Sara French: Diogenes the Cynic

Posted on September 17th, 2013

Sara French’s performance will take place over the course of three days. On each day she will be performing in a different location: behind Latitude, then in front of the gallery, and finally before the Alberta Legislature. Unfortunately, I am only able to see the first two performances. The work will be an unfolding examination of a persona in public space, interpreting the life of Greek Cynic and philosopher, Diogenes.

Since the history of philosophy is not my area of expertise, I can only vaguely remember the reason why Diogenes is considered important to people who care about Ancient Greece. I do recall that the Cynics repudiated wealth, and chose to live a life with as few possessions as possible. If I work my memory a bit more, I believe that there is a relationship between the paucity of material belongings and the ability to achieve a true lived experience of philosophy, literally in Greek, a love of wisdom. Beyond this, I am at a loss.

Sara’s previous work has also been the embodiment of a character or persona: a security guard named Norman. Figuring out the daily life, physicality, and projects of Norman was a two-year pursuit for Sara. Norman was fictional, made up, yet Sara identified with him as part of herself. Diogenes, however, is a new work, emerging from a true, historical figure. The interplay between historical reference and imaginary or fictional hypothesis, and how freely Sara plays between the two will have a determining factor on the final form of the impersonation. At this point, however, we are seeing the work performed for the first time, Sara’s first experience as Diogenes.

Having not made Norman’s acquaintance, I can only guess at what an encounter with that performance would have been like, and to compare between Norman and Diogenes can only achieve so much. However, Diogenes is an obscure reference for a performance that addresses a general public. To my eyes, Sara appears to be a cross between a muppet, and perhaps some sort of Frosh dare. She is wearing a beige bedsheet belted around the waist, carries a wooden walking stick, and odd flesh-coloured ankle-socks. The strangest element is a rubber mask complete with a long, white beard. This covers her head and face entirely. Her eyes recede into black raisin-y holes, which seem quite animated, although perhaps that’s my imagination. Diogenes is bald with a ring of white hair. The mask ties behind her head, with an obvious white cotton fastener that she has not concealed. The theatricality of this mask is odd, since it is both ridiculous and remarkably life-like at the same time.

In the first performance we gather behind Latitude, sitting out over the loading dock. It is a beautiful sunny afternoon. Diogenes approaches stooped over, walking slowly backwards down the alley. A minivan attempts to pass her, and she and the driver exchange some words, they are too far away from me to decipher, but it seems that the driver has handed over something to Diogenes, and then he continues through the laneway. Having finally shuffled into the centre of the gathering, Diogenes addresses us, with a scripted epithet about the shame we should feel for riches that are not necessary for the enjoyment of life. He lies down on the pavement and begins to mime what we can perceive to be masturbation, but not for very long or in a particularly credible or offensive way. He then climbs into a nearby dumpster, throws out a bag of doughnuts and climbs out. He offers these to audience members, but drops them on the road at the point at which someone might grasp one. The implied shame, at refusing perfectly good food that has touched the ground makes people uncomfortable, as does the theatricality of the character, and the unprompted excerpts that are recited without any specific external motivation.

The first day’s performance seems stiff, scripted and overly theatrical. Her entrances and exits exacerbate this reading, since the work begins and ends in an arbitrary manner. The performance struggles with what to do, how to be faithful to Diogenes. This seems extraneous, since Diogenes is not a common reference: he is not a character to whom Sara must be as faithful as she is attempting, since none of us have the knowledge to evaluate her emulation save the performer herself.

In the discussion after this encounter we had asked Sara why she was attached to this character, why Diogenes? She defended her choice, grounding it in an intuition that this man had been the first performance artist. He chose to forgo possessions, to harangue passers-by for their attachment to worldly things, to teach by way of negative examples, to live by his principles, to enact his life as a concept. Yet by performing Diogenes, by entering and exiting his life, what was Sara doing? While Norman was an expression of some aspect of Sara, since Sara had full license to compose all aspects of his life, it felt instead like Sara was being far too faithful with Diogenes, too timid to depart from what she had researched.

The next day we saw a different and more mature engagement with the conditions of the work. Here Sara explored stillness, movement, and tableaux. She rested in garbage containers, dragging a large plastic receptacle along the street, positioning it in the sun, crawling inside, and waiting. As the sun caught her figure, she cast a strange and beautiful dichotomy: at once a figure in a trash can and a puppet, both human and representation. This slower situation of her character allowed the public more time to encounter the work. Rather than a staged performance, what Sara created in being more still became a space for uncertainty, a more visual yet less predicted and thus less predictable situation. For me the potential for this figure is in the juxtaposition between odd theatricality and real life. The mask gives her permission to interact with real life outside of conventional etiquette, and this was something with which she became more confident in this second performance.

Unfortunately I was unable to witness the third iteration of Diogenes, but I have a feeling that this was only the beginning of a work that may take years to develop.