Multiversity in Practice:
2017 ArTrend International Performance Art Festival
By Meiling Cheng
Converging Divergent Worlds:
Three artists were caught in an arms' race, each with teeth sinking into a neighbor's forearm. This performance's score stipulates having three people standing in a circle and each stretching one arm out to the adjacent person for the person to bite into the arm. The performance's duration is determined by the participants' physical stamina regardless of the pain (Kueh 2018). The performance ends when either one of the three entangled in the action stops the biting. As cocreators of this interlocked bodywork, Bite (Yao, 2017), Kueh Peh Gān, Tsai Hsinying, and Ma Ei expressed their endurances differently. Kueh, slightly red-faced and with brows tightly knit, looked resolute in biting into Ei's right forearm, while his right forearm was locked in between Tsai's teeth. Stoic and with saliva dripping out of her lips, Tsai's relentless biting was matched by what she endured from Ei's teeth. Meanwhile, Ei had shifted from low moaning to laborious and muffled screams. The trio's romance lasted for about ten minutes, when Kueh released his bite. An intimate group hug closed this aching action. [Photo 1]
Bite took place in the Asir Art Museum in Tainan, Taiwan, as part of the concluding workshop presentations in Multiversity: 2017 ArTrend International Performance Festival (6-12 November 2017), curated by performance artist Yeh Tzu-Chi. The festival began with a three-day performance course led by the Indonesian performance art master teacher Arahmaiani Feisal, (who goes by "Arahmaiani"). Arahmaiani required the closing collaborative performance to involve three people in a team. This restriction enabled the conception of Bite.
An acute inquiry into the dynamics of interpersonal politics, Bite embodies the paradox of collaborative agency, when anyone in the team must agree to compromising one's individual will for the sake of collective consent. In retrospect, I find the piece especially prescient, as it anticipated the complex inter-institutional negotiations that would affect and sustain the festival. The ways that Kueh (from Hualiang, Taiwan), Tsai (from Pingdong, Taiwan), and Ei (from Yangon, Myanmar) came together and viscerally impacted one another in an invasive embrace indicate the festival's general circumstances, with participating artists, from more than six countries and several Taiwanese cities, congregating in Tainan on behalf of producing and sharing live art. While there was no clash of wills among artists throughout the festival, there were certainly memory imprints, like bite marks, seared unto our observing minds via the osmosis of mutual artistic exposure.
In addition to the Asir Art Museum, the public exhibition of Multiversity occurred in Tainan's "321 Art Village," a government-conserved site of "historical ruins," which used to be the residential compounds for the colonial Japanese army and, more recently, was converted into a tourist-friendly cultural and art colony. A centerpiece of 321 is a public artwork, shaped like an intricate cage. In 2000, a fire burned off about 3,600 square feet of real estate inside the compounds. To revitalize the Village, the Tainan City Cultural Agency commissioned Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto to install this large cube (9 meters in length for each side), a geometric, white-painted, airy and permeable enclosure composed entirely of wrought iron window bars and frames donated by Taiwanese citizens (see Tainanlohas.com, 2016). The structure frames an earthy lot like a rudimentary arena theatre, surrounded by a remaining brick wall, assembled glassless window-frames on three sides, and constructed wooden side-stages. [Photo 2]
The Village's typographic diversity and overlapped layers of histories provide an iconographic paradigm for the festival's theme, "multiversity," which Yeh chose as the English translation for her Chinese festival title: "Duo qi," literally meaning "multiple divergences." To me, the term "multiversity" conjures up the scientific hypothesis of the "multiverse," poetically rendering the festival as a space-time conjunction in which divergent "universes"—sampled by individual artists—converge. Multiversity participated in the emergent global circuit of live art exhibitions, which serve as countercurrents to the much more endowed and better attended international contemporary art biennials and triennials. These festivals often combine performance art workshops with live art exhibitions, fulfilling their roles as temporary civic centers for creative pedagogies. This phenomenon signifies an additional connotation of "multiversity" as a subcultural "university." The alternative prefix for "multiversity" accentuates its educational efficacy from its multiple sources of learning, by converging international artists. The people who gather for the occasion may well experience the performances as viscerally impactful as the unpredictable intensity of sharing certain bite marks with their fellow viewers.
