Jan Martens in conversation

by Amy Bell




It was during the initial leg of Performing Gender that I sat down in conversation with Belgian choreographer Jan Martens. Then in the very early stages of research for his work at Zagreb’s Museum of Contemporary Art, I asked Jan to share with me some of his thinking about the project and the questions it raises…


Amy Bell: Ok so one of the first things I’m interested in is how it is to make a dance piece specifically for a gallery space. You were telling me that last year you made a work in the Museum of Beaux-Arts in Brussels, how does the Performing Gender project allow you to develop any of those sensibilities or how it is different?

Jan Martens: In my work the image is anyway very important, so with this opportunity especially in the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Zagreb it just opens up for me to go in a more visual way, in a more non-narrative way.
AB: Is that because of the nature of the museum’s collection, or the nature of the space?

JM: The actual fact of it being a museum. This makes you automatically, or in my case, makes me think more installation-wise. What I really liked immediately was the fact that it’s going to be an exhibition which is open and you’re just one of the works there, like intervening in the space. That’s what I liked and what I think is going to be very nice that it’s a very… that my work is just a moving object. That’s what I’m looking forward to.

AB: But the political agenda of this work, for instance, is in some ways very named because it’s part of the Performing Gender project.

JM: Yes, it was a question and I think it’s also a matter of what do I want to do exactly, in a sense that I think it’s quite wide, queer art. What is queer art? Or what is gender? What is gender art? It’s very wide. So yes, I think people could miss out the gender link and I think that’s fine as well but I think more richness comes if you can see it too… For example [one idea I had] for a solo, that I don’t know which form it will take yet, will be something very tense based on the work by Petr Štembera who did Exercises of the Will and Body [part of the MSU collection] which were ten normal yoga poses that he kept as long as he could. Like there is this one [JM tips his head back] to clear the throat, but to sit there for hours and hours it does something to you. And it has nothing to do with gender for him but for me I link it to that idea of the tension that you feel as a not-out person, the pressure that you feel. I find it a very beautiful link somehow.

AB: And the contortions you perform to take the shape of something maybe, in order to stay in the closet somehow.

JM: Yes, yes yes.

AB: For me that really connects to one of the questions posed to us by Peggy [Olislaegers, the Dutch partner of Performing Gender]. She asked “Do you feel the need to redesign your body as a person and also as an artist?” 

JM: It was for me the most problematic one that question… 

AB: But you drew the link between Štembera’s work and the tensions of ‘being in the closet’. So perhaps it’s not necessarily that you redesign the body but that the pressures of society, the pressure one puts on oneself, these Exercises of the Will and Body exert physical change?

JM: It’s something which I think is the opposite of redesigning, it’s making stronger what is already there. In a sense that I notice it myself in the duet that I dance with Steefka [Zijlstra, in Martens’ piece A small guide on how to treat your lifetime companion], is that I’m always lifting my shoulders, it’s something which I did as a kid already and which I constantly do and which I think has a very communicative power as well. This tension in the body is a thing which is there for me so I use it, but I don’t ask Steefka to use it because I feel it is not in her body. So I think it’s really using and expanding the natural movement of your particular body.



[photo by Cecilia Moisio]


AB: I’m also interested in this idea of slow progression through repetition which seems very important in your work. For me it connects to your answer to the question raised earlier in the week “Are you an activist?” to which you said something like, “I’m a slow, silent activist”. Does that slow change translate in some way to the politics of your work? I mean, do you see making work or the work that you make as overtly political? Is it something you think about?

JM: It’s something that I don’t think about and that I prefer to stay away from very much.

AB: Why’s that?

JM: It’s funny, ah? Because it’s the same question that I asked myself when Peggy asked me to do this and I think a lot about gender but it’s never the starting point. I mean with Victor [Martens’ duet for a boy and a man] it was a bit different. But I’m a very intuitive creator so sometimes I know that something is good but I cannot name it yet. Like when I made the solo [Bis] for Truus [Bronkhorst] for this 62 year old woman, I made it for her because she’s a great performer and I’m very much intrigued with her and by accident she’s 62. I made this solo [La Bete] for Joke [Emmers] because I saw her perform twice, because we had a good click, I thought she was really great and I thought she was very beautiful. So I wanted to make a solo for her and then Bis happened in the same year and I saw parallels between them as being bodies you don’t see on contemporary dance stages. So then it also talks about that without you needing to talk about it! And that’s what I like especially in my work because there are a lot of [choreographers] who really take it as a subject and for me it’s not interesting.

AB: Daniele [Del Pozzo, Italian partner of Performing Gender] said something good about this, almost what you were saying about being able to put your finger on something or naming it, that as soon as you give something a label everything else around that label disappears.

JM: And that’s a great pity. It was very beautiful with Victor how people reacted and how mums came to me and said, “oh I wish my husband treated my son like this” or “ah it’s so sweet and gentle” and somebody else came to me after the show and said “I really hate you, I really hate myself” because he really loved the show but he said “it was so strange to have to acknowledge to myself that from minute one I had this thought of paedophiles and I could not put it aside, and what I saw could not name, it was nothing explicit, but it was there and I could not think it away and it was such a mindfuck to be there for one hour”.

AB: So it’s something more for you then about providing a space for people to be confronted with their own opinions or prejudices in a very strong way without dictating a message, even though you probably have very strong opinions of your own.

JM: For sure. It’s true. Maybe my work is very political. I just don’t think about it because my work is always very emotional, my work is very aesthetic and those are the things which are very clearly there in my mind and the political thing is a thing which is just there…




AB: How would you define your gender or sexual identity? Is the idea of language, of labels, a useful thing for you or not? Is defining these things important for you?

JM: I am very happy that my homosexual identity is not any more the key element of my character, of my being.

AB: Was there a moment where it was?

JM: Of course. I think it was really when I was struggling with it that everything was about that. And I’m very happy that I can acknowledge it and be happy with it but that it is not anymore what everything is about, that there are a lot more things which are maybe connected to being gay but which also straight people might have too.

AB: But is it something that you feel is present, or perceptible or relevant in your work?

JM: It’s difficult to say that without accusing straights of being unemotional farmers (laughing) you know what I mean? I mean my work is very…

AB: (laughing) My dad’s a farmer! He’s straight and he’s emotional!

JM: I know… but I think there is a preciousness, a precision which I can relate very much to me being gay, a sense of aesthetics, or to being a woman or to being precise, perfectionist.

AB: You think that’s more of a female trait or a gay male trait?!

JM: Yes, I think that’s a more… maybe I’m wrong. It’s difficult to name it without naming straight guys as…

AB: There are always exceptions…

JM: Yeah for sure. I mean also I do think my work is very emotional but at the same time I also get remarks that it’s very cold and very distant which I can acknowledge because my biggest fear is to make a work which is too ‘emo’, too emotional, too over the top.

AB: But do you worry that this is read into your work because people know that you are a gay man, for example?

JM: There came questions with the ‘straight’ duets. Why do I make ‘straight’ duets? This question I got [with reference to Sweat Baby Sweat and A small guide].

AB: What’s your response?

JM: It was just something that I really enjoyed. I love Titanic (laughing) in a simple way. I love Romeo and Juliet. I find all these clichés very interesting, of attraction and repulsion and strong man, dependent female, to put that in a dance piece and give it another turn, another twist was very interesting and very… I learned a lot from that.

AB: Queering it, subverting it in a way.

JM: Yeah, for sure, indeed. That’s it.


Performing Gender, Zagreb, June 2013