Impermanence and Improvisation by Heather Urquhart

I recently read a news story about a young man called Vladimir Umanets who is currently under investigation from Scotland Yard for defacing a mark Rothko painting in the Tate Modern (Rothko’s last piece at auction went  for a cool £53.8million – ouch). Umanets, who compares himself to other conceptual artists like Marcel Duchamp,  had signed the painting in the corner claiming it as an act of ‘yellowism’- a movement he describes as “neither art, nor anti-art”. Pretty bonkers and worth a good read up about  but ‘what’s this got to do with Improv?’ I hear you cry.

The story got me thinking about how we define art. If you painted a picture or wrote a score for a piece of music and immediately  tore it up wouldn’t everyone say you were mad? In which case, are we improvisers, who create a new piece of theatre each time we step out onstage with no intention whatsoever of recording it in anyway also a bit mental?  Maybe.

One of the things that keeps my lifelong love affair with Improvisation burning is it’s impermanent nature. No matter how you try you can’t recreate an improv show with the same feeling and laughs as the first time you performed it. If you video a show and watch it back, it will never be as good as it was in the room. Every show belongs only to the people who were there watching it. If as a performer I do a terrible show, it’s behind me. If I do the best show of my life, it’s also gone without a trace. I think there’s something very beautiful about that.

This idea is common in theatre. George Balanchine, a  famous ballet choreographer, believed that all ballets, even his, were like butterflies: “A breath, a memory, then gone.” This is doubly true of Improvisation.

I’ve talked before about the links between Improv and Buddhism and this idea of impermanence is another.  The Buddha taught that because things in life are impermanent, attachment to them becomes the cause for future suffering (especially if it’s attachment to a show where you sucked).

However, according to the Harvard magazine, us improvisers are not the only ones out there making impermanent art:

‘Dieter Roth, for example, chose to use organic materials to explore the visibility of time. He welcomed the inevitable decomposition of his works, such as a salami slice depicting a sunset.  One way for artists to guarantee the integrity of their works is simply to forbid intervention. Sculptor Sonja Alhäuser, whose creations include gingerbread sculptures and boxes of pralines, has given conservators strict instructions: no heroic measures. Change—visible and biological—is integral to the meaning of Alhäuser’s work.  Recently, the Busch-Reisinger commissioned her to create three chocolate sculptures. The four-foot high, box-like structures are intended to decay, as well as to be eaten, by museumgoers. ‘

On my search for impermanent art I also found these incredible sand paintings:

but I’m personally a liitle too lazy to go that far for my art!

I’ll end with an extract from an untitled poem I came across because I think it expresses what I’m trying to celebrate in this blog much better than I can. I hope you enjoy it and continue to enjoy all the parallel universes you create in your scenes. Universes that you won’t see again but gave life to for a moment.

I must recognize impermanence.

The curtain falls,

Good-byes are said.

This odd, close-knit family will be gone.

Yet it does stay,

Just in memory.

This wish is all that remains after.

Never forget

What we have done.

The magic made,

The illusion, the theatre.

1 Comment
    Another example of Buddism and the impermanence of art. Also beautifully captured on the recent film ‘Samsara’

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