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Review

What can we summon from the “Re” standpoint? On the polyphonic scene and reenactment strategy of “Re: Play”

Samson YOUNG, Music for Specific Places, Times, and People #1, music performance, 2020. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB
Info
DATE2021.06.04
TEXT WANG Sheng-Hung
Re: PlayLive Artcuratorial practices

“Reenactment” As a Strategy in Creative and Curatorial Practices

If “Re” were an attitude, what unique perspective on reading history can it bring to today’s performative practice? This is something we should clarify before venturing into the main subject of this essay. The exhibition is entitled “Re: Play,” a term broad, adaptable and undefined enough to cover a wide range of artists’ approaches, but its crux is far from a rerun nor is it a revisit to history without differences. What are the pretexts of these revisits? What is it that makes us no longer or unwilling to view the original staging as a sheer coincidence?

In English “Re” as a prefix can generate a wide range of derivatives, which also have innumerable corresponding Chinese translations. The question is, what words and concepts do we link to them in the context of contemporary art criticism? For example, “remake” and “remaster” both constitute the meaning of reproducing and renewing old works to comply with current specifications, thus overcoming hindrances posed by outdated equipment and medium. The latter word “remaster” even often infers the enhancement of user experience (such as sound quality, image quality) by way of updating classics with new technology, clearly, for nostalgic reasons. The purpose in these two concepts of “Re” is more to “restore/recover” than “update/innovate.” In addition to making it easier for contemporary audiences to appreciate classics produced under archaic conditions, here “Re” does not necessarily point to innovative creativity; at best it is a rearrangement or reconfiguration in the traditional sense, or perhaps the passing on of a tradition, particularly to find an effective way to remediate existing styles, techniques and key cultural symbols.1 As such, the intention is to “reforge,” to eliminate past deficiencies and regrets with the help of new technology.

The aforementioned discussion of “Re” far remains insufficient for the field of art. In particularly “Re” cannot be seen as a non-directional “re-fashioning” or should it be a conservative act of restaging when it comes to time-based art such as experimental videos, performance art, even retrospectives of past theater and dance works. Can we propose a novel perspective to critique art history, especially when people are always interested in new comebacks? At the same time, can we reactivate a particular art event in this contemporary era, and see how it guides us into the future? For this very reason “reenactment” has gradually become a recurrent concept in contemporary art since the 1990s when describing the desire to “reach the future by returning to the past.”2 It is about ways to not only retrieve/recover archives, but also “write” past creative or curatorial practices into the present.3 Typical examples include Life, Once More: Forms of Reenactment in Contemporary Art (curated by Sven LÜTTICKEN) held in Rotterdam in 2005, and Seven Easy Pieces presented by Marina ABRAMOVIĆ at the Guggenheim Museum in New York that remade classics such as those by Bruce NAUMAN, Vito ACCONCI and Joseph BEUYS. Time and time again these famous performances illustrate that “reenactment” has become an important strategy to draw power from art history and a major theme for active theorization for artists, curators and researchers.

Towards a Polyphonic “Scene”

This recent wave of “reenactment” evidently flouts Peggy PHELAN’s view4 on the ontology of performance. The theorist said:

The only life of performance exists in the present. Performance cannot be stored, recorded, or recorded, and it cannot participate in the cycle of performing performances; once it participates in this cycle, it becomes something different from performance.

Any intention of reproduction would weaken the work, for the performance can only be rooted in absolute liveness and never be revisited or represented. This progressive rejection of all forms of storage and emphasis on the heightened intensity arisen from liveness may impart a distinctive defiant quality to performance art, nonetheless PHELAN’s definition is far too strict and exclusive of the advantages that the “reenactment” strategy can bring, such as enlivening the innate power of performance art history.

The only output of a performance is indeed the performance itself, which underscores irreversibility and the corporeal aura. The work clearly points to the pure consumption of the artist himself, thereby ensuring intensity of the event. But this does not reduce the “reenactment” strategy to a mere betrayal of the original work, for an undifferentiated identity has never been the highest guiding principle for reenactments. On the contrary, a “reenactment” is always and necessarily accompanied by interpretations while striving to construct a new site for the original work to inhabit in the contemporary era. The new “scene” conceived here can neither be understood from PHELAN’s narrow definition nor can it be bounded by the doctrine of “presence.” Rather, it always intersects new and old readings, a kind of polyphonic “scene” arranged and permeated by an array of archival consciousness and energy.

