The Juvenal Players (2009)




The Juvenal Players at The Kitchen, 2010. Photo: Paula Court


The Juvenal Players was a project consisting in fabricating a full retrospective of a fictional artist, Juvenal Merst, along with a public event discussing his work. The original project was commissioned, produced, and presented by Grand Arts in Kansas City in the summer of 2009, and was later presented at The Kitchen in 2010. Professional actors embodied the lives of fictional characters who supposedly were part of the artist’s life and were part of a symposium the day after the opening of the exhibition discussing Juvenal’s work. At the symposium  the panelists start arguing over the artists life and work, and the event quickly devolves into a bitter argument about the past.  The  supposed panel discussion, now unmasked as a play, ends with a theater monologue by one of the actors on the pains that art inflicts.


Audience Commentary – David Kateforis


I am a professor of American, modern, and contemporary

art at the University of Kansas. I believe I possess a strong

knowledge of the canonical history of post-World War

II art, especially in New York, a city which I visit once

or twice a year. I attended the premiere performance of

The Juvenal Players at Grand Arts in Kansas City on the

afternoon of June 13, 2009. I came to the performance

having read the preview article by Alice Thorson in the

Kansas City Star (June 7, 2009), which gave me some

background information about Pablo Helguera.

Juvenal Merst, “Against Feminism”


Based on

what I read in Thorson’s article and on the Grand Arts

website, I had the strong sense that Juvenal Merst was

not an actual person but the creation of Helguera. (That

sense was confi rmed defi nitively once the “panel discussion”

commenced and one of the panelists indicated that

Merst had exhibited in prominent international biennials,

which I knew could not be true since I had never heard of

him.) Before the performance began I perused the works

of Juvenal Merst on display at Grand Arts and was deeply

impressed by their thoroughly professional (by art world

standards) level of conception, execution, and interpretation

(through an exhibition checklist, didactic wall labels,

and a hand-out with an introduction by Pablo Helguera

and an essay, “Juvenal Merst: The Inverted Compass,” by

Sonja Stillman, one of the panelists.) Clearly a person with

a deep knowledge of the conventions and pretensions of

the New York-centric contemporary art world and with a

razor-sharp intellect, potent wit, and superb literary talent

had created this elaborate fiction, which achieved a high

degree of verisimilitude in its deadpan mimicry of the body

of work of an actual contemporary artist. It also occurred

to me that only someone with an equally professional

knowledge of the contemporary art world would be able

to appreciate how well this was done.

Now, to the play: The audience found seats and the

panelists took the stage and it was announced that a

discussion would precede the performance of the play. I

soon realized that the discussion WAS the play and that

the panelists had been scripted to represent—not in a

one-dimensional but in a complex way—various types of

individuals (e.g., the preening critic, the self-important

curator, the wealthy but vapid patron, the failed or insecure

artist) who operate within the art world. I also quickly

realized that the actors were VERY good—these must be

top-notch New York actors, I thought to myself—their

projection of credible personae was as professionally

accomplished as were the faux works of Merst that surrounded

them. (I was even more impressed when I later

learned that these actors did not know much about the

art world before working on this play, and yet managed

to inhabit their roles completely and with absolute

conviction.) I remember thinking, as the play unfolded,

how much more satisfying it is to watch well-trained

and highly skilled actors perform a well-written play

than it is to watch a stereotypically amateurish piece of

“performance art” by an artist who lacks professional acting

skills and a good script. I also remember wondering

how these (presumably) New York actors felt—and how

Helguera felt—to be premiering this ambitious New-Yorkart-

world-centric play before a small audience in Kansas

City—a city that I know many New Yorkers consider a

provincial cow town. And I remember thinking also that,

ironically, it was a Kansas City institution, Grand Arts,

that made this New York-centric art work possible (as it

has others by internationally prominent artists such as

Isaac Julien, Alfredo Jaar, and Allan McCollum).

As I watched the play I noticed the actors making eye

contact with the audience and sensing our presence. There

was a palpable sense of intimacy between the performers

and the audience, as if this were a real panel discussion

and as if at any moment someone from the audience might

raise her hand and ask a question (I was tempted to do

this myself but refrained—not wanting to spoil Helguera’s

carefully crafted work). Unlike a normal panel discussion,

which typically retains a fi rm sense of decorum even when

panelists disagree, the Juvenal Players frequently argued

openly and made cutting and accusatory remarks to one

another. These elicited laughter from the audience; I’m

sure I was one of those laughing most loudly. This had a

cathartic eff ect.

After getting a sense of the defi ning values and role of

each character I found myself listening in their lines for

something—anything—that I could recognize as having

truth—at least to me—beyond its status as a satirical comment

on some convention or pretension of the involuted art

world and its inhabitants. The line I remember somehow

fi nding most meaningful was that of the patron, Rosaura,

who said at one point, “This is just art.”

Near the end of the play, after all the other characters

had left the stage, Miranda Saks remained, standing before

the table, to deliver a closing soliloquy, illuminated by a

spotlight, which transformed the heretofore naturalistically

presented panel discussion into a theater piece, unveiling

definitively its fictional nature.


I remember wondering why

Helguera made this directorial decision—why change the

nature of the piece at that point? Maybe to underscore the

point made earlier by Rosaura: “This is just art.” That to

me is the bottom line of the entire Juvenal Merst project

(a truly brilliant satire in the maximally ambitious form of

a Gesamtkunstwerk incorporating every person and object

in the space), and a line that I see as a challenge: surely

there is some art with real, even profound, meaning and

value that simply can’t be satirically dismissed.

David Cateforis

Lawrence, Kansas

July 20, 2009


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