Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Day 5: Messy

Live performance is messy. There are no rules. There is no system and no playbook for either performers or the audience. Art actions spill out in every direction, on-site, on-stage or in galleries as elements of theater, dance, poetry, sculpture and whatever are mashed together in as many forms as the imagination of the artist might concoct.

Often these disparate elements come together in performances that are unrehearsed and improvised. Often they are done on the quick with little technical preparation and few resources making glitches inevitable. Unexpected events or interactions occur that change the possible deployment of the piece.

Further there is the difficulty for the audience to focus its concentration on the different elements of a performance. Is it important that there are six sacks of rice on stage not five? Is it significant that the women in the photo are laying on the floor in a Jerusalem hot-dog stand? What is more significant the number of women, their pose, or that they are found in a hot-dog stand?

Confronted with the myriad of detail in a performance it’s difficult to decipher what it all might mean. If indeed it means anything in the framework of our day to day functioning as we hold close our comforting ruse of the rational and the normal.

I missed Rodolfe-Yves Lapointe’s performance. I’m sorry I did. It elicited strong opinions from those I spoke with after the presentation. Some liked its anarchic raw power combined with oddly playful linguistic games. Others spoke of their intolerable fear that he would cause himself harm during the performance, as he sawed away at on a rope, which held a heavy cement brick hanging above his head. I understand that the audience called a halt to this frightening game of chicken by forcing a conclusion with its applause.

I arrived at the VIVO in time to see Sakiko Yamaoka from Japan. Her interventions will take place as on-site performances on the DTES. On Sunday she presented the audience her preparatory material for the events that will take place in the next few days. (See the website and blog for precise details of the sites and times). Sakiko’s preparation/performance included requesting volunteers to help her for her events and presenting video and photographs from previous similar performances in Bali and Yokahama.

I was particular taken by Sakiko’s previous project which harvested gestures from the population of an Indonesian village. She asked villagers to show her a gesture emblematic of the concept of elegance. She photographed them and the results were fascinating.

The villagers were a heteroclite bunch, young and old, some seeming poor others better off. Many of their gestures seemed to be taken from the popular media. These were immediately recognizable as gestures one would see in a popular film, on TV, or in a magazine dedicated to the film stars. For me the feeling elicited by these villagers mimicking the TV or movie stars to present elegance was one of profound sadness.

The clear-cutting culture industries have razed our souls and our identities the world over. Even the gestures and movements of the people of this faraway this place are now mass-produced on sound stages in Hollywood and Mumbai.

Some of Sakiko's photos were different however. Old women posed in the formalized gestures of dance. Here the baseness of the previous photos became instantly clear. These older women still hold on to the fragments of a unique and complex culture. They still preserve that culture in their bodies. This evidence was at once a revelation of human possibility and a crushing admission of the depths we have fallen.

Vassan Sittiket from Thailand lays out his political and cultural critique in simple direct terms. His performance concerned food, war, peace, liberty, freedom and democracy.

He began by pouring out sacks of white rice onto the stage area forming a peace symbol. In the crux of the symbol he placed a blue blow-up globe. He then asked a member of audience to inflate a red white and blue hammer, which he then used to play golf with globe sending it flying into the crowd.

He then proceeded to break apart the peace symbol and gather the rice into missile and bomb shaped mounds. He continued by throwing himself onto the piles of rice over and over again till exhausted.

He concluded the work by taping carrots and bok choy to his belly with duct tape. He then pulled a balaclava over his head. This created the immediately recognizable image of a suicide bomber. On the black duct tape he wrote the words “I am a culture” at his back a volunteer writes on the tape the word “terrorist”. The performance concludes as Vassan twirls about the rice-strewn stage.

During these actions Vassan poses the questions, which inform the piece and give it its punch. “How many people eat rice in the world?” How many bombs and missiles are there in the world” “How many grains of rice equal the life of a Palestinian or Iraqi child? How many grains of rice equal a home, a computer, a car, a missile or a B-52.

As food prices rise across the planet, once again mass starvation seems inevitable. Rice as Vassan informed us feeds several billion of our fellow human beings, yet our societal attention remains focused on our weapons and amusements.

As Vassan’s final image evokes, let us transform the spectre of violence with an explosion of foodstuff. A suitable modern response to Brecht's question found in the song of the rice-barge coolie:

“By the way, what is rice?

Don't ask me what rice is.
Don't ask me my advice.
I've no idea what rice is:
All I have learned is its price.”

From "Die Massnahme" (The Measures Taken), 1930, Hans Eisler and Bertold Brecht.


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