CHEN Wu-Kang, Four Performance Events in the 1990s, lecture performance, 2020. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB

In this way “reenactment” as a creative and curatorial practice will inevitably entail two levels of reflection: First, who gets to access archives of art history? Who has the right to retrieve, extract and activate these archives? Second, how can the artist restore the accessibility of the archive without committing monopoly? How can the problems of interpretation and spokesperson be solved in the process? In so far as the consciousness embedded in the curatorial question proposed by Re: Play, the most direct answer to these questions may perhaps be: The “reenactment” strategy alone is sufficient to bring forth the re-embodiment of sentimental experiences. This is to regard the artist’s body as the main carrier of the performance, physical imagery, method and technique, even the most subtle affects, and give history form and space for sensibility under current time and spatial conditions. More precisely this is to allow the body to become a channel, catalyst and “avatar” for the energy of art history. CHEN Wu-Kang’s Four Performance Events in the 1990s exemplifies this perspective. The work not only epitomizes four historical body types in the 1990s through CHEN’s body, but also serves as a medium for words and actions initiated by CHEN. The medium would not have inspired a focal point, or “field for reflection,”5 for contemporary audiences’ perception if it were not for CHEN’s “reenactment” of narrative and performance.

A Gesture of Dissent in Revisiting History

In other words, a “reenactment” must reflect the vigor of criticism. It should never be a reiteration of past official versions or beautification of an undisputed classic in art history; on the contrary it must traverse beyond pure indulgence in historical research, and highlight lost archives that deserve rectification, reversal or revival. That is, if the artist does not care about unfinished, perishable or overlooked practices, then “Re” only serves as a “reaffirmation,” a function as weak as it is insipid. Adding bricks and tiles to historical monuments makes little impact after all. In this regard, a “reenactment” is an action that faces the past but does not cling to the past; it gazes at history but constantly inquires about the future. It redirects our interest and attention to the fluid, dynamic and immaterial aspect of art without fixating or immortalizing these forces, or reducing important segments from the past to empty simulacra via “programming” for the pursuit of endless replays and reuses.

River LIN’s Dancing with Gutai Art Manifesto (1956) should be viewed in the same way. The work does not set out to recognize the indelibility of Gutai’s illuminating art experiments. It would be a big misunderstanding to see it as such; certainly LIN’s goal is neither to translate the paintings shockingly painted with feet, watering cans and bicycle tire marks into instructions for action, nor to use those groundbreaking painting experiments to inflect the dance practice. In short, if LIN’s contemporary interpretations only focuses on Gutai’s “expandability” without taking into account its corresponding institutionalization, LIN would have missed the real opportunity that “reenactment” can offer to a creative research. This is because these experimental explorations, from medium to body, from object to event, are themselves already internalized as tradition. Although the academic system in Taiwan has followed a developmental path completely different from that of Gutai and Black Mountain College, there are similar ideological trajectories in the pursuit of media characteristics, multi-media and cross-disciplinary discourses. How can artists today shed light on the crevices in this system in a critical way?

River LIN, Dancing with Gutai Art Manifesto (1956), performance and installation, 2020. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB

What LIN shows us is not so much his corporeal translation from painting to action, plane to three-dimension, but a shift and adjustment of the context to which he is referencing.

Therefore, we cannot mistakenly believe that the avant-garde spirit of the 1950s-60s can be achieved by the same postures and approaches. The consciousness and challenges of contemporary art in Taiwan are different from the time and space in which Gutai took place, let alone the environment in Taiwan in the 1960s (such as HUANG Hua-Cheng and Ecole de Great Taipei). In other words, the originality of Gutai and its “expandability” cannot be readily restored by switching to a creative research or perspective of theater or dance. This is because the concept of “expandability” still assumes the existence of a hidden boundary between domains; creative practice based on this premise often expects that an expanded field6 can crack a problematic sphere. On the other hand, it paradoxically consolidates the boundary itself, thereby dissolving the traversing momentum embodied by the body’s actions. In this regard, what LIN shows us is not so much his corporeal translation from painting to action, plane to three-dimension, but a shift and adjustment of the context to which he is referencing. The key is whether we can reflect on the rigid ideological framework of modernism in Taiwan academic circles since the 1980s, and take the opportunity to further scrutinize each other’s development in post-war Asia and how our corporeal practices have evolved over time.

Body (image) As a Focal Point

CHANG Wen-Hsuan’s When Did the Merlion Become Extinct?—The Narrative to Succeed in the 21st Century is obviously comparable to River LIN’s work, though she focuses more on the subtle variance between reality and imitation so as to open up a space for critiquing our collective social values. She specifically demonstrates a “spacing” that is akin to reality but can only infinitely approach it. Whether it is purchasing an advertisement or uploading a video of a speech onto YouTube, these are only a deliberate appropriation of the typical demeanor of speakers who rave about “ways to develop our full potential to attain success” in the market. The key lies in how the artist summons the ghost of a country’s hidden narrative, so that her body turns into a carrier of desire for the eerie “mythological establishment system,” even allowing the performance itself to be the locus7 of the appearance/image generated by this desire. In a way CHANG also adopts the strategy of using the body for incarnation. She lets the illusive ghosts of The Four Asian Dragons “appear” to speak, while at the same time cleverly builds a seemingly serious (in reality, empty) body with a lattice of sophisticated bureaucratic language. It is just when the performance is most passionate and real that she gives us a glimpse of successology at the point of collapse.

