What I’m saying on stage is sometimes more true than when I’m making small talk
In De Grap, Kim Karssen and Benjamin Abel Meirhaeghe wade through the thick question of the meaning of life with crystal-clear vulnerability, teasing out an absurdist philosophy of life and a critique of the power structures that obstruct it. As Karssen’s performance degenerates into harlequin-esque self-exposure, full of effigies to the timeless concept of ‘the joke’, they urge us to be open to life’s wildness. We spoke to Karssen about the upcoming show De Grap, premiering in Belgium at Nona Kunstencentrum in Mechelen on 9 September 2021.
Why is your performance called ‘the joke’?
De Grap is about the purpose of life. Benjamin and I like addressing topics that are essentially impossible to address in just one show, such as love, life, and death. De Grap felt like a good name for a show about life – something so big and serious – reminding us not to take things too seriously.
De Grap asserts your embrace of the paradox of life’s purposelessness. Given this, what image of the conditions of existence in the world today does it portray?
When talking about the meaning of life we quickly fall into absurdism, which, I believe, is a very contemporary way of looking at life. In absurdism there are three ways of living: either you deny life and kill yourself, you close your eyes and convince yourself of some false purpose, or you live like the absurd hero, knowing there is no purpose and leading your life as such. It’s scary but free, and I feel like this is in tune with the spirit of our time – although in part also not, given the waves of arbitrary things people invest into their lives. People tend to put a lot of time into making life as normal as possible when really it’s something wild and unstable that requires openness; it’s death that is normal, steady, unchanging. Maybe we are petting life the wrong way, against the grain.
People tend to put a lot of time into making life as normal as possible when really it’s something wild and unstable that requires openness
How does your intent to convey this absurdist philosophy tie in with the critiques of power and hierarchy implicit in your work?
My way of talking about politics is very ‘huis, tuin en keuken’, a Dutch saying which translates as simple, common, ordinary. I firmly believe power structures find their way into our home, into how our individual lives are written. In De Grap, I touch upon these things, but I also tend to run away thinking, ‘Argh I don’t know how to talk about this!’ However, Benjamin’s way of talking about it is very big and abstract: his art is very arty, with little talking and a lot of light and content.
I firmly believe power structures find their way into our home
‘Huis, tuin en keuken’, the domestic sphere, is a site of politics as well. It’s special that you and Benjamin can combine both approaches.
Indeed, and De Grap starts in a rather personal way, with me on a barstool talking about my love life and about feeling alone even when having sex. Then it gets increasingly more absurd and abstract.
You sit on stage alone, you expose yourself. To what extent is vulnerability an important theme in your work?
De Grap maintains that we all need to be kinder and more understanding toward each other. When you are being vulnerable and open to the people around you, they will likely do the same. For Benjamin, his commitment to vulnerability is shapely, gestural. For me, vulnerability and realness are reached via acting. It’s funny, some people say to me, ‘You must be good at lying because you’re an actress,’ and I think ‘NO!’ because sometimes what I’m saying on stage is more true than when I’m making small talk with a neighbour, for instance.
Your choice of imagery is very particular…
We were fascinated by old clowns and mimes. Verbal jokes are culturally and temporally determined, but slapstick and physical jokes are timeless. Clowns are tragic – their funniness depends on it. We related this to life. Everything I say early in the performance comes back later as visual and physical elements, freer and unconstrained by language. This is why we use icons that are immediately recognizable as relating to the concept of ‘the joke’: a harlequin hat, a mask, an exposed butt.
Verbal jokes are culturally and temporally determined, but slapstick and physical jokes are timeless
Do you always wear the red Adidas tracksuit for the show?
Yes! We liked the colour red for this show. We have the red textile backdrop, I throw red tomatoes at myself, and so on.