Och veele die hier Dansen en maecken Jolijt… groot,
Om dat – haer de Weerelt soo Schoonen Saecken biedt:
T is maer een Bobbel, vol wints, die u Verblijdt… bloot:
[Oh to the many dancing here and making merry,
Because the world offers so many beautiful things:
It’s just a bubble full of air that gladdens you..]
The above rhyme adorns the 16th-century engraving The Dance of the World, attributed to the Antwerp artist Pieter Balten. Via the medieval love allegory of the “private court”, which includes masterpieces such as the Master of Frankfurt’s Festival of the Archers (1493) and Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights (1503-1515), this dance leads us into the 21st-century garden of Paradise as imagined by Pieter Jennes. As the title of the exhibition suggests, tomorrow is still far away, so let’s dive and dance deeper into the party, into the “Sot Huijghelspel, ende Dronckenschaps” [“Crazy Make-Believe and Drunkenness”].
Pieter Jennes retraces old and contemporary cultural phenomena in order to tell a newly assembled story in the form of paintings, sculptures and drawings. He welcomes us into his freshly painted, blooming pleasure garden: a phantasmagorical world full of temptations and growing pains, populated by quirky flora and fauna, courting couples and ogres engaged in round dancing. This play of the masked and foolish takes place against the elusive background of Jennes’ home base, the city on the Scheldt. It also incorporates elements from 16th-century hunting, dancing and love scenes, from the 18th-century Shaking Quakers community, from 1920s dance marathons and, by extension, from contemporary dance reality shows; as well as from (the artificial revival of) traditional folk dancing such as the Britannia Coco-nut dancers, the Brussels St. John’s dancers, the Italian Tarantella or the widely spread Spanish Moresca.
D4dance! A cheerful company of four dancers starts the party, grimacing, grotesque and gesturing. They take their marottes and put on their long noses, pull short skirts over white hoses. Eight legs swirling through the air make their way. The jester, peasant, ogre and musician join in the parade with a one-hand flute, small drum, trumpet and bagpipe, past ballroom, private court, open-air party, tent party, rave party, night shop and brothel…
… to Waar die sterre stille staan [Where the stars stood still] and morning never dawns. Smooth, dressed-up gallants avidly glide around a smartly-attired woman. The decked-up and show-offs dance up a sweat. They jump ahead, turning their heads, loins twisted, legs spread, arms stretched. A short-haired youngster curves his body in a neck-breaking manner and hurls himself into the crowd. “Opsinjoorke op! Opsinjoorke op!” Our hands encourage the stage diver while he goes up like a rag doll.
Can you feel it? “Feel it in the air, the wind is taking it everywhere. All the colours of the world should be. Lovin’ each other wholeheartedly.” Such ecstatic dance tunes are still lingering on the way home. After stamping on the wooden floor, a little luck will hook up slowing arms and tongues. You better live it up against walls, in hedges or in lusher vegetation, the ideal backdrops for lusty get-togethers.
On and on they crawl behind the curtain, salaciously. The deeper the night, the more torn the pants, the more chafed the buttocks, nearing exhaustion. In this court, the fruit is no longer plucked in a courtly and veiled manner. We look into a fake paradise, and the artist is expressly highlighting it. His human figures put on a show; dance becomes battle, at times a game of life and death. They are exposed Met de billen bloot [With bottoms bare] and pants down. Or are they exposing us?
This is how Jennes portrays his own 21st-century allegorical scene. His endlessly stretched, fanatical dance depicts the hustle, competitiveness and restlessness of life. In it to win it, no time to lose! The dance celebrating life switches into a maniacal and mediatised marathon ending in debility and eroded entertainment; in other words the Dance of Death. “Zig and zig and zig, Death rhythmically/Tapping on a tomb with his heel,/Death at Midnight plays a dance tune,/Zig and zig and zag on his violin,” is a stanza from Henri Cazalis’ 19th-century poem Danse macabre.
The characters in Tomorrow is still never far away zigzag, fall and get back up again. Body and soul enter into conflict. They dance themselves onto the threshold, with or without both legs, disoriented and disintegrated. They end up in a trance, sweating profusely, spilling out into a state of total surrender and submission, of ecstasy and XTC, carried around and put on a pedestal. Trans and transire respectively mean “on the farther side of” and “to cross over to”. During the so-called “liminal phase” of a ritual one finds oneself in this very lock, right between two different identities and times.
The dances performed here seem to take us back further into the past, beyond the Middle Ages. The ritual-dance-cum-therapeutic-trance is much older and has its origins in Greco-Roman antiquity, more specifically in the cult of Dionysos, the god of the non-representable, of mystery and trance. Masks – the invisible face – are essentially a Dionysian symbol. It’s tempting to not only consider this Tomorrowland but the entire world as one big game of dressed-up dance and farce, going into overdrive in order to entertain us.
This kind of everyday foolery and buffoonery is what sets Pieter Jennes in motion when painting and drawing, I think. He’s picking lice out of human monkey hair and withdraws into his own pleasure bubble. His Dionysian dancers put on all possible faces. They wear masks of drunkenness, horror, boredom, shame or apathy. A rooster, frog, monkey or lion is lurking at their feet. Each animal symbolises a different nature or a specific kind of behaviour of its human companion. Party animals look down on a lone, moonlit Grim Reaper. Hypocrisy and rudeness hide behind the peaches and cream. Rosy cheeks always. Swellheads are cheeky. Their round buttocks and cheeks have been accentuated with round glasses, their uniforms and evening dresses fully stamped. Going extra miles for beauty. With their rainbow-coloured ink, jumpy hair and curved backs, they imitate Poor Bubbles. Agile as marmosets, their limbs dangle around in endless rollercoasters.
I wanna talk like you, walk like you. A final dance tune from Jungle Book to join in the parade known as the merry-go-round of life: “Ooh-bi-doo, I wanna be like you. I want to be a man, man-cub, and stroll right into town. And be just like those other men. I’m tired or monkeying around.”