During its open exhibition period (9-12 November 2017), Multiversity presented 15 commissioned individual performances, two public talks by Meiling Cheng and Arahmaiani, and an improvised group performance. Most pieces ended in 20 minutes, with a few durational pieces that lasted for three hours. Four thematic trends emerged in this live art show.
The festival began with a bang. Carrying a knife and a mop, Ma Ei, in a bright red dress, with a red swaddling girdled across her swelling abdomen, led us spectators into the "arena stage" within 321's white cube installation. Startlingly, Ei knifed into her red pouch and swirled her body around to spread the red pigments from her pregnant sac. [Photo 3] She then frantically used the mop to draw concentric circles on the ground, bloodying the earthy stage with red pigments, while churning up a storm of dust. Periodically she paused in stillness like a red statue arrested in rapturous premonitions. [Photo 4] Having ensconced herself amid a red flood, she kneeled down to behead the mop. When her onerous action didn't pay off, she began pulling the strains of "hair" off the mop, as if balding the mop would compensate for her inability to decapitate this traditional instrument of janitorial labor. Ei ended the action when the mop barely had half a head of hair left.
Ei related this piece, Still in the Present (2017), to her ongoing work on feminist issues. Like the mop, her common props include many domestic objects, those traditionally associated with "women's labor" (Ei 2017). For her, performing live art is to "take the mind off the pain," while making her pain "into a painting," with the red color indicating blood and sorrow (Ei 2017). Since abortion is illegal in the majority Buddhist Myanmar, Ei's pregnant pouch, sliced open by her knife, emerged as a feminist indictment of Myanmese women's lack of control over their bodies. Given Ei's Myanmese identity, however, I could not but also perceive her body as a metonymic double for her country's body politics, which has been devastated by its ongoing ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya Muslims. Although the artist was wary of my interpretation, the pathos and fury of her performance spilled out of her feminist container to spell out a human rights catastrophe.
If ethnic/religious politics is a suppressed subtext in Still in the Present, it is the spring motor that powered the performance "phonograph" of German artist Felix Roadkill's Songs of the Murdered (2017). Roadkill asked all the spectators to go outside of the low walls bordering the meadow surrounding the white-cage installation. From a distance, we saw him standing in between two ropes hanging from near the top of the nine-meter-tall cage and, almost inaudibly, whistling a song. He then abruptly dropped his body sideways to hit the ground. [Photo 5] Picking himself up, Roadkill ran through the meadow and climbed over the low wall to join us outside. He wrote on a red gate:
Title: Songs of the Murdered
2) MOSSUL IV
1) HOMS VII
Roadkill asked if anyone still owned a vinyl record. "A vinyl record has two sides. A-side has all its hit singles. B-side has not-so-well-known songs, true to the artist's heart. A-side is the face of the album; B-side is the soul of the album." Songs of the Murdered was the album that he wished to share with us. To enact his "intro," Roadkill moved away from us to about 100 meters away and ran toward us in top speed until he almost hit a frightened spectator. For "MOSSUL IV," Roadkill climbed back over the wall and up the white cage until he reached the tied ropes. From his summit, he ignited a firework, which emitted a tiny smoke, and began singing a song. [Photo 7] While I couldn't hear what the artist was singing, I heard a garbage truck with its Beethoven's Für Elise piano sound-track cruising through an outside street. I also noticed an inspector from Tainan's Cultural Agency, who came to watch the performances for any violation of the codes protecting 321 as a designated historical preservation site.
