants and fruits (strawberries as big as humans) and materials, water, glass… They are naked there, dancing, running, lounging. It is difficult to say whether they have arrived somewhere or whether they are parked and placed under surveillance, as the greyness of the closed triptych suggests. On the right, the painting becomes dark, the figures are frozen, restrained by strange creatures, and the space is saturated with human inventions: houses (on fire), books (on their heads), musical instruments, ice skates, contracts, scores... One wonders whether it is not the new emerging society that is represented here as frightening. A kind of techno-anxiety? Like Dürer’s Melancholy, this painting belongs to an era of uncertainty, the changeover between

the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, during which all the traditional, technical, political and spiritual benchmarks were being overturned. The parallels with the transitions we are experiencing today are striking: an uncertain future, which we can feel is inducing a radical change in structures, is leading to a new way of linking cultures, sciences, arts and political organisations, as Guillaume Logé has shown in La Renaissance sauvage. To put it in anachronistic terms, Bosch painted an »open work«, which emanated from a free spirit.

The German art historian Hans Belting, who passed away this year, was certain that Bosch had painted a utopia, a vision of humanity without the Fall, without guilt, thus announcing Erasmus and Thomas Moore. According to him, Bosch’s vision proceeds from relations and approximations rather than from perspective, for the same reason. Could you not recognise yourself in these issues, which are as much aesthetic as social?

In retrospect, it’s rather curious, but most of my shows start with a problem, a breakdown, an accident, which forces those present to change their plans – at least we can assume so – and to organise themselves on the spot with what they find: to implement a utopia, yes, the word suits me well, even if it’s temporary. My scenographies are the sites of an ending and also of a kind of initiation, they often allow for this double reading. In La Nuit des taupes, it is moles who seem to have to clear and protect an underground space so that their fellow creatures can organise a concert. Caspar Western Friedrich, created in Munich, shows a museum undergoing restructuring, which becomes the work itself. In Farm Fatale, a group of scarecrows, who have become unemployed because of the disappearance of birds, set up a pirate radio station to keep the memory of their songs alive, to connect with others and protect mysterious eggs. In Crash Park, survivors of a plane crash become modern-day Robinsons and invent the island of their dreams, however artificial. This initial situation, which is often caused by a broken-down vehicle, can also be seen as landing where we are: in a theatrical space. I had invited the philosopher Bruno Latour to join me in my years as director of the Nanterre-Amandiers theatre. To describe our times, he would say with a smile that there is not much diesel left, and that “the captain regrets to inform you that the planned place of arrival no longer exists”: we must decide to land somewhere, and to act where we are. You are free to see this as a description of an eco-anxious society; in Latour’s texts the metaphor is explicit, in any case. My characters participate in a fiction – this world to be invented – to which they adhere because it binds them to each other. They land in a stage location and, under the veneer of fiction, they discover technical stage elements, which are commonplace in a theatre and which encourage and serve their project, which consists of organising a kind of show, a home-made amusement park or a concert. In this way they can move freely from representation to fiction, from theatre to illusion and vice versa. The important thing for them becomes the way in which everything – tool, image, memory – acts positively on the human and non-human group. Their situation is tenuous, fictional and theatrical. They propose to believe in the utopia that they are outlining, for the duration of the show, as a way of bringing themselves – us? – together. All the while demonstrating how an image is made, how a utopia is composed – and yes, in my theatre, this is done through games of montage and interplay, because that is also what utopias are all about.

An industrial warehouse in the German Ruhr, the open air of the Boulbon quarry in Avignon or the Roman theatre of the Acropolis in Athens, the banks of Lake Geneva in Vidy-Lausanne, the National Drama Centre in Madrid near the Prado... The tour of your show draws a rich map of theatrical Europe. In what way is it present in your work?

I stage small communities that try to preserve for themselves a space of possibility, a place to carry out a project that is as utopian as it is precarious, but which brings them together. Even in Mahler’s Song of the Earth, which I staged in Vienna, this is what the singers are missing, and what they seem to be looking for: a place to be, which welcomes them. My protagonists land in places that are as much bearers of memory as they are technically prepared, and they will engage with both.

So I don’t know if culture is the memory that Europe has at its disposal to move forward into the uncertain future, or a means by which it keeps reminding itself to land – rather than continuing to evolve ungrounded, as if nothing had happened, even if it means destroying what surrounds it and even what allows it. I don’t know whether the earthly delights of this garden are our past or our future... We shall see.

ERIC VAUTRIN is the dramaturg of the Théâtre Vidy-Lausanne since 2015. A former academic, he is particularly interested in the relationship between shows and spectators, nourished by dialogue with artists creating at Vidy, including recently PHILIPPE QUESNE, FAUSTIN LINYEKULA, CHRISTOPH MARTHALER and ADELINE ROSENSTEIN.