Vegetative State by Manuela Infante

Eugene Tan

September 08, 2017

By far, the show with most intriguing lead publicity visual, I had no idea what I was getting myself into with Vegetative State, but I was definitely intrigued by a photo of person standing in a flowerpot, bending over a table, her head stuck through the bottom of another flower pot. It’s like the odd (apparently interactive) flower windmill thing at Changi Airport Terminal 3, only with feeling.

VegetativeStateMaida Carvallo

Image courtesy of Maida Carvallo

Let’s see what the SIFA programme said about the show:

Vegetative State is a polyphonic, ramified and exuberant performance. Its main character is a woman, who is not an individual, but a crowd, a swarm. This is not animal work; it is fascinating vegetable work created by the dynamic Chilean star director Manuela Infante, with the amazingly expressive actress Marcela Salinas.”

I have to be real. Like real real. I got almost none of that. My head was right under where it all flew. And by right under, I maybe mean very far under.

Is this what it’s like when policy makers look at arts programming? Is this why this festival is shifting in the way it is after this year? 

Which is not to say there was nothing to enjoy about the show, that it offered no beauty or pleasure, or that there were not things I walked away thinking about. That is not to say either that it did not all come together on stage, it did, it just didn’t come together in my head.

First and foremost, there is a performer, Marcela Salinas. She brought to the stage such intensity, such presence, such range. One moment bumbling about talking into a mic, another moment interrogating herself and being interrogated by herself. So detailed, so precise, so free in her body. Performing entirely in Spanish with surtitles, I cannot tell you what the heck she was talking about, something about an accident with a tree, or a plant or becoming a plant, something something. I don’t know. But I was riveted.

And then there was a set, seemingly very simple, with lighting instruments hanging like the phases of the moon, a table, a chair, a mic stand. Later a whole bunch of mic stands arranged in a circle of red light, somehow managed to evoke a fire (a forest fire?) all mangled wood and debris. Really beautiful images achieved with simplicity but a really sophisticated eye.

Lovely too, a moment where a potted plant got multiplied like a Russian stacking doll, one put, pulled out of another and so on. What did it all mean? Don’t know. Was it fun to watch? Yes! 

Or near the end, when the backdrop turns out to be a scrim, and lights reveal a whole wall of living plants rustling about. It was breathtaking to see, I gasped with surprise and pleasure, so lush, so surprising. I don’t know why that happened precisely. I have vague ideas about the protagonist becoming a plant, or being sucked into the plant. It clearly made sense for her, I just don’t know what that sense is, precisely.

If I’m sounding a bit flip, or maybe even disrespectful, I don’t mean to be. I had a hard time at the show, it was work to have any sense of bearing at almost any moment. But I don’t think that was a failure of the work, there are definitely people I know who saw it who got it, and got a lot out of it. For me, the experience was purely about the aesthetics of the piece and the presence of the performer, and that was enough.

I’m writing this very late, in part because I’m lazy, but also because I haven’t really known what to say about Vegetative State. The feeling of not being smart enough to understand a work is at first unpleasant, sometimes things in the world are too much to understand. And maybe this is a space where we might learn to appreciate that. Surrendering to that possibility brings with it many pleasures.

Pleasures that we’re probably not going to have at SIFA for the 4 years after this.

That’s a shame.  

  • 2017