Roadkill joined us again outside for his album's B-side: "HOMS VII." He asked a volunteer to blindfold him and requested two volunteers to hold on to the ends of the ropes tight, while he reversed his route haltingly back to climb up the cage. From his summit, he used the ropes as a pulley system to send us a line of white towels. [Photo 7] Laying the towels on the ground, we found the lyrics from an Irish folk song, "The Lark in the Clear Air," inscribed on them. [Photo 8] Roadkill modified the song's last two lyrics, changing the gender of the singer's intended lover from "she" to "he" and the tentative "would" to the more affirmative "can." When he finished passing all the towels, Roadkill, blindfold on, gingerly climbed down the cage and asked the audience to direct him outside, as he repeated the route back for "the outro." Guided toward the spot about 100 meters away, Roadkill thrust his unseeing body toward us in a run that mixed fright with frenzy. Utterly depending on us to stop his momentum and complete his remaining task, the blindfolded Roadkill managed to return to where he began. He sang out loud "The Lark in the Clear Air" and fell sideways to the ground.
The contexts of a vinyl record and a hopeful love song guided me to approach Roadkill's piece as an ingenious demonstration of an artist's public accomplishment and secret aspiration: they are almost identical, but not quite. This reading, however, cannot solve the piece's many mysteries, including "Mossul," the German translation for the Iraqi "Mosul" and Homs, in Syria. Further conversations with Roadkill taught me the secrets behind his "album" (Roadkill 2017). The two Middle Eastern cities, combined with his climbing to a high place, refer to the ISIS's persecution of gay men by blindfolding them and pushing them off rooftops (see Robson 2015). Over the past few years, Roadkill has "collected, structured, and archived" photographs about these horrendous executions and has used these photographs to create a series of performances as The Murder Series (Roadkill 2018). He presented The Murder Series: Part 6 in Multiversity; it differed from the earlier installments in the artist's exploration of opposing perspectives. Thus, the near symmetry in how Roadkill enacted Songs of the Murdered represents the same scene of persecution as experienced by the murderer, in disguise (as an artist), and the murdered, in blindfold.
As the gender-modified lyric in the artist's song reveals, Roadkill is a self-identified gay man. His attempt to experience also the perspective of a homophobic murderer is a generous gesture to complete the story he told. In a news report about the ISIS's rooftop execution of a gay man in Homs, the spectators were seen throwing stones at the fallen corpse (Counter Extremism Project 2018). In contrast, the spectators in Multiversity were eager to guide and support the artist's blindfolded persona. To me, this emphasis on the human bonds between a vulnerable performer and his protective viewers is Roadkill's most significant intervention into the murderous scenes he dramatized. The artist's choice of the white towels, meant for washing of the corpses, likewise expressed his compassion for the victims. Roadkill's rendition of "The Lark in Clear Air" was, then, his elegy and memorial for the fallen victims, to whom the artist promised that, as long as he "can," they will not be forgotten by the world.
Roadkill's decision to stage his action on top of the window-frame cage directly alludes to the brutal injustice and "homo-cidal" persecution committed by the ISIS. Nevertheless, by pursuing this plan, the artist risked being stopped during performance. The day before Multiversity's public exhibition, curator Yeh received an oral caution from Tainan's Cultural Agency, prohibiting any artist to infringe upon Fujimoto's public artwork. Roadkill went ahead to climb the cage, even though he conceded by stopping near rather than on the structure's top. While his performance happened without censorship, the interdiction became the initiatory question for Taiwanese artist Yujun Ye's To Do or Not to Do (Zuo huo bu zuo 2017).
