David Espinosa’s Mi Gran Obra: A Critique of Void Theatrical Projects

David Espinosa’s Mi Gran Obra (un proyecto ambicioso), a performance on a reduced scale: a delightful, successful critique of spectacular, exorbitantly expensive yet void theatrical projects

Iante Gaia Roach  08.05.2013

The Italian premiere of David Espinosa /El Local Espacio de Creacion’s piece Mi Gran Obra (un proyecto ambicioso), ‘My great artwork (an ambitious project)’ took place on Saturday 3rd August 2013 at Ca’ Giustinian Palace, just off San Marco Square, in Venice.

The piece was introduced to a small audience, assembled in an open salon, through a recorded oral presentation in Italian and English, diffused via an IPhone, which rested against a suitcase bearing the title Mi Gran Obra on sticky plastic characters. It explained that the Catalan artist commissioned an architect to plan the best theatre in the world – without worrying about finances – and that he eventually chose to realize this plan, however on a reduced scale, 1:87. Then the artist, after ascertaining that everyone had understood the presentation, announced that the audience members would be cast according to their size in order to attend the performance in the adjoining room. This contained a minimalistic set-up: a white table furnished with two small loudspeakers, around which the shorter members of the audience were seated, and two raised rows of seats, for a maximum capacity of 20 persons. Binoculars were available.

Espinosa sat at the table, facing the public, and announced informally that he would begin the performance. As the music began, he placed the first members of his company – two groups of tiny plastic statuettes, playing the role of musicians – atop each loudspeaker. The artist’s company Hekinah Degul in fact is composed of 300 tiny plastic figurines, and is named after the first words spoken to Gulliver by the tiny Lilliputians in Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels.

Espinosa brought other actors to the centre of the table, placing them on a A4-sized double-sided sticky tape board, to which they adhered perfectly. Thus followed a series of beautiful, highly detailed scenes, executed with great precision to the rhythm of the music: the love story of a couple from their birth until their death, an accelerated story of life on reduced scale; a scene with mariachis singing The Eagles’ Hotel California in Spanish; a beach scene on an island, destroyed by a Coca Cola can plunging onto the tiny actors; the exercises of a troupe of acrobats; a disco scene, with bicycle lights functioning as intermittent, red disco lights; a huge demonstration, or celebration, in which both animals and the police partook; the arrival of Barrack and Michelle Obama on a helicopter, with a small hair dryer originating the wind necessary for the helicopter’s wings to move; and a final massacre of the 300 members of Espinosa’s company, perpetuated by a lone killer. Their corpses were piled up by a toy digger at the very end of the show. Occasional punctuation was provided by videos shown on an IPhone, accompanied by a mournful soundtrack. Before exiting from the venue, the audience was offered the code to view a video of the performance on the web, in case they felt they had missed out on details due to the minuscule scale of the performance.

The most amusing part was arguably a sex scene, where Espinosa disposed a dozen statuettes of couples in the act of sexual intercourse on miniature beds, sofas, and park benches on top of a tambourine. Then he started hitting a nail with a hammer, fitting it into the tambourine, imitating convincingly the rhythm of lovemaking. The couples started shaking accordingly, and many eventually fell off the furniture, or indeed the tambourine, only to keep trembling until the end of the affair. This scene was interpreted by some audience members as an earthquake, recounts Espinosa, who prefers to conceive the scenes as a series of isolated, unrelated narratives, which the public may interpret in more than one way.

Mi Gran Obra is a fascinating work, which captures and grips the audience with its special, intimate atmosphere, its unique and highly original and inventive format, its poignant music and narratives, and its dexterous execution. Despite or indeed by virtue of its limited means, it can move an audience to a greater extent than many big productions do, thanks to its sensitivity, irony and originality. It undoubtedly fulfills its aims as a critique of great artistic works “that make an impression but are dishonest, rich in ornament but deprived of content,” as the work’s presentation states.

Espinosa developed the work over the course of one year, with six months of conceptualization and research, and six months of practical work, focusing on two types of movement, physical and dramaturgical – which explains the mastery with which he maneuvers his tiny actors. Navarro, Espinosa’s assistant, provided the external eyes to the work-in-progress. “Finding the sticky tape board in a cheap Chinese shop was a crucial moment in terms of the work’s development, and almost felt like the discovery of light!” reveals the artist.

