Lola Arias: Identities in Negotiation

by Florian Malzacher

In: Lola Arias: Re-enacting Life. Ed. Jean Graham-Jones. Abersystwyth: Performance Research Books, 2019. 242-247.

‘Do I have the right to stand here and talk for all those who went to war? And where are the British dead soldiers in this fucking play, anyway?’1 It is almost at the end of the performance of Minefield that the British soldier David Jackson raises the ethically but also aesthetically crucial question of representation — and thus points towards a core interest of Lola Arias in many of her works.

  1. In the performance of Minefield at Teatros del Canal, Madrid, 23 November 2018.

Everyone participating in theatre — as actor, performer or spectator — is, however consciously, always also representing a larger community distinguished by such aspects as colour, gender, class and profession. Therefore, the questions currently haunting all democracies — who is being represented in which way by whom and with what right? — are mirrored on the stage: Can a bourgeois actor represent a refugee? Can the West represent the Global South? Can a man represent a woman? Can a living soldier represent a dead soldier? Can a woman represent her twin sister? The problem underlying recent discussions around ‘blackface’ and the necessity as well as the pitfalls of identity politics goes much deeper than, for example, questioning the right and ability of a white actor to play a character of colour. These challenges are politically and artistically complex. They will certainly outlast current debates about political correctness and occupy theatre for a long time as they resonate with fundamental arguments about the necessity, effectiveness and rightfulness of representation within democracy in general.

In medieval times the issue of representation still seemed relatively clear. The king had two bodies: one natural, human, mortal; and one symbolic, collective-religious, eternal.2 The king is dead, long live the king. Absolutism came and only one body remained; the monarch was identical to the state — L’état c’est moi — he no longer needed a god for his own legitimation. With the revolutions in France and North America, the situation became more complex: suddenly the people itself was declared sovereign. But when everybody has power, no single person can rightfully embody it: ‘The locus of power is an empty place, it cannot be occupied… and it cannot be represented’.3 Not only do political rulers no longer have their own power, but the power they are temporarily given belongs to an increasingly heterogeneous people. It is an impossible task: representing something that can’t be represented. In this way democracy is never something solid; it is always still ‘to come’, as Derrida famously put it.4

  1. Kantorowicz, Ernst H. (1957) The King’s Two Bodies: A Study in Medieval Political Theology, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  2. Lefort, Claude (1988) Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey, Cambridge: Polity Press, p. 17.
  3. Derrida, Jacques (2005) Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and Michael Naas, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

Crises of representation have therefore kept reappearing throughout modernity, in politics but also in art: At first painting and sculpture refused to be reduced to mere depiction, then Marcel Duchamp brought everyday objects into the museum, which initially seemed to represent nothing other than themselves. Then, performance art and happenings tried to escape representation by focusing entirely on the immediate self-presence of the situation they were creating. And in recent years institutional critique has turned its gaze towards the structural, organizational and economic conditions of representation — considerations that have been radicalized by the social turn in the arts with its focus on socially engaged, collaborative, often participatory works ‘in which people constitute the central artistic medium and material, in the manner of theater and performance’.5

  1. Bishop, Claire (2012) Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, London and New York: Verso, p. 2.