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One afternoon in Berlin in the mid-1990s, a blizzard forced me into a community theatre to see a play in a language I didn’t understand by someone I’d never heard of.

It seemed to be about a miracle-working Hasidic Jew being persecuted by Polish villagers and featured (among other mechanical props) a plant that grew through the stage up to the ceiling. It was tragicomedy as cooked up by Heath Robinson, chaotic, mischievous and so dazzlingly theatrical that few plays have ever come up to it since.

The play was, in fact, by Tadeusz Kantor, whose inclusion in the mammoth exhibition just opened at Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art puts the Polish genius into a fascinating artistic context.

Using drawings, photos, posters, film clips, installation and sculptures, A Theatre Without Theatre is a rambling but engaging account of how theatre has influenced the past half-century of visual art, and goes to the long- contested heart of the matter: is contemporary art a decline into “mere” theatre?

Or is it precisely the anarchic theatricality of happenings, events and installations that infuses art with the kind of electricity I felt in Berlin that winter afternoon?

The curators are clearly in no doubt as to which side they take, and use as their starting point a famous 1967 argument by the critic Michael Fried. New trends, Fried complained, were destroying the autonomy of art objects; art was defining itself by its relations with the spectator, in much the same way as theatre.

A Theatre Without Theatre, as might be expected, rejects Fried’s “reactionary” conclusion, but celebrates his theatrical diagnosis, linking far-flung examples of contemporary art with theatre.

At its weakest, it relies on dry documentation or artefacts to forge this link. Antonin Artaud’s books are not the sparkiest way of showing the influence of this prewar theatrical mould-breaker on, say, the Fluxus happenings of the 1960s and 1970s.

But many of the interrelations are fascinating: seeing Oskar Schlemmer’s 1930s designs for the Bauhaus, especially the set where marionette dancers are constructed from hoops, is to understand Tadeusz Kantor’s later fascination with moving props and mechanised actors.

In Bruce Nauman’s “Violent Incident” of 1985, three identical videos of a punch-up between a man and a woman in a restaurant draw us in as disturbed, helpless spectators. The reels, although identical, run out of sync – an image, perhaps, of “senseless violence”. Nearby is a film by Nauman’s theatrical muse, Samuel Beckett, his 1980 “Quad”: four figures forming aimless trails around a courtyard, like a screensaver pattern that never resolves itself.

The most resounding echo, though, is one of the most recent pieces on show here: Juan Muñoz’s “The Prompter” of 1988, a trompe l’oeil sculpture that looks all the way back to Artaud, who held that language was the “dictatorial” prompter of theatre. Only the squat legs of the prompter are visible, poking out from the prompter’s box; the stage itself is completely empty. What are we seeing? What is he seeing?

At the main entrance to this absorbing labyrinth of a show is a loop of film footage: the burial of the anarchist Durruti in Barcelona during the Spanish civil war, attended by massed crowds. It’s this idea of public participation as a form of radical art that sets the overtly political tone of the exhibition.

But while racks of Situationist manifestos can seem rather arid after a while, this is not the only strand in a display so rich and large. Another powerful current flows among the 600 or so artefacts here: something irreverent and spontaneous, the spirit of theatre-in-art.

One such experience is the work of Christian Boltanski, whose “Short Comic Plays” of 1974 is a series of photographs of a boy’s experiences presented as a story board. Each episode is a few photos long, with titles such as “The Pregnancy of my Mother” or “My Father’s Harshness”.

Against roughly painted theatre sets of domestic interiors, the artist acts out each role with crude, grinning gestures, sometimes dressed like a pantomime dame to represent his mother. Its mischievous grimaces read like the founding myths of a boy’s life: reassuringly simplified stories veiling darker family secrets.

This tragicomic sense of life lurks in the work here by Kantor, as fresh and engaging (to this viewer, anyway) as it had seemed in Berlin. His “water hen” performance of 1972 is a magic show of theatrical high jinks, ending with the cutting in half of a volunteer – who calmly carries on smoking.

Antoni Miralda’s stunt of the same year, in which he carries a statue of a first world war soldier through Paris, is also spectacular. The statue makes its stiff, emblematic progress through the teeming streets of Montmartre, seeming to drag the life of the city along with it. In one sustained sequence entirely reflected in shop windows, it sits atop a car, its rifle pointing ahead, charging into battle.

Then there is James Coleman’s mesmerising video So Different . . . and Yet from 1980: a seductive woman on a blue background holds disjointed dialogues with a disembodied pianist, the voices of each thrown oddly round the auditorium. Cinema, theatre, colour-field painting and music combine to create an enigmatic, enveloping experience.

Perhaps the most flawless piece of performance art here belongs not to Fluxus but to that ever-reliable showman and local lad, Salvador Dalí. A 1960 clip shows Dalí baiting American journalists.

Pointing to a picture by Piet Mondrian, he tells them in truly dreadful English: “Piet is like Niet, which is Russian for ‘no’, but the ‘Da’ of Da-lí is Russian for ‘yes’. . . and so I put the soft-boiled forms of Da-lí into the dry lines of Piet Niet Mondrian.” The po-faced gentlemen of the press nod sagely.

Much could be written in reductive or conceptual terms of these examples. Miralda’s soldier statue, a “critique” of war, say; or Coleman’s video, a “critique” of positional perspective. Dalí’s commentary on Mondrian?

A critique of critiques, perhaps. In the end, the gems in this exhibition are well-conceived, well-executed, attentive to music, startling . . . and funny. Much like good theatre, in other words.

‘Theatre Without Theatre’ ”Un teatre sense teatre”), Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), until September 11.
Tel +34 93 412 08 10

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