“Usually as a performer you feel that the directors are trying to realize their own dreams, which are not always viable, and this leads to a certain frustration” he explains, referring to his extensive training and work as an actor and dancer. Espinosa is now entirely free to manipulate his toy actors at will.

His first work marked by the manipulation of objects, Mi Gran Obra is however in line with Espinosa’s previous creations. In his first devised show, Deliriosdegrandez@ (‘Grandeur Delusions’,) he tried to get real on his dreams – such as becoming a famous actor and winning the Oscar, or becoming a popstar. Then he began incorporating multimedia elements into his work, as in Felicidad.es (Happiness.es), which was based on a Skype conversation, and dealt with issues such as porn. His two successive shows were very well received, but were not performed at length. In one of these, Espinosa and another actor received an hour-long massage on stage, with cameras filming their faces as they conversed about art and work. “Had it been done by Marina Abramović, it would have become one her greatest hits” reflects Espinosa.

Mi Gran Obra requires a very low budget – and is particularly cogent at this historical moment, when budgets are increasingly cut, particularly in Spain. Espinosa can tour the show on his own, which cuts down costs. “I can bring the whole show equipment with me inside a backpack, and my 300 actors needn’t pay any ticket!” he jokes.

Talking about his interests and artistic vision, and the switch from performing in big productions to creating his own work, he explains that “now I am interested in mixed media and the limits of various disciplines, ranging from the plastic arts to performance, dance and theatre – rather than traditional theatre. But I don’t find such labels helpful. I perceive my actions in Mi Gran Obra as dance, with a choreography and music; but many friends define it as plastic arts. Categories make less and less sense, thought they can help with writing and presenting a project. Words used in this way tend to restrict and enclose art, the essence of which is open.”

Mi Gran Obra is neither the first nor the last of company Hekinah Degul’s performances. Espinosa had devised a previous art installation with the statuettes, creating miniature imitations of Marina Abramović and Ulay’s 1977 performance piece Imponderabilia (in which the two artists stood entirely naked in a doorway, which the audience was asked to pass through, thus having to choose which body to face), and of a work by Damien Hirst – realized humorously with a miniature sardine box. The installation’s aim was to express the stupidity of creating great and expensive art projects.

As for the future, “now I have a great set-up, so I wish to enter the critique of huge art projects, staging a Shakespearean production with Hekinah Degul. The play will be called Much Ado About Nothing, and I’ll try to incorporate elements from all of Shakespeare’s most important plays by in it.”

The artist presents a controversial view of Shakespearean productions, especially within the context of this edition of the Festival, with the Biennale College – Theatre devoted to workshops on Shakespeare. “Shakespeare worked with his company and his actors, staging plays about life at his time, even when using different historical periods and geographical locations. By now, his plays have been repeated an infinity of times, which feels somewhat strange to me. I live in the present and have a lot to express. It’s not always necessary to resort to the past in order to pass on a message, even though of course contemporary productions of Shakespeare’s plays can be marvellous. But more often than not I am disappointed by them and the special effects displayed by many companies in order to impress the audience.”

Our conversation turns to contemporary theatre and performance in Barcelona, and Espinosa’s experience of performing in Festival director Àlex Rigola’s plays.

He believes that Barcelona used to be a very good place for contemporary theatre, with much support from the government and other institutions, and many venues. However, due to the current political-economical situation, there are major budget cuts (often amounting to 70% of the budget), and most artists wonder whether it will be possible to continue working: with less and less funds, and famous artists and companies in decline, will the less-known artists follow suit?  “Since we work with limited budgets, we feel the crisis less than others” says however Espinosa.

The artist loved working with Rigola, and it was through their friendly relationship on and off stage that he started wondering what he would have done had he been in a similar position. Moreover, “Rigola used to organize a series of performances by ‘radicals’ at Lliure Theatre, who made non-conventional and non-commercial performances, developing a working relationship with such artists. He loves experimental theatre, as his courageous choice to include Mi Gran Obra in the Festival demonstrates: he decided to include a critique of big shows by famous artists in a program replete with such shows.”

We may only hope that Espinosa and Hekinah Degul will continue their thought-provoking, amusing work, and that the Festival’s future programs will accommodate similarly innovative performances.

The hour-long performance runs every day until 10th August at 12pm and 3pm. For more information, please visit the website.

Mi Gran Obra by David Espinosa. Image courtesy of 42nd International Theatre Festival of the Venice Biennale and of Biennale College – Theatre.
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