The Many Heads of Eric Olson Feb 10, 2014

by Tessa Hulls

By Tessa Hulls, Tia Kramer, and "Eric Olson"

Tessa: In the curator’s note for Niwa Gekidan Penino’s The Room Nobody Knows, Lane Czaplinksi writes: “I’m not suggesting any work of art is capable of defying critique but I like it when using words to respond to art is made more difficult, all the same.” 


So words are definitely not the correct medium for responding to The Room Nobody Knows. I am not sure there is a correct medium. Maybe a quartet of acid-tripping cuttlefish in smoking jackets bouncing on a trampoline while playing Pachebel’s Canon on large pieces of flank steak? (Has this already been done?) 

But in lieu of that, serendipitous coincidence meant that I had already crafted an ideal non-verbal response vessel for this show. Eric Olson and I are doing collaborative responses to all the shows this season, but he had to miss this one because he is in Columbia. I told him a few weeks ago that I was going to make a paper doll of him and bring it with me to the show. Maybe he thought I was kidding? But as we get to know each other better over the course of these collaborations, I think he is starting to learn that I am abnormally literal:

In addition to bringing a paper Eric, I bequeathed his ticket to our mutual friend and collaborator Tia Kramer. It seemed only fair to continue to make these collaborations somewhat difficult by working with someone whose process is very unlike my own, and is—in many ways—much like Eric’s.

For those of you who have seen the show, I do not need to explain why it was disturbingly perfect that I just happened to have made a doll of my collaborator. For those of you who have not—this might have been one of those things where you just had to be there. But I’ll try to explain. 

The Room Nobody Knows is as much about the set as it is about the performers. The quartet of actors shuffles claustrophobically about in a meticulously detailed shoebox diorama of an environment. Imagine the lovechild of a hippie earthship and the bedroom of a celebrity-worshipping tween (only in this case, substitute celebrities for phalluses), and then throw in a scrolling digital display that leaves you wondering when the next bus is going to arrive at the platform. And then put a hidden laboratory full of antiquated dental equipment and the lovingly crafted false heads of your brother underneath that room.  

And then put penises everywhere. 

No, you didn’t put enough. Add more.  You need 71. (Note to the woman sitting next to me during the performance: I kept scribbling because I was keeping a penis tally) 

So that sets the stage for the performance. I will go ahead and say that I have absolutely no idea what The Room Nobody Knows was about. And I don’t feel any need to try to decipher it beyond that. 

The narrative focuses on the interactions of two brothers, the younger of whom loves the older too much. His devouring obsession seems to be his only salient character trait, and for his brother’s birthday, he has crafted four heads (complete with phallus-necks) of his brother as various alter egos: avante garde, feminine, pop, and revolutionary. Rather than trying to make any larger commentary on the show, I have decided to respond by doing the same for my Eric doll:

After the show, Tia and I sat down and tried to figure out our own responses, and also speculated as to what Eric would have thought. How would he have responded to all the penises? We both agreed that he would have wanted to talk about male privilege and power dynamics: would he have seen a larger meaning to the show? And if not, would he have wanted there to be one? How would he have responded to the fact that it felt no need to explain its absurdity? What the fuck was up with Pachebel’s Canon and why does On the Boards seem to be selecting its shows with the expressed purpose of forever changing how we hear widely popularized pieces of music (see Jerome Bel and “I’ll Be Watching You”)? We couldn’t answer any of these questions for him; we could only take his doll to the bar and get it a drink. 

On the bus ride home, Tia and I talked about how we are both turncoats in progress, visual artists straying increasingly closer to performance. We talked about how performance comes with a different set of demands than purely visual art, and about what makes a performance successful. I likened it to the act of creating an echo. There are two ways to go about doing this: as a performer, you can train yourself to modulate your voice in such a way that it mimics the quality of reflected sound. Or: you can build a canyon, craft an environment for the sound to bounce off of such that each note genuinely reverberates. 

The voice-training technique doesn’t work: the end result is stilted because the audience can hear the incompletion, the lack of depth and backing. Whereas creating a structural echo chamber brings a nuanced resonance to what is being said, even if that created narrative is utterly incoherent. 

I was stupefied by The Room Nobody Knows, but was entirely content in that lack of understanding. Niwa Gekidan Penino built a very complete canyon, and I thoroughly enjoyed letting that richly weird echo bounce over me for an hour.


Tia: As Tessa noted earlier, she and I have distinctly different creative styles.  I ruminate, slowly attempting to understand how an experience might be interconnected with aspects of everyday life.  I like letting my intellectual brain process at the pace of molasses.  In contrast, despite her splitting headache (yes, she experience the mania of this show with a splitting headache), Tessa left the theater with her usual wit about her.  She quickly began creating analogies and metaphors, brainstorming all the ways she could reconfigure her Eric doll to incorporate aspects of the show.  

"Maybe we could replace Eric's head with the faces of female celebrities."  

Female celebrities. Interesting. I would have chosen animal heads, especially boar...

Meanwhile, my brainwaves flat-lined. I had entered a world so foreign and incomprehensible that I abandoned logic.  Tessa was talking but I felt like I was underwater, still slowly trying to escape The Room.  Maybe my cerebrospinal fluid had morphed into a viscous blob.  If so, I bet it resembled a phallus.  Or a cannon.  Or a cannon that doubled as a flute AND that had a barrel was shaped like a penis.  The younger brother would try to give it a blow job. And if the older brother could see my brain he would say "Oh, a cannon, so masculine and powerful."  (And yes, that is a line from the play.)  My feminist self cringed. AND all I could hear was a heart rate monitor.  

Not a normal heart-rate monitor.  No this monitor was detecting the sound of a foreign body.  Human but barely.  Sexualized against all standards of appropriateness.  My feminist self cringed again.

[caption: Sorry Gemma W. You and your baby surely don't want be involved in this but you did make your video public]

I haven't quite processed this show. The Room Nobody Knows is a weird dream. One that I tried to analyze right when I awoke. One vivid and filled with layered meaning, yet just beyond touch. And then slowly, as the day progressed, it became a distant memory; difficult to recall, and impossible to understand. A dream that might just pass into distant past without recollection, so ephemeral and elusive that it makes no impact on my daily life. Then, I hear Pachebel’s Canon. At that moment I will begin to think about brothers making out and I will feel a bit dirty inside.  Thanks Niwa Gekida Penino.  It was a phenomenon.  Or at the very least it was curious.