In a plastic orange headgear, over-sized green sunglasses, a silver cape made of space thermal mylar blanket, and a black overall with large blue and red pockets, Ye looked like a mix between a clown, a Commedia dell'arte Pantaloon, and a wizard. With a megaphone at hand, she paced around the white installation's wooden side-stage, reading from a text about the Taiwanese labor law—"Employment Law #46"—regulating foreign workers. [Photo 9] Periodically, she crashed to the floor, as if hit by the law's bureaucratic absurdity, which might prevent an international artist from offering a paid artistic presentation without having first applied for a work permit or being given an official contract. Ye was bitter about this law because she was penalized with a hefty fine when she housed without rent the U.K. sound artist Simon Whetham for an informal artistic residency in July 2017 (see Cai 2018). "Performance artist lives in the moment," Ye declared in both English and Chinese, "in this country, we need a magician to change stone into gold." She fell and fell again. After her manifesto-like protest, Ye asked the audience: "Should I do it or not?" "You tell me . . . should I do it or not? Zuo bu zuo?" "Zuo / Do it!" were the overwhelming audience responses—even when I registered the grim-faced inspector amongst us. Without waiting for confirmation, Ye was already climbing about the installation, but her actions appeared more tentative than bold. Ye survived her climbing without being legally expelled from the cage. [Photo 10]
Besides the interdiction against "damaging" any existing architectural structure, Tainan Cultural Agency also forbids igniting any fireworks inside 321. Roadkill's inclusion of small firework explosions during performance incensed the Agency's inspector. After having tolerated Roadkill's and Ye's violations on Multiversity's opening date, the inspector sent a formal written warning to the curatorial team. This demonstration of the local political power compelled the artistic duo Ali Al-Fatlawi and Wathiq Al-Ameri to change their planned performance, scheduled on Multiversity's second exhibition date.
Born in Iraq and now based in Switzerland, Al-Fatlawi and Al-Ameri have always performed together, staging their simultaneous parallel actions with both subtle and direct mutual interactions. They had to modify this scheme in Multiversity. The duo's durational performance, Cemetery of the Memory (2017), began with Al-Fatlawi baring his upper body and having their Chinese translator, Yip Zhoong Jin, marking his body with real-time numerical counts of people who died around the globe—a constantly shifting set of live statistics found on the Worldometers.com. Al-Ameri sat on an adjacent chair, wrapping rolls of tapes affixed with plastic military toys (guns, tanks, submarines, soldiers, bomber-planes, etc.) around his own head. Their shared stage was a long alleyway. When his entire upper-body was covered by numbers, Al-Fatlawi stood in front of Al-Ameri and proceeded to use a long brush pen, dipped in the oil that he carried in a bucket, to write a different set of numbers on the ground. [Photo 11] These numbers came straight from Al-Fatlawi's memories about the years when significant personal and world events had affected his migratory paths from the Middle East, to Africa, and eventually to Europe. "Each time I looked back to retrieve a memory," as Al-Fatlawi states in the documentary film about the duo's art journeys, Two Asses in One Underwear (2016), "my personal story changes – because my memories are not stored in the past; they are stored in my body. My body in every second is walking to different physical and mental forms of time" (Al-Fatlawi, et. al. 2016).
The changes in Al-Fatlawi's body became materialized as Arabic numbers accumulating on the ground; these changes were echoed by Al-Ameri's head, ever-inflating with layers and layers of minute military monstrosity. Both artists remained taciturn during their three-hour endurance performance, allowing their protest narratives to be quietly embedded with their corporeal actions. The sheer intensity of their imagistic juxtaposition and persistent labors, however, inspired several spontaneous audience "fan-performances," from walking the numerical lines to prostrating on the ground. [Photo 12] When Al-Fatlawi finally stopped his inscriptions, Al-Ameri stood up and walked across the Art Village to reach the outside parking lot, on which a table covered with a world map was already set up. Monstrous head intact, Al-Ameri sat down next to the table and began igniting tiny fire crackers and throwing them against the world map, burning holes on it. [Photo 13] This image would have provided a finishing montage in the alley for Cemetery of the Memory, had it not been for the landlord's prohibition. What the artists had dug up from their joint mnemonic burial ground was a diasporic world map fractured by random warfare and resulting casualties.