CHANG Wen-Hsuan, When Did the Merlion Become Extinct?—The Narrative to Succeed, lecture performance, video installation and documents, 2019-2020. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB

The body is without doubt a powerful site to foster a multitude of narratives and images. For this, the body should be regarded as an atlas containing various movements and actions, postures and temperaments. In other words, the body is capable of responding to a wide range of “wills to archive.”8 Its real potential is nevertheless not to fix itself to a singular image. This is something we must be aware of when reading KAO Jun-Honn’s Revisit/make (“How Shan-Qiao-Jun-Honn Repeated My Art” Project, 2002). The artist banished himself to uninhabited places to conduct a series of explorations in the late 1990s. The intention was not to trail-blaze a distinctive “branch” in performance art or to establish a combative stance against culture. Rather, the lonely figure emanating a strong sense of self-examination in the images signify a series of actions to negate and sever from the academic establishment. It was the artist’s attempt to strike off many “subjects” in order to engender debates between the plural “self” and “non-self.” Many objects in the exhibition emit a sense of mourning, as though the artist desperately wishes to leave the “pre-modern” period behind. However, it is precisely these negating expressions of “I am not…” and “I am not there…,” which are difficult to define, that truthfully illustrate the flow of an artist’s life. The subjects seem to be obliterated, but the vacancies in fact foretell the eventual return of “I am…” and “I am there…,” heralding KAO’s multi-faceted practice of “art-making—action—writing” in the future.

The installation view of KAO Jun-Honn’s Revisit/make (“How Shan-Qiao-Jun-Honn Repeated My Art” Project, 2002). Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB
The installation view of KAO Jun-Honn’s Revisit/make (“How Shan-Qiao-Jun-Honn Repeated My Art” Project, 2002. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB

Stickiness in Being at the Scene

If an artist’s presence were an issue, what about that of the audience? What is the default role the audiences of Re: Play play? LEE Ming-Chen’s Disintegration Sketch is an exploratory work in response to this question. On the one hand, he focuses on the way performers engage in a dialogue with C-LAB’s spaces; on the other hand, he leads the audience around the grounds of C-LAB as a group to uncover its many special textures and think about the potential its conditions can offer to propel the body. Here, LEE’s vision is to create interweaving perceptions toward the performance environment for the audience, so that the performance can prompt the theatrical gaze no matter where the performer moves. But overall, what Disintegration Sketch provides is mainly spectator participation. Joyce HO and Snow HUANG’s Next Scene shares similarity in this regard. The participating audiences of both works would gather, but at times they remain distant from each other. This is because the “instructions” followed by the performers lack the condition for tactile attentiveness, thus preventing the audience’s body from engagement. This means that the performance event itself needs not only to be able to enfold, but also proffer the kind of “stickiness”9 as Mieke BAL said in order to entangle and affix the audience to the works as time evolves and extends. Only in this way can the work provide a plane for the performers and observers to coexist, then generate a perceptive dimension that disintegrates and reconstructs in an otherwise ordinary space.

The performance of LEE Ming-Chen’s Disintegration Sketch. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB
The performance of Joyce HO and Snow HUANG’s Next Scene. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB
The installation view of WANG Te-Yu’s No. 103. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB

WANG Te-Yu’s No. 103 may have detected the real problem—our over-reliance on practices of looking and visuality—in this regard. The solution WANG envisages is to completely block visuality so that the perception of the body can take place prior to the habit of looking. Just as she said in her important artist statement, “Walk into my work. Don’t look, don’t think, just walk and touch.”10 The pitch darkness created in her work undoubtedly heightens the audience’s awareness of their own presence. With subtle changes in sound waves in the double-ring space, the audience’s attention is no longer directed to the formal characteristics of the work but to their state of being. The audience’s body, shrouded by No. 103, no longer lies outside of a work, instead it is penetrated and pervaded by forces of sound and vibration, thoroughly integrated into the resonating network. WANG suspends people’s inexplicable habit of self-estrangement in the viewing experience, whilst placing the issue of the audience’s presence in the center of the work.

