The Impossibility of Re-enactments leads to our inevitable desire to attempt it…

Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak (R.I.T.E.S.) #06-2011
7.30pm, Tuesday, 15 November 2011, Goodman Arts Centre,Singapore

By: Lee Wen

My first attempt to re-enact my own performance in Nagano when I had just begun a new series “Ghosts Stories” in Tokyo during the “2nd Nippon International Performance Art Festival” (NIPAF) 1995 was motivated simply by a lack of inspiration for a new idea. The two dates for presentation were only 3 to 4 days apart and the hectic schedule of travelling and not to say the festive mood of meeting so many strong individuals in a performance art event, spoiled by enthusiastic volunteer slave chaperones under the perfectionist direction of artist “self-proclaimed dictator”, Seiji Shimoda, gave me ample reason to forgo my yardstick of creativity to risking the submission of performance authenticity for fake dramatics ie. committing the performance artist’s sin: ‘to act’ instead of ‘to perform’. However in the process of watching closely trying to remember the details by way of using the same materials and placing them in positions as in its virgin enactment working through the same actions based on memory, I redeemed my self-doubt as I found just as many reasons why re-enactment in performance is an impossible task. One can at the most perform a scripted performance by that I mean each performance is done as if the first time and unique unto itself even if it were done in meticulous detail of the same sequence as the original performance.

For most of us who equate re-enactments to repetition or copycat reproduction then rightfully it would be the dirty word of performance art as how the majority of detractors see it and hence deservedly deemed to be a sin equivalent to the criminal act of plagiarism or dishonest lie. However I beg to differ especially when it is an act motivated by a seriousness of engaging in the re-discovery of the sequence of similar actions to an earlier original, loaded with meanings, personal and social. In fact these are fundamentally rooted to the very incarnation of repetitive actions we call rituals or rites. The different time, place, materials and the physical body of the artist as the ‘medium’ of re-enactment or incarnation stakes its claim to performance if we are able to recite, remember and relocate its spirit of ‘truth’ and ‘authenticity’ that the original first enactment gave.

The three performances presented in this edition of R.I.T.E.S. #06-2011 although arising from different points of departure and taking on widely opposite forms, on hindsight while being drawn to anchor one’s contemplation on re-enactments could be seen as variable approaches of visiting a performed action of another ‘original’ past occurrence.

Gisela Hochuli investigates material with curious observations via physical human senses,  spontaneously responding in measured approaches that provides us with crisp audio and composing intriguing images in close relationship to her body. Hochuli had an earlier encounter with a longer sturdier palm leaf in Santiago, Chile while participating in DEFORMESPrimera Bienal de Performance 2006. Her first enactment gave a rendition with childlike innocence that filled the audience enthralled in excitement and surprise almost reaching the awe inspiring charm from the smooth slay of hand tricks of a magician. Despite her jet-lagged tiredness having just arrived she managed to carry out her sequence of investigations with clinical objectivity returning to a more formalistic experience. While using a similar material, one’s expectations based on the previous encounter often persuade one into making similar actions. However the attempts at attaining similar results are thwarted by the stubborn uniqueness of shifting parameters not only of the material being a palm leaf of another species, but also proving it to be different in terms of site, location, occassion, time etc. Just like in the way the stalk had broke yet did not detach into two showing a flimsy connection that called for a fresh new perspective. In trashing it with violent swings and making an exit with the leaf held cheekily between her legs trailing like a long green tail, Hochuli succeeded in overcoming the tendency of resorting to repetitions when dealing with familiar tried materials of past experiences.

Francis O’Shaughnessy gave a playful sketchy narrative as if re-enacting a real life encounter with a mysterious man or at least that was what I could make out of his Quebec, French accented English. It took us on a humorous trail juxtaposed with drawing on audience participation with no clear reason other than that of reaching out in amicable fun like a shy man not knowing how to make a pass to a woman he fancy, but too serious to notice him. He managed to get across somehow but perhaps our somber audience needed some intoxication of the spirit kind in order to respond more. Sigh…it’s times like these that makes me realize how badly we need another Andy Kaufman in our midst.