A tone of reconciliation characterizes the politics of Taiwanese artist Hsu Min Szu's performance ritual, The Unspoken Words of Chung-Ying Tsai (Chung-Ying de xin nei hua, 2017). Fashioning herself as part narrator and part spiritual guide, Hsu invited us to walk inside a rectangular grassy area framed by lit candle stands. She assured us that we were inside a protected arena where we might safely listen to her story, which would move between the spiritual and the real. [Photo 14] Her story focused on the rise and fall of the eponymous protagonist Chung-Ying Tsai, a community organizer who responded to the Kaohsiung city government's call to house the exploding population of street peddlers within a shopping mall. Tsai solicited funding from many peddlers to construct the mall, which enjoyed a year of success, but went out of business soon after Tsai offended a local politician, who retaliated by changing the mall's zoning code, forfeiting its commercial feasibility. When his many letters of complaint failed to impress the government, Tsai misplaced his rage and turned against his original funders, leaving behind many angry letters to those whose livelihood he had inadvertently ruined. Assuming that Tsai felt contrition and psychological turmoil—"unspoken words"—before he died, Hsu's performance aimed to bridge the dead and the living, voicing what remained unsaid by Tsai to each wronged peddler.
The performance's second part unfolded like a semi-séance. As Tsai's surrogate, Hsu moved from one person to the next in a circle formed by audience volunteers, who picked up individual name tags to assume the roles of the wronged peddlers. [Photo 15] Some of us, including myself, became our characters without volition and wept bitterly in our dialogues with Hsu/Tsai; others, including many bemused non-Chinese-speaking international artists, maintained a reverential distance. While almost all of us/the peddlers reconciled with Hsu/Tsai, one participant refused to offer her forgiveness. After the ritual ended, the malcontent participant, presenting herself as a practitioner of the "Family Constellation" therapy, condemned the artist for making a performance that mimicked the therapeutic practice in an unprofessional arena, thus endangering the audience volunteers.
The protester's indignant response erected the boundary between what she perceived as a "fake" performance and the "real" method of "Family Constellation," an alternative psychotherapeutic system that uses collective role substitutions to investigate one's ancestral family dynamics (see Cohen 2006). Hsu acknowledged her debt to "Family Constellation," a German system in which she was also trained, but she defended her borrowing by arguing that she had changed her source procedures sufficiently for her performance. I initially linked Hsu's piece with an indigenous Daoist ritual; as a former participant in both Daoist and Hsu's events, I experienced similar liminal states wherein my acting and being were intermingled and swayed by the ritual's theatrical mechanisms. My surprise in learning that Hsu's ritual had a German model does not change my belief in her live artwork's legitimacy. In fact, Hsu's transcultural appropriation pronounces an implicit logic in Multiversity, when the trend of glocalization—in which the foreign inspiring the local and altering itself in the process—offers a vibrant source of metropolitan learning.
Hsu exposed her performance to critique because of its adoption of a paratheatrical model that has lately gained popularity in Taiwan. Conversely, three other performances avoided controversies by keeping the provenances of their performance rituals self-contained.
Taiwanese artist Fang-Yi Liu's Solo for Multiple Perceptions (Wei duozhong zhijue zuo de duzo, 2017) took place inside a courtyard framed by several damaged houses and a mural-sized photograph of an architectural interior—an artwork by Du Meihua from a concurrent photographic exhibition in the Art Village. Like a magician tuning up our senses, Liu moved about in his theatre on the round, interacting with various props that he placed on top of some odd-sized brick columns scattered on the ground. He clashed a stone against a metal key, only to interrupt their resonance with a live broadcast from a radio hidden in his pocket. Now he was licking a splash of mustard off his arm, animating our senses of smell, taste, sight, and touch. Now he was pouring a glass of water into a silver funnel held in his mouth and then spewing out the water like a fountain. Liu's multisensory orchestration reached a high note when a yellow balloon that the artist was blowing up burst, spilling out curry powder in the air. [Photo 16]
