Mariano Pensotti | © Carlos Furman

Mariano Pensotti’s new work Los Años / The Years should have premiered at the Ruhrtriennale 2020. After the festival was cancelled, the artist postponed rehearsals for a year. Mariano Pensotti devised the large-scale immersive project Diamante in 2018 in the Kraftzentrale, with a cast of Argentinian and German actors. It told the story of a private, commercially-owned city that gradually turns into a dystopian society.

Mariano Pensotti belongs to a generation that has renewed Argentinian theatre during years of crisis. In very fragile economic circumstances, they invented theatres in private apartments, offices and bars. Mariano Pensotti has evolved a highly individual narrative style that combines epic theatre with film. He has worked as a scriptwriter in the film industry for many years and is a remarkable storyteller.  

In his plays he usually weaves together several fragmented plotlines on a number of levels, within which he presents a spectrum of personal situations that are framed by contemporary history. He uses highly contrasting techniques and always presents current events through a reconstructive or reflective perspective.

»We’re currently filming the fake documentary about the little boy in an interesting neighbourhood of Buenos Aires. We’ve found a wonderful boy. This film will be the heart of the production. Because all the dialogues and scenes on stage will keep on referring to this film.« In this new work by Mariano Pensotti, the audience will see two spaces next to each other where scenes are performed in parallel. One shows the present and the other shows the future, 30 years later, in 2051. In the present, a young architect who is documenting buildings in Buenos Aires that are copies of famous European originals, gets to know a little boy in one of the city’s poor neighbourhoods who is growing up without any parents. The boy asks him to pretend to be his father so that a school will accept him and give him a hot meal every day. The young man and the child become friends. The architect decides to make a film about the neighbourhood and the boy’s life there. One day he loses touch with him. His film is such a big success that he gives up working as an architect to become a documentary filmmaker. At the same time, we see this man in the future, 30 years later. He has just returned to Buenos Aires after a lengthy time spent abroad. He has never had as much success in his career as he did with his first film. Now he wants to find the boy again as an adult: he claims this is because he wants to know what happened to him, but the truth is that he is hoping to repeat his early success with a second film. That documentary he made as a young man was also a sad time in his life, because while he was filming it, his wife left him, taking their small daughter. At the time, he was so carried away with the buzz of creation and success that he did not realise how much he had lost. Thirty years later, he tries to establish a new relationship with his daughter. The daughter’s perspective will gradually become stronger and stronger as the main narrator of Los Años

These two periods in the characters’ lives correspond to periods within a society. Unfulfilled enthusiasm for a utopian society turns into cynicism. In Mariano Pensotti’s Argentina of the future, a right-wing party elected by a majority wants to turn Argentina back into a Spanish colony again. In this fictitious conservative future, it is modern to go back 200 years in history. According to Mariano Pensotti, this is not an improbable prognosis: »The idea of the future is what has changed most in my mind during the pandemic,« he says. »But I’m still optimistic.«

I am obsessed with exploring the identity of my generation, with our complex relationship with our parents. Mariano Pensotti

The phenomenon of time is a central subject, form and theme in all Mariano Pensotti’s works. Over 15 years ago, 2006, Kunstenfestivaldesarts in Brussels presented episodes from the lives of very different people in the shop windows and on the balconies of a busy shopping street in the centre of Brussels. The dialogues and thoughts of the characters were projected onto the walls of the buildings and the pavements. At a road junction lay the body of a motorcyclist, who had just been killed in an accident immediately beforehand. It was possible to read his final thoughts. This work, which was created in Buenos Aires in 2005, was a form of artistic manifesto. It was possible to watch episodes from a range of lives, all of which had already become the past. »This was something I really wanted to do: a chamber play for the streets. In 2001/02, everything that happened in the streets was much more interesting than what was going on in the theatres. We told ourselves: if our fictions are set in reality, then that reality will influence us. So let’s get out of the black box. The technique of projecting the text, of making the theatrical epic, as if we are all reading a novel together, is something I continued to develop in a number of theatre pieces.«

