The Dream Theatre of Andrew Antoniou by JF Martel
Even in dreams, one must beware of cliches. Take the dream of finding oneself naked in public, for instance. The therapeutic affordances here are clear: the dreamer, we are told, is afraid of being caught unprepared, or of having his vulnerability exposed. Inasmuch as dreams do seem to contain messages and warnings for the waking ego, there is nothing wrong with this interpretation. But on a deeper level one must ask: Is it even possible to be anything other than naked in a dream? Do the clothes we wear in dreams really conceal naked dream-bodies? Aren’t our dream costumes our nakedness conveyed by other means? What basis is there in dreams for making a meaningful distinction between the actor and her vestment, her hand from the prop she wields—indeed, between her self and all the other figures that complete the dramatis personae? Every dream images forth the naked self from the angle of a particular night or a particular light. We are all naked in dreams, because every dream is our nakedness made visible.
The analogy of dreams and the theatre, of course, calls us back to Freud, whose conception of the unconscious inhered precisely in the transformation of psychic life into an elaborate, if somewhat monotonous, tragedy of blind wandering and catastrophic revelation. Yet it also calls us back to Shakespeare, whose Midsummer Night’s Dream and Tempest convey not just the oneirism of their respective internal worlds, but that of drama as such.
Indeed, there is something dreamlike about all art. The laws of aesthetic worlds are different from those of the physical universe. There is no causality in art, for instance, unless the artist decides that abiding by the convention of cause and effect will serve the animating idea. Ahab’s ship in Moby Dick doesn’t sink because of gravitation but because of all that it means to sink. Similarly, the costumes that actors don in a play should not be opposed to the hidden parts of the characters’ bodies, which have neither skin nor any other organ. A character is a composite of all the forces that make it up: the actor’s body, her voice, her costume, her gestures. Whereas actors do have flesh and a voice, as soon as they step onto the stage, these are transmuted into elements of character. Anatomy and physiology, in the theatre, are entirely aesthetic matters.
These are insights that I have gleaned not from going to see plays but from studying the works of Andrew Antoniou. But I know that the theatre will never be the same now that I have gleaned them. In an age when artists are almost exclusively concerned with conceptualism, obscurantism, and polemics, Antoniou has chosen for his mode traditional figuration, and for his object, a form of expression that may be the oldest of the arts. In making the theatre the principal object of a career in the visual arts, Antoniou shows us something of the essence of both art forms. By extension, he shows us something of the essence of all art.
Stanley Kubrick once said that his goal was not to “photograph the reality” but to “photograph the photograph of the reality.” Antoniou seems to have this in common with the great American filmmaker. By guiding us through an inferno of representations within representations, of prosceniums within frames, he magically turns our gaze back to the things themselves; that is, to the irrepresentable core of things usually revealed to us only in dreams.
Seeing one of these images is like entering a darkened theatre after hours of aimless nocturnal wandering. There I am, alone in an auditorium I didn’t even know existed until I set foot there when, suddenly, figures appear on the stage and a drama commences before my insomniac eyes. The drama is inscrutable; I am at a loss to make any practical sense of what is happening. If I am no less enraptured for my ignorance, it is because these scenes, in their strangeness, confront me with an enigma that could be the very pulse of art. The Canadian musicologist Phil Force once captured it in a simple query: “What is the question to which all this is the answer?”
Clearly, something is going on in each of Antoniou’s tableaus. Clearly, it is our task to wonder what this something is. And yet even as we take up that task, we realize that no answer will prove satisfactory. Partly, this is because each scene presents a single moment in a larger event which, for its part, must remain unknown, even though the picture somehow contains it in full. The horizontal flux that makes up a theatrical play—the entrances and exits from stages left and right that are the breath of drama—has been utterly stilled. And in this stillness we see the drama on a different axis, a vertical one that eschews all sequence of action and reaction in order to disclose the event as it manifests outside of chronological time. As Antoniou has said in an interview, his fascination with the theatre began when he understood that this was how the gods perceived human history. While the real stage-play usually allows the casual viewer to get lost in the narrative and thereby constrain the dramatic forces to the perimeter of the stage, Antoniou’s images remind us that every stage is open on one side. Consequently, its forces inevitably emanate upon the audience, upon us. Drama, here, is a call to personal transformation, and the images are both responses to the call and the call made anew.
That call asks us to interpret the image in light of our experience. We can be helped in the task by noting that certain themes characterize many of Antoniou’s works. This one, we might say, is about building things, while that one is about divination. These themes, which speak to the specific vision that animated each act of creation, are like the subjects of our dreams. Although they can be navigational aids, they never fully resolve anything. One does not understand “building” or “divination” better by studying a work in which such themes appear. In fact, the opposite happens: the longer one meditates upon the theme, the stranger and less knowable it becomes.
Furthermore, the mystery of these images is never limited to the question of what is happening on the canvas. More urgent, and perhaps more haunting, is the question of who the actors are. Their neutral, somnambulistic faces recall the tragicomic resignation of medieval figures, who look the same whether they are masons at work or sinners in hell. It seems to make no difference to Antoniou’s characters whether they are building, divining, or engaging in some other activity. All they do occurs on the same plane. All is equally mysterious, equally divine.
In a sense, we know full well who the figures are. They are Andrew Antoniou himself, restored to the legion of spirits that make up a human psyche. More than any contemporary artist I know, Antoniou reminds us that the soul is a crowd. His work gives us art as a prism through which the singular self can refract and reveal its irreducible multiplicity. The reason why the figures’ visages express so little is that facial expression is merely an index upon the outward face of the forces clashing beneath the surface. While it would not be wrong to state that Andrew Antoniou reveals himself to us in his works, that each work is a dream of nakedness, we cannot stop there. The radical honesty and courage with which the artist has here brought forth what was inside him has effectively made him disappear. What we are asked to see in these marvellous tableaus is neither Andrew Antoniou nor some idea of himself, but the great, collective, objective dream that rages off the conscious stage, eternally.
J.F. Martel is a Canadian writer, filmmaker, and podcaster. He is the author of Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice as well as numerous essays on art, culture, and religion. Martel co-hosts the Weird Studies Podcast with music historian Phil Ford. He can be found at www.reclaimingart.com.