Conclusion

On the whole Re: Play proposes a Benjaminist issue for us to consider: If “live scene” is the battlefield to write history, then every past that cannot reconcile with itself is in danger of disappearing forever.11 In this way, what subjects are worthy of re-summoning? Through what method (reenact, reforge, reproduce…)? Why as viewers of retrospection must we gaze at them so intently that they continuously appear before contemporary audiences as “living things?” This is precisely what SU Hui-Yu attempts to explore and answer in his version of The White Waters. We might not be able to truly appreciate the power of the corporeal performance in The White Waters if it were not for its reactivation in the present day or for a succession of revisions over the past two decades.12 This is the plane of ideological resonance radiating from TIAN Chi-Yuan at the center, which has fascinated numerous artists in later generations and these creative thoughts therefore intertwine. Ideally every twist must generate a new creative force (although the intensity of each version varies). At the same time, each round of return is an announcement that The White Waters as a radical corporeal performance event must be revived. Meanwhile we can also examine and reflect on this: If a new scene cannot bring about powerful new insights, if the present urge to revisit history cannot bring real fission, why not leave the classics in history?

This is the arena for thoughts and debates opened up by Re: Play as well as an important interpretation for those of us who deliberately draw power upon art history cannot and should not easily unburden.

SU Hui-Yu, The White Waters, 3-channel video installation, 2019. Photo by CHEN Bo-Jyun and courtesy of C-LAB
Info
DATE2021.06.04
TEXT WANG Sheng-Hung
Re: PlayLive Artcuratorial practices
Footnote
01
Jay D. BOLTER and Richard A. GRUSIN, Remediation: Understanding New Media, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1999, p.270.
02
"Reenactment" contains the meaning of “to repeat the actions” or “to act or to perform.” In military context, it usually refers to the restaging and analysis of a certain war process. As an educational and entertainment activity for contemporary history buffs, "historical reproduction" refers to the act of putting on costumes of a specific historical event or period, and talking in a language from that period of time to give people an immersive experience to understand history. However, in so far as in contemporary art context, although "reenactment" is also intended to "activate history or archives," its focus is not on faithful replication of original events or works nor is it based on pure nostalgia, but mainly an action with a strong research and interpretation standpoint. For that, unlike this exhibition catalogue in which “replication” is used to correspond to "reenactment," this essay adopts the more neutral term of "reenactment." For a preliminary review of the concept of "reenactment", see: Cristina BALDACCI, "Reenactment: Errant Images in Contemporary Art", in Re-: An Errant Glossary, ed. by Christoph F. E. HOLZHEY and Arnd WEDEMEYER, Cultural Inquiry, 15, Berlin: ICI Berlin, 2019, pp.57-67.
03
Amelia JONES, "The Lure of Re-enactment and the Inauthentic Status of the Event / Le leurre de la reconstitution et l’inauthenticité de l’événement," essearts + opinions, 79(2013): 4-9. For recent extensive discussions about “re-enactment as a creative, archival and curatorial practice,” please refer to the conference held by Institute for Cultural Inquiry, Berlin, Over and Over and Over Again: Re-enactment Strategies in Contemporary Arts and Theory (organized by Cristina BALDACCI, Clio NICASTRO, Arianna SFORZINI), viewed on: December 1, 2020.
04
Peggy PHELAN, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, London/New York: Routledge, 1993, p.164.
05
Borrowed from Daizo SAKURAI’s concept. By emphasizing “reenactment,” a “field for reflection” that embodies a historical vision can be provided at the same time. See: Daizo SAKURAI, translation by HAN Bing. “What is ‘Tent Theatre’?”, report outline of “Tent Theater: Migration and Movement”, fourth topic in “Renjian Thought Forum—Asian Thought Movements Report”, 2014, viewed on December 1, 2020.
06
Rosalind E. KRAUSS, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field", The Originality of the Avant-garde and other Modernist, Myths, Cambridge: MlT Press, 1985, pp.277-290.
07
About how the body can become a locus of image, see Hans BELTING’s analysis from an anthropological view: Hans BELTING, An Anthropology of Images: Picture, Medium, Body, Thomas Dunlap (trans.), Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011.
08
This is what performance scholar André LEPECKI used to echo Hal FOSTER’s “the archival impulse” and further debate and extend that concept. See: André LEPECKI, "The Body as Archive: Will to Re-enact and the Afterlives of Dances", Dance Research Journal, 42.2(2010), pp.28-48. 後者的文章則可見:Hal FOSTER, "An Archival Impulse", October, 110(2004): 3-22.
09
Mieke BAL, "Sticky Image: The foreshortening of Time in an Art of Duration", in Time and the Image, ed. by Carolyn Bailey GILL, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000, pp.79-99.
10
Quoted from Iris Shu-Ping HUANG, “No. 50 Exhibition Statement”, ITPark, viewed on : December 1, 2020.
11
Walter BENJAMIN, "Theses on the Philosophy of History", Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. by Hannah ARENDT, trans. by Harry ZOHN, Schocken: English Language edition, 1969, p.255.
12
It is worth to mention these versions: Tainaner Ensemble’s The White Snake (Youth Version) (2006), THAT Theatre Troupe’s White Water 2013 (2013), and The Party Theatre Group’s Legend of the White Snake (2015).
Author
WANG Sheng-Hung
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