Cosmonauts and Old Memories Rule Doris Mirescu’s Last Hurrah in NYC

Mirescu's stirring adaptation of Tarkovsky's <i>Solaris</i> is set in an Upper West Side townhouse, blending film and live theater to bring ghosts to life.

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May 10 2015, 5:27am

All photos by Mario Zanaria

Doris Mirescu's productions take place "elsewhere."

Romanian-born and Sorbonne-educated, Mirescu has been making what she calls "live films" in New York City since 2007. Her work combines theater and cinema in ways that both expand and confound perception. During one of Mirescu's pieces, spectators might share the same space with actors for a few passing moments, the audience's gaze instead scuttling back and forth between live-feed images on screens offering multiple perspectives on what's happening just beyond reach.

Mirescu's latest undertaking, her last before returning to Europe, is an adaptation of Andrei Tarkovsky's film Solaris, in which psychologist Kris Kelvin travels to a space station orbiting a distant planet. Once aboard, Kelvin is disturbed to encounter his late wife Hari who had killed herself years ago as a result of his emotional neglect. At first her presence torments him, but then he falls in love with her all over again, knowing all the while that she isn't "real." What are these figments appearing to the cosmonauts, these echoes from the past? "We are you, yourselves, " Hari says. "Your own conscience."

Mirescu's production is staged in a vacant Upper West Side townhouse, where several entire floors have been meticulously set dressed. Scenes being played upstairs, in the next room, or on the fire escape outside are simultaneously projected for us as we sit in an ad hoc screening room, helplessly, happily lost in the crosscurrents of images and feeling she sets in motion. For Mirescu, efficiency is the enemy of art. With palpable affection for time wisely wasted in the theater, she manages to transcend the film's longueurs, at once attenuating and amplifying them by eliminating cinematic cuts, which might have found their theatrical equivalent in successive blackouts. Neither characters nor spectators are afforded a reprieve, and the result is a mise-en-scène thrumming with tension between performer, media, and role.

VICE spoke with Mirescu about Heidegger, souls, Mirescu's storied career, and the end of her time in New York City. Solaris will have two encore shows on May 10 and 13 at an undisclosed location in Manhattan.

VICE: How did you first begin blending theater and film?
Doris Mirescu: I have always loved film, but I also love the immediacy of theater, the vulnerability and fragility and transient aspect of it. Form is an extension of content. The presence of technology in the room is not an outside force. I want the cameras to be human.

I work with this idea constantly. The presence of the machine is always an intrusion. But if we allow the performers to acknowledge the intrusive presence of something not human, then we are not hiding, we are not pretending, not lying. Everything is shown. The very process of capturing an image is shown. The cameras are seen. The cables are seen. The camera operators "act" upon the world they are filming. They are in it. They choose. They make. They participate. We can see them "working." They become "actors," they are as important as those involved in the action they are filming. Everything is done live. It is all alive because I want to look at the disturbance, the disease at the core of things. It takes the time that it takes. The transitions are not edited out. They cannot be. This is raw. This is life.

I like to find oblique ways of looking at things. I like to multiply levels of perception.

Why did you choose Solaris to be your last project (for now) in NYC?
The "last" project is also the first gesture toward a new understanding of perception, of technology, of cinematic language. Leaving in a sense means going toward what I do not know yet, what I long to discover, what is still not articulated. I like to explore, to search, to question, to challenge form and content, to be challenged by form and content. At the core of Tarkovsky's Solaris there is a quest. A quest for the true meaning of life, of love, of time. A quest that forces one to face the unknown, the void. There is this movement from what is known—"earth"—toward what is foreign, what shakes all certainty. We move from the known, the obvious, the surface, to the beyond, the hidden, the secret. It is a metaphysical quest. It is also an artistic one. Kelvin starts by saying "I am not a poet" and ends up being faced with the ultimate essence of poetry—the unexplainable. He is faced with the very meaning of love. Something he denied, something he said no to. He is being looked at by his own conscience, his own sense of shame. His quest is also my own. This movement from surface to meaning, emotion, and truth, to a true sense of responsibility—this is the ultimate artistic gesture, the only one that matters.

Over the years you've made work in a lot of unconventional venues that lend themselves to unconventional experiences. For instance, there's a sense of both physical and metaphysical vastness in your Solaris even though the audience is contained in one tiny room. Could you describe your relationship to theatrical space?
I try to destabilize "theatrical space." I'm not really interested in frontality. I like to find oblique ways of looking at things. I like to multiply levels of perception. Meaning can be created both vertically and horizontally. In front of us and behind us. Around us, in us. We see things, but things should be able to look back at us, from all sides. I question the notion of "presentation."

Space is an experience of time. The present and the past and the future combined. Space is alive. It reveals and hides at the same time. It frames and defines. For me, what contains is as alive as what is being contained. In the case of Solaris, space has many resonances. Solaris takes place on a "space" station. The notion of space itself is at the core of the experience. Space enfolds both being and time, existence and memory, what Heidegger calls Dasein, "being there." The audience room in Solaris becomes an experience of Dasein, an experience of being there and not there, an experience of space as a small, but extraordinarily complex and open entity. A brain cell. The human ability to create universes within universes, ad infinitum.

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In Solaris, the character Snaut says, "We don't need other worlds. We need a mirror. We struggle for contact, but we'll never find it. We're in that foolish human predicament of striving for a goal that we fear, that we have no need for. Man needs man." Holding the mirror up to nature is an old metaphor for what the work of art is meant to do. Does this resonate with you? Is another person always an "other world"?
In Solaris, we see the confrontation between what is and is not human. Between the I and the utterly "other." The other is ultimately unknowable and as such is an experience of the infinite. I am faced with the other and the other faces me. The other questions me and endangers me and loves me. I must be able to embrace the other as other. The encounter with otherness is the essence of the artistic gesture. It's as terrifying as it is beautiful and necessary. Otherness in its alterity reveals something primordial about me. My own existence. My own soul. But it will forever remain outside of myself. And therefore I will forever long for what faces me and is not me. I am faced with the ultimate experience of transcendence, with meaning that goes outside of myself, and yet is also myself. Because it is other.

You've said that the combination of film and theater in your pieces represents a confrontation between death and life.
Maybe not confrontation, but a symbiosis between life and death. It's not hostile. It's an experience of life as a whole, actually. The cycle of life and death. Totality and infinity.

What is static about film—it's edited, already finished at the moment it is shown—is reevaluated and reinvented, because it all happens on stage, live and in real time. None of it is pre-recorded or controlled, dead. All of it is vulnerable because it's open to the reality of what happens in that moment in time. Theater is open to mistakes and therefore to change, to life. The vulnerability of life lived in the moment. Both for the actors and for the cameramen. Plato's allegory of the cave is so essential here. People watch shadows projected on a blank wall (the birth of cinema!). This is as close as these people get to experiencing reality. Yet the philosopher/creator/spectator should be able to see better and realize that these are only shadows and that true reality is elsewhere.

So here we are. The fundamental difference between cinema and theater, between what is and is not real, between projected shadows and reality, death and life.

Jessica Rizzo is a DFA candidate in the dramaturgy and dramatic criticism program at the Yale School of Drama.

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