The title of Taiwanese artist Wu Shumian's piece, I Am a Cloud (Wo shi yipian yun, 2017), recalls a 1980s popular song, which celebrates the carefree life of a cloud. Wu's opening action, however, mocks such claims of freedom by specifying the gender and weight of a "cloud." In a conservative woman's dress dated perhaps from the 1940s, Wu stood facing us under the door frame to a dilapidated house, penetrated by magnificent Ficus trees. She then moved to the side and climbed out of a window, stuffing her mouth with a plastic object and dragging a huge rice sack behind her to cross into the audience's midst. [Photo 17] She pulled out of her mouth the plastic object, which turned out to be a transparent raincoat, and transferred huge cotton swabs from the sack into the raincoat, creating a human figure. She watered her "cloud" and wrestled with it, as if she tried to shed the weight of moisture in her cotton confinement. Lightened, Wu ended her struggle with a jubilant toss of her humanoid cloud through the air. As a Chinese reader, I recognized that part of Wu's given name—"Mian 棉"—is also the Chinese name for "cotton." The cloud that she released to the air is then also her cotton double, her liberated alter ego. [Photo 18]
Campy humor enlivens River Lin's C'est vrai et vert (It's Real and Green / Zhe zhen lü, 2017), the retrospective French title that this Paris-based artist gave to his largely improvised performance. In a vibrant purple athletic jacket and black shorts, Lin occupied the meadow in front of Fujimoto's white cube and began pulling blades of grass off the ground to decorate his knee-high orange socks. Pleased with his "vert" credentials, Lin struck a series of fashion-model poses, as if he were taking selfies for Instagrams. [Photo 19] He then stepped onto the white cube's apron stage, showed off some minor acrobatic acts, and stuffed grasses into his mouth to chew them. Unexpectedly, he turned his back against the audience and bowed down to flash his bottoms, revealing some half-digested grasses spilling out of his anus. [Photo 20] Lin's flamboyant corporeal action pivots on the homonymic verbal play between two French words: the real (vrai) and the green (vert). He matched the vrai—real, natural, and fresh grasses—with his polyester outfit to create his synthetic vert fashion; he employed his vrai—real, enfleshed human body—as his narcissistic model and proceeded to turn it into a vert/green machine, theatricalizing the digestive act as a quick circulation system: grass in and grass out, his body the super-efficient transmission channel!
Taiwanese artist Yu Chung-I's Something in Red (Hongse Xunxi, 2017) stakes on interactivity to generate her performance's structure and movements. Covered from head to toe in a red overall filled with countless swollen pockets, the artist entered the courtyard space, slowly circulating among the existing brick columns, while repeating, in a soft drone, her cryptic solicitation for audience participation: "If you wish, you can choose."[Photo 21] Yu's performance persona appeared as a droll mixture between a street peddler, both shy and persistent in calling out her wares, and a mobile vending machine, with a singular pre-recorded invitation message. The first volunteer approached the artist and pulled out from a pocket a red fabric strip inscribed with a command, "Sing a song." More volunteers followed and pulled out candies to eat, strings to tie up other people's feet, scissors to cut those strings—all with pre-inscribed instructions. I was ordered to stand on a brick column, when I observed the most elaborate audience response from an international fellow visitor, who used a red lipstick to improvise a micro-narrative on a dilapidated bathroom wall. His story retraced an encounter with a lady in red in a far-away land, "and she said to me, write something in red. But I would much rather have been fed." [Photo 22]
The mythic contribution from an audience participant aptly sums up the contradictory power dynamics underscoring Something in Red. In the artist's solicitation, she emphasized the audience's "choice" in joining her performance; yet, for those who had "chosen" to participate, the artist had already prescribed the kinds of tasks to be accomplished. Although the piece depends on audience participation to proceed, the audience is still subject to the artist's partial manipulation, which pre-formulated the ensuing activities. There is an energetic tension between the artist's submission of full authorial control and the participant's consent to co-create and expand the artwork. In this sense, Something in Red shares conceptual kinship with the Fluxus scores, when Yu's costumed body doubles as an enfleshed file cabinet, containing an array of Fluxus-like instructional cards for others' voluntary reenactments.