El pasado es un animal grotesco / The Past is a Grotesque Animal is the title of one of these later works, in which four young people race through 65 fragments of life spread across the ten years of the Noughties, on a constantly revolving stage, with a digital display indicating the year. All these generations between 25 and 35 had to come to terms with abrupt changes to their life prospects. These are small personal episodes within the broader narrative of Argentinian economic crises.
»I’m interested in the passage of time and how I can use theatre as a medium to allow the audience to experience time passing.The difference between what is expected of us in life and our real lives is something I use as a source of fiction. And I am obsessed with exploring the identity of my generation, with our complex relationship with our parents. Our parents were leftists who fought the military dictatorship. We grew up in the shadow of their heroism. We didn’t fight. In the 90s, and even before that, we were constantly occupied with our financial survival. After the crisis, we began thinking about politics. But we didn’t get any closer to becoming revolutionaries.«

Biographical and autobiographical material from his generation guide many of the stories Mariano Pensotti tells on stage – never in a linear way, but as a collage. Life and art happen under precarious circumstances. This is the starting position and it leads to many sarcastically comic forms of self-abnegation, because the characters cannot afford a better life.
The Buenos Aires fringe is probably one of the most creative and varied theatre scenes in the world. All those artists are working in endangered and fragile circumstances. They rehearse the works they create over long periods because they have to support themselves and their artistic work with other jobs and activities.

In Cuando vuelva a casa voy a ser otro / When I return I’ll be someone else (2015), the stage is a conveyor belt on which, at first, a single tripod with a camera on it moves past, in front of a panorama made up of the Acropolis, snow-capped mountains and the pyramids. This is followed by cut-down scenes from several interwoven stories, each revolving around contemporary identity and the self-image of a generation, the children of resistance fighters. During the dictatorship, the protagonist Emanuel’s father buried letters and photos that might incriminate him in his garden – and is unable to find them afterwards. Many years later, the new owner of his house, who has dug out a swimming pool, brings him his plastic bags. Among the objects there is an old cassette tape, on which there is a recording of a song sung by a stranger. His son, who is a writer and director, is rehearsing the remake of his play The River, about the time of the dictatorship and the revolutionary rebellion, which was very successful several years before. He discovers that someone else has directed this play under his name and is presenting it at festivals in South America. He decides to find this doppelgänger. At the same time, he is also working on election campaigns to make some money. The man who has stolen his play is called Damian and is one of the losing election candidates. At a theatre festival in Paraguay, when the doppelgänger discovers the real Emanuel is just as much of a loser as he is, he falls into a depression and vanishes in the carnival. By now, a young singer has heard the song on the radio, because Emanuel has sold it off for election advertising. She recognises the voice of her father, who was killed during the dictatorship. She uses the song as part of a new programme for her band and they are successful for the first time. Emanuel directs his play and Damian joins a transvestite band who imitate The Beatles. As in El pasado et un animal grotesco, all this is performed by just four actors changing scenes and roles at breakneck speed.
»Part of this story really did happen to my father. He buried things that might incriminate him in my grandfather’s garden. He thought the dictatorship wouldn’t last very long. When I was a child, I heard him talk a lot about the objects he’d buried, which changed in his imagination: there were gradually more and more of them.«

Mariano Pensotti studied visual arts and film in Buenos Aires, in Spain and Italy. Then, in 2000, he started putting on his particular kind of theatre plays, in small spaces, in rented apartments, on balconies. This particular form of small-scale chamber theatre had evolved in Argentina in the Nineties and afterwards. Mariano Pensotti combined narratives of personal incidents that were charged with recent history, using a range of filmic and visual techniques.

Following the major political and economic crisis, he founded Grupo Marea in 2005, together with the designer Mariana Tirantte, musician Diego Vainer, lighting designer Alejandro Le Roux and producer Florencia Wasser. His use of film as a tool to depict time and epic narration, either in the form of voiceovers spoken by an actor or projected text, would become hallmarks of his dramaturgy.