Loo had done Cane (2011), a re-enactment of Josef Ng’s notorious “Brother Cane” in Chicago just in March and is preparing to present it in Singapore during M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2012 in February. Hastily Loo Zihan announced to the audience to move outside for his performance. Announcing the work as “The Politics of Re-enactment”, he explained that he will need four volunteers to help him in re-enacting Josef Ng’s “Don’t Go Swimming” based on the documentation of Ray Langenbach. After briefing the four volunteers and handing out copies excerpts that discussed the said performance taken from Performing the Singapore state 1988-1995 by Ray Langenbach, Loo Zihan began. Although I did not see the original performance live, I did see it on video and was quite moved by it, even though it was only on a T.V. screen.

Zihan’s passionate rendition did not fully convince the audience. For me it would have been better to have one person to organize the responses from the audience or the situation much earlier. His attempt to re-enact Josef Ng’s performances raises many questions that I have no qualms with knowing that Loo works in earnest seriousness based on meticulous research. The only worry is the tendency of sensational reactions that overwelms the chance for us to reflect and discuss the quagmire of questions raised by them.

Loo Zihan as a gay artist rightfully reclaims Josef Ng’s motivation of speaking out against homophobia in our society when these intentions became sidelined during the 1994 aftermath of Ng and Iris Tan being charged and found guilty of obscenity. The controversy shifted our focus into censorship and art policies responding to the heavy-handed official sanctions on Josef Ng, Shannon Tham, and the closure of 5th Passage artist’s run gallery.

At the same time the re-enactments allow us to air the discussion if not a call for legal or sovereignty status for artists rights to work and produce art autonomously independent from an anachronistic obscenity law.

It also provides food for thought on the questions of authenticity vis-a-vis re-enactments and its relationship to performance art, theatre, rituals and rites. Traditional rituals and rites redefines or gives blessings to our identities and roles in society at the same time they serve to accentuate heirarchical positions of power. In the age of individualism we assert our claim to freedom via rituals that allow marginal minorities a chance to be heard if not petition for social change and justice.

Afterword/insert: i wrote this after reading Mayo Martin’s blog posting and various negative responses both to the performance by Loo Zihan as well as Mayo’s postings in facebook. I consider Mayo Martin an important barometer of the F1 speedy rapid burgeoning pace of production and changes in our cultural scenario where even in such an efficiently organized society the media fail to report not to mention even snif out critically crucial shows and events both mainstream and those on the outer lanes. Mayo’s contributions are off the cuff and although lacking research based in-depth they are quick first impressions written with openness, intelligence and fairness of a cultured mind with a world-view kept abreast with what once considered to be ‘modern’ or now we generally call ‘contemporary’ or ‘with it’ like at least he knows ‘where its at’ lah. So we may ask where and when is the media gonna engage the critics to write? I grew up with reading TK Sabapathy for one and various who came and left but now I don’t bother the reviews in ST. I suspect the writers were asked to dumbed down in their writings by their editors with ‘Huh? But is it art?’ mentality presuming if they don’t get it then ‘the man in the street’ won’t. I would challenge that presumption more so in these internet days however even if it were true should not justify the need for more analytically critical radically opinionated art or cultural writings in our main news media. After all those who bother to pick up something to actually read text-based media already have the desire, intention if not hunger to learn and keep abreast, not merely to be reassured that the world remains as what they already know. However there is a suspicion somehow maybe the media here have intention to propagate that mind set? So Mayo Martin’s readiness to run the gamut of a wider spectrum thereby including that outside the fat assed ‘Huh? But is it art?’ editors’ should be appreciated and encouraged nay even saluted. Thank you Mayo, you are my guardian angel in a society with a straight-jacketed media.

(Photos by Jason Lee)

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This review article was first published in Republic of Daydreams.

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