As Yu designed her costume with a form-fitting style, we could not but touch her body when we sought to retrieve an item from her pocket. This tactile intimacy translates into the affective contents of Something in Red. Similarly, tactile intimacy prevails in artist-cum-curator Yeh Tzu-Chi's In & Out (Jin yu chu, 2017). Yeh invited the audience to join her in sharing a moment of collaborative intimacy with only one rule: find a bodily connection with the previous participant and remain in that position until the performance ends. She launched her connective chain by simply lying on the grass. Pretty soon an ouroboro-like sculptural ribbon formed by voluntarily assembled human bodies appeared. As participants, we remained still on our meadow stage, letting the wind, the smell of earth, clouds, rustling leaves, and sunrays caressing our entangled shadows. [Photo 23] Before our immobility turned anxious, Yeh rose from her repose and threaded her body through the little crevices left in between layered body parts, thus touching each participant on her way out and signaling the end of her participatory corporeal installation. Temporary bonds through chance encounters; ephemeral unions dissipating with shifting circumstances; affective tactile intimacy reinforced by the artist's corporeal presence: In & Out searches for communion and annotates mortality.
Yeh's piece features the diversity of her participants briefly linked via performance art. Conversely, Yuzuru Maeda's Green Bubbles (2017) demonstrates momentary alliance by using an artificial means to produce the semblance of uniformity among participants. Born in Japan and now based in Singapore and New Delhi, Maeda has, for more than a decade, engaged with daily music practice in conjunction with what she called her "Zentai Art Project." Zentai, meaning full-body tight suits in Japanese, features colorful nylon and spandex blends of full-body tight-suits, covering even the wearers' entire heads (Maeda 2017). Maeda brought a trunk-load of green Zentai suits for her audience participants. As the volunteers erased their external features by enclosing their bodies within the Zentai "envelops," Maeda also suited herself up in green for her hypnotic violin recital. [Photo 24] Her participants' camouflaged heads, torsos, and limbs were mingled together in random formations, cavorting on the floor of the Asir Museum amidst the monumental sculptures and large paintings on display. Maeda's music washed over the museum like ocean waves, while her ever-moving, multi-sized, yet consistently textured, green bubbles floated on their imaginary seabed like a colony of genetically modified coral reefs spliced with cacti chromosomes. Green Bubbles projects a utopian vision of interpersonal integration—however fragile and fleeting like bubbles it is.
In contrast to the utopian drive behind Maeda's Zentai musicality, Indonesian artist Arahmaiani's Breaking Words (2006- ) centers on the pragmatic paradox of identification, its disintegration, and its absorption into our psyche. Arahmaiani chose to re-stage an interactive piece from her established performance repertoire as her "medium" to understand her Taiwanese audience in Multiversity (Arahmaiani 2017). With a stack of white porcelain dinner plates, Arahmaiani entered the white-cube space and invited participants to each choose "a word or an idea that's of central importance to your lives" and to write it down in a familiar language on a plate. She initiated the performance by writing down her word, "Kapitalisme," the Indonesian equivalent of "Capitalism." A photographic group portrait taken after we finished this performance segment reveals the "multiversal" range of word choices by this international body of audience. [Photo 25] After this memorial moment, Arahmaiani sampled her second act of by crashing her plate against the brick wall at the far side of the cube. One participant followed suit, before power intervened. [Photo 26] The government representative warned that the brick wall was a protected "historical monument." The rest of us had to throw our plates against the earthy ground. Befittingly, the participant who wrote down "faith" as her existential value gently set the plate down on the earth.
A self-identified Muslim with Hindu, Buddhist, and animist affinities, Arahmaiani's Breaking Words overtly confronts the possession of worldly concepts with Buddhist detachment. All mortal words are but this-worldly delusion—goes the logic of Breaking Words. The artist's word choice—"Kapitalisme"— nonetheless planted this interactive artwork on a political soil. Her action of breaking the hold of capitalism on her life is tantamount to a conceptual revolution. Yet, not all of her participants operate on an explicit political platform. The person who wrote down "faith" and couldn't bear breaking the plate likely identified the word with the spiritual sentiment that she held sacred. For those of us compliant with the artist's intention, however, a psychosomatic interpretation might be feasible. Take the participant who chose "ART," for instance: breaking her plate inscribed with "ART" is precisely how she could accomplish the dimension of art within Breaking Words, which consisted of two interlinked acts (choosing + breaking). This example epitomizes how we assimilate ideas into our daily life: first, we identify the idea; second, we digest the idea, hence eliminating it; third, our cognitive system breaks down the intellectual nutrition in order to absorb it. Breaking Words is then Keeping Words—the very means of making those chosen words our own.
