Interview with Philippe Quesne

Your new creation uses the title of a famous 15th-century painting by Hieronymus Bosch. Titles play a very important part in your creative process. What led you to Bosch? 

It’s true that it’s the first time I’ve used the title of a pre-existing work—that being said, The Garden of Earthly Delights isn’t a title chosen by Bosch himself, but one that became attached to the painting over time. And art history has been a recurring presence in my shows; I’ve often been inspired by painters, like Brueghel, Dürer, or Caspard Friedrich, but also by cinema and contemporary plastic arts. By the way, one historical hypothesis is that Bosch was inspired by itinerant theatre troupes of the time. The complicity between the arts isn’t anything new. 

Beyond the title, there’s something dizzying about tackling this fascinating triptych. It’s spring, we’re about to start rehearsing, our exploration begins. It’s not that different from Hamlet, or even from a blank page: everything is possible. Interpretations of the painting have been constantly evolving over the past 500 years, up until the Surrealists, or Philip K. Dick, or hippies in the 1970s. Even today, there’s no consensus about the context of its creation or its meaning. Our preliminary work led us to meet specialists and enthusiasts alike: the curators of the Prado Museum in Madrid, Middle Ages historians like Pierre-Olivier Dittmar, and Bosch enthusiasts like José Luis Alcaine, Pedro Almodovar’s director of photography, or poetess Laura Vazquez. We’re using it as a starting point, an inspiring enigma, without trying to imitate it or comment on it.  

What echo do your dramatic creations find in this painting? 

This is a delightful work because it allows us to cover a vast historic, aesthetic, intellectual, spiritual, and psychoanalytic territory… among others! In that sense, it echoes the creative process we’ve been developing for twenty years with Vivarium Studio, a way of weaving a network of ties and connections around a title, around shared memories, indifferently using art history and human sciences, popular culture and socio-political questions that haunt us, the absurd and reflexivity. Bosch gathers his questions like so many hints about his own experience, he invites the spectators to engage in a similar investigation on themselves, and today I’m starting the same research with a team of actors and creators: we’re working our way through the painting, focusing on the hints it reveals about us and our time, as if we were watching a science-fiction film. 

The creation of a small community, a unique logic when it comes to the way of inhabiting a land, a disaster on the horizon, a resurgence of nature under unexpected aspects which blurs the relationship between nature and culture… Those are indeed things that tie your shows to this painting, even though it was produced at a very different time! 

Which means you can really reimagine it! Every detail opens up unexpected fields to explore. We’re going to share the fate of a human community dedicated to a research experiment, the construction of a possible world, a poetic fantasy, exploring their own way at a time when the world is threatened. In what order should one read the triptych? Is the surprising central panel a promise, or a bygone past? Is Hell a representation of a nightmarish future, or of the present? Should we even hope to find answers to those questions? Those are the starting points of a good western. You walk over the threshold of the painting and everything becomes possible, even though you have to find your own way of living in it, with what you find there. 

Then there’s something else, maybe more personal: this year will be the twentieth anniversary of my company, Vivarium Studio. Some of the actors of this new show were already there in 2003, in La Démangeaison des ailes. When I go over the accumulated memory of our shows, I find myself in front of a marquee full of specimens and prototypes, next to a menagerie, a network of caves, vehicles, asteroids, mechanical pianos, artificial islands… A memory which, retrospectively, seems to me as diverse as it is logical and tidy—it’s an impression that isn’t that different from what I feel when I look at this painting, which seems at first very chaotic, with its many unexpected details which have an almost autonomous existence, but is actually very organised, fluid, and deliberately put together.  

With Hieronymus Bosch, you’re returning to a painter describing a period of transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, just like Dürer, whose Melencolia I inspired La Mélancolie des dragons in 2008. 

Yes, there’s a similar tension between past and future in Dürer’s engraving, with its pensive angel faced with the possibilities of faiths and sciences. For instance, when Bosch’s triptych is open, on the left side, which is traditionally seen as Heaven or Eden, you can see a naked couple standing in the middle of an empty, clean, and lifeless vision of nature. In the middle, a small crowd of humans coexist with animals (gigantic birds), plants and fruits (strawberries as tall as humans!) and materials, like water or glass… They’re naked there, too, dancing, running, basking in the sun. It’s hard to say if they’ve arrived somewhere or if they’ve been confined there and are under surveillance. On the right panel, the painting grows dark, the beings immobile, they’re held back by strange creatures and the space is filled with human inventions: houses (ablaze), books (carried on one’s head), musical instruments, ice skates, contracts, scores… You’re led to ask yourself if it isn’t this society that’s arising which is thus described as scary. A sort of techno-anxiety? Just like Melencolia I, this painting is part of a time of uncertainty, the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which was an upheaval of all traditional, technical, political, and spiritual systems. The parallels with the transitions we’re experiencing today are striking. To put it in anachronistic terms, it’s an “open-ended work,” the product of a free spirit. 

You’re creating your show in the Boulbon Quarry, which hasn’t been used as a venue for years. It will then be performed in the Roman theatre of the Acropolis of Athens, in an industrial hangar in the Ruhr, and on the shores of Lake Geneva in Vidy-Lausanne, thus drawing a rich map of theatre in Europe. What is Europe’s place in your work?  

The Boulbon Quarry is a perfect backdrop for science-fiction. It’s a sort of crater, as if it had been impacted by the meteorites of one of my previous shows, Cosmic Drama, but it could also be a relocation zone for the scarecrows of Farm Fatale, out of work now that birds have disappeared, or the barren moor of Mahler’s Song of the Earth, which I directed in Vienna. It looks like a lost inlet housing utopian protesters, or a dead-end landscape for an ambush in a western, the beginning of a vast construction project—or maybe a drilling project in search of now-rare water? In short, this place can feel as much like the beginning of something as the end of something else, and the spaces of my shows often play with this double reading. But it is above all a theatrical space, it carries the memory of past shows that have remained attached to this place, their installation remaining particularly visible. I often show small communities trying to preserve a space of possibilities, a place where they can conduct a utopian, precarious project. What they discover are often elements of the stage, typical of theatre, which encourage them and serve them in their project—which consists in organising a sort of show, amusement park, or concert. It’s as if a problem suddenly opened all possibilities for the future and what they have at hand—a heterogenous cultural memory and an ensemble of known practices—would allow them to get back to earth to dream of something else in the place where they are. I don’t know if culture is the memory Europe has at its disposal to venture into an uncertain future, or a means by which it can remember to get back down to earth rather than to continue its evolution disconnected from reality, at the risk of destroying what surrounds it and what makes its own existence possible: I don’t know if the delights of this garden are our past or our future…  

March 2023 translated to English by Gaël Schmidt-Cléach