For Cineastas / Film-Makers (2013) he interviewed 20 filmmakers in Buenos Aires. He was interested in how and whether life influences films, or whether it is the other way round and films or theatre can influence reality. In two rooms, one above the other, eight stories are told simultaneously that intercut the personal lives of four filmmakers and sections from the films that they were working on at the time. The unspoken question is: does fiction influence life or life fiction – and can art be a form of resistance?

Arde brillante en los bosques de la noche / Burning Bright in the Forests of the Night (2017) tells of three women with tenuous links to the 1917 Russian Revolution: one is a professor researching the history of the revolution, who realises when delivering a lecture that her life now has little in common with revolutionary ideals. Another is a European activist, who has worked with guerrillas in Colombia and is now being pressured by her family into including her experiences in a workshop for Apple staff, and the third is a TV journalist, who has been conducting research in the province of Misiones where she met Russian immigrants working as strippers. Mariano Pensotti uses a range of representative means here to tell his story: the lecturer, her colleagues and husband are played by puppets, who are watching the second episode with the European activist and her family in a theatre, at the end of which the family goes to the cinema and sees a film about the TV journalist’s research in Misiones.

The reconstruction and retelling of stories from a distance and from the perspectives of others is a recurrent motif in this artist’s narrative approach, which persistently creates other viewpoints and an additional narrative voice.

In the large-scale project Diamante that he created for the Ruhrtriennale 2018 in the Kraftzentrale, members of the audience were able to roam around within the story of the rise and fall of a private city and were able to read the characters’ unspoken thoughts above their houses or windows. 

 

His next project, in 2019, was dedicated entirely to the audience’s point of view. This was a film, entitled El Público. One sees a packed theatre auditorium burst into applause at the end of the performance, then the audience leaves the theatre and goes out into the street. Now, the film follows various different people who tell us, either that night or the next day, in a range of situations, either at work or at home, about their night at the theatre with the effect that by the end of the film, we can piece together the story of what happened on stage. At the same time, this kaleidoscope of people and situations creates a portrait of the city of Buenos Aires.
Mariano Pensotti has made an equivalent of this film in Athens and recently also in Brussels. The films from Buenos Aires and Athens were to be presented alongside Los Años at the last Ruhrtriennale, which, sadly, could not happen owing to its cancellation. The films were shot before the coronavirus pandemic. Now, the end of an intimate shared experience and responding to it through retrospective accounts by isolated individuals feels like an answer to a year of the pandemic.

Two years ago, Mariano Pensotti made a foray into music theatre, directing the opera Beatrix Cenci by the contemporary Argentinian composer Alberto Genastera – barely known in Europe – at the Opera National du Rhin in Strasbourg. How did the storyteller find working in opera? »I’m used to writing the story when I do theatre: it’s always a mixture of writing and directing. I was afraid I would miss that. But I liked being able to concentrate more on the visual side instead of worrying about every character’s story. I was able to discover entirely different aspects.«

If the pandemic permits, which he very much hopes, this summer he will return to the same opera house to direct a tragedy of power and a woman’s fate, though this time it is a classic: Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

In Los Años, two periods of a man’s life are told through a distancing perspective and the voice of his daughter. It seems that there has been a stronger focus on female perspectives in Pensotti’s work in recent years. »Right now, feminism is genuinely the most interesting and powerful protest movement in Argentina. Los Años is based on the relationship between the past and the future. That has always interested me. Previously I have been occupied with what role I can play in life compared with my parents. Now, I’m the father of two daughters and what concerns me is: what is my mission as a father?«

 

STEFANIE CARP, dramaturge and curator, was responsible for the Ruhrtriennale program from 2018-2020. The 2020 edition could not take place:The corona pandemic had broken out. Four of the productions programmed by her and her team will now be shown this year, including the world premiere of Mariano Pensotti's Los Años / The Years – a co-production with the Münchner Kammerspiele.

Translation: David Tushingham