‘A Chinese Frequency’
Vital 07 – The Essence of Performance
Chinese Arts Centre
20 and 21 November
China. Chinese. Chinese Live Art. Chinese Artists. Where to begin when critiquing the work at Vital, the Manchester based International Chinese Live Art Festival? There are many pitfalls to avoid amid the current art-world lust for everything Chinese; problems of economy, of identity – for me as well as for the artists and the ‘Chinese’ work they may or may not produce. There is also the gap between China and everywhere else that is religion, language and art. Such gaps are factors in disseminating art work from any number of countries but with regards to Contemporary Chinese Live Art, moreover to Vital, it is a specific break that is breached via a Chinese Live Art Historical canon that is only now being written. The fundamental risk in contextualising Vital, then, is allowing these very challenges to prevent important critical things being said about contemporary live work in, from, or about, China today.
Happily, it is indicative of the festival's global outlook, both in terms of China and Chinese art, that not all the work in Vital was about China or being Chinese. What each performance did have in common, however, was a distinctly pared down look and feel. This was performance stripped right down to its live essentials. No stage, no technology, no theatre and not many theatrics. Not even nudity to distract from the matter at hand: the ‘essence of performance’ that is the body in space and time and the bond between the audience and the artist. In keeping with this remit the artists in Vital worked with only the most basic, minimal props, creating work that was deceptively simple and poignant to expose what is at stake in the live. And many artists cut straight to the subject of their audience and the affective element in Live Art without deviation.
Such raw elements of the live were clearly at stake in the work of Brendan Fan (UK) and Marcus Young (US). Both artists were listed as ‘intervening’ throughout the Vital programme and used the audience as site and location for work that subverted our desire to capture the very essence of live performance; to have, to hold, to be there or document it. Fan removed the distraction of the actual work itself to get to the core of that life force; the audience and their relation to the work. His interventions were de-materialised to the extent that the performance itself is un-witnessed or potentially not even carried out in the first place. By documenting absent performances in gallery wall texts ‘Artist Secretly Watched the Visitors to His Exhibition, 2007’ and giving out postcards saying things like ‘During your visit to Vital 07 an artist may secretly involve you in a performance without your knowledge’ the real location of Fan’s work remains outside the frame of the actual action, instead it lives in the audience’s imagination or somewhere out in the essence, or ether, of performance.
Young also took control of, or sidestepped, concerns of material form, documentation and dissemination of his performances by personally delivering a daily whisper to unsuspecting audience members. I received my first daily whisper in the middle of Rosa Mei’s performance. Young tapped me on the shoulder and leaned in to say ‘I appear’, then much later on ‘You hear something, you doubt something’. This is Young’s way of staying as close as possible to the essence or performative life force of acts of speech. His are acts that are particularly affective and transformative in that they literally ‘do’ what they say as they say it; Marcus does appear from nowhere and you hear something, then have feelings of doubt, all in the very moment of the whispered utterance.
By reducing the content of the work to very minimal or no action, Fan and Young stuck close to performing the basic, affective, elements of performance. This aspect was something that intervened in not only the audience’s body, behaviour and thoughts in Vital but reached across other art works in the programme in interesting ways. Jenevieve Chang (UK) embodied sound by moving solely in response to noise from the audience, who duly offered coughs, mobile phone ringtones and shouted the artist’s name. When Young interrupted the middle of the performance with a private whisper in Chang’s ear what the audience saw was a neat visualisation of Young’s secret whisper transmitted into Chang’s performing body. This was the perfect chance-meeting of two works concerned with the live manifestation of percept and affect.
Also concentrating on these basic affective elements of performance, artists such as Jason Lim (Singapore), Becky Ip (Canada), Lushan Liu (UK) and Zhou Bin (China) cut through complex issues of Chinese Thought, Language, translation and history, enacting the live as pure and simple whilst simultaneously performing it as complex and mediated. With the lights turned out Liu interacted with a submerged projection of family photographs; water covered images of proud Chinese parents and grandparents in traditional Chinese clothes were distorted by ripples and waves. This was clearly Liu uncovering, whilst being drowned by, her Chinese history. In an equally fragile yet powerful durational (6 hour) performance Ip continually stencilled the words ‘The date does not fall the country’ on a wet Manchester pavement outside the Chinese Arts Centre. The phrase was translated through a translation website from the 1937 infamous English quote ‘The sun never sets on the British empire’. The resulting opacity of ‘the date does not fall the country’ highlighted the gaps inherent in translation and illustrated language itself as impure, containing a devious character and agenda all its own. Bin took a similar deceptively simple approach to language and its politics by slowly skewing and stuttering the words ‘I am not a terrorist’ until he quite literally vomited the sentence; red lumps of sick analogous to words at first spurted, then later dribbled, from the artist’s slack jaws. Bin’s performance harnessed the tangible affect or ‘essence’ of the performance work at Vital by initiating an immediate performative chain reaction of retching around the studio. Lim also utilised this same invisible energy in a much more aesthetically pleasing way to perform taut, strong yet paradoxically delicate and breakable bonds between his body, glass and stretched sellotape in between the trees of the Arts Centre courtyard.
Despite the remit of the festival to expose the bare bones of performance by doing away with decoration, theatre, artifice or props, the natural force and stark agency that coursed through the veins of the work at Vital is not simply due to curatorial wisdom; there are too many overt and underlying metaphysical, visual and formal factors that bind the disparate works together. Whether it is history, performativity, luck or energy the work of Fan, Young, Chang and Lim is compelling evidence that such ‘essences’ of performance are far from academic , non- material and ephemeral. The agency of this work is raw, visceral and exists on a very distinct frequency. Could this elemental aspect of performance be quintessentially Chinese? Only time, writing and documentation, will tell.
Rachel Lois Clapham