The Sites Speak
Interactivity and site-responsive sensibility have undergirded all performance artworks in Multiversity. Two performances, however, hinge so radically on site-specificity that the event locations become indispensable foils to the performers.
Taiwanese artist Banana's piece TABATA references the high-intensity cross-fit interval training program, first developed by the Japanese sports educator Izumi Tabata. Thanks to YouTube, Tabata has become a fitness fad in Taiwan, claiming that one needs only to take four minutes per day to exercise the "Tabata Protocol" in exchange for a slimmer and fit body with no restricted diet in tow (Banana 2017). Banana's performance incorporated both the Asir Museum's site, which has a stone-paved garden separated from the gallery by a large glass window, and a Tabata trainee's wishful thinking, accepting gluttony as inconsequential vis-à-vis the rigorous Tabata Protocol. Turning the glass window into her electronic interface, Banana stood in the stone garden next to a bucket of fried chickens, hamburgers, and a big bottle of Pepsi Cola, while her Tabata trainer, performed by Tsai Hsingying, appeared among us the audience inside the gallery. [Photo 27] A private sphere (with the artist in isolation) and a public arena (us as the wired online world) were symbolically marked; this spatial design also worked in reverse to pose the artist as a screened spectacle. [Photo 28] As the sound-track "Tabata" blared, with a timer tracking the Tabata Protocol (20 seconds of intense workout, followed by 10 seconds of rest), Tsai improvised various exercise routines for Banana's fervent imitation. During each ten-second interval, Banana moved swiftly to stuff herself with fast foods, even to the point of nausea. Banana's frantic performance lasted 15 minutes, nearly three times over the typical Tabata protocol. The artist's theatrical excess—both in striving to attain an ideal body and seeking instant rewards that end up negating the efforts—hilariously mocks the irrational zeal feeding any internet sensation and social mania.
A line of audience was formed outside a condemned century-old house in the Art Village, waiting to attend Taiwanese artist Lin Liangyu's three-hour durational performance, Waiting for a Cup of Coffee (Deng yibei kafe, 2017). Lin stipulated his performance as a one-on-one private engagement, with indeterminable duration, between the artist and a viewer inside the ruined house. Since there were other performances happening elsewhere in 321, I skipped the initial waiting and returned as Lin's last guest. The approaching dusk cast the derelict house in an ominous gloom, heightening its risky mystique. The flashlight held by Lin's assistant helped me cross the threshold, a wooden plank bridging a cavernous foundation, leading to piles of plasters, broken doors, and dusty wall papers. In the midst of these debris stood the artist behind a table set up with an assortment of coffee-making equipment. [Photo 29] While I waited mesmerized by Lin's intricate procedures from grinding coffee beans to boiling the aromatic coffee in a tripod flask, he told me a recent commercial trend in Taiwan that favored remodeling decayed historical buildings into upscale tea houses. The shambles that we now inhabited together appeared to be a candidate for that trend. "The acidic taste of the coffee," said Lin, calling me into mindfulness, "matches the acidic smell of the house." Even a wreckage had its full store of sensory stimulants.
I huddled around the lit warmth of Lin's coffee stand and mused about the history of the Art Village as a colonial establishment of the Japanese forces. How does one celebrate a country's histories—in a place like Taiwan—fragmented by successive colonial invasions? Does one contest its injustice by a nativist turn toward the indigenous roots, by selecting certain pasts as authentic and others as the oppressors' impositions, or by assimilating all those colonial traces as transcultural symbionts for the country's hybrid identity? I half-anticipated hearing a deep throbbing voice chanting out unforgotten regrets from the walls, which slanted toward me like a host of melancholic Japanese ghosts. Here I was immersed within a mnemonic membrane of this Village, becoming one of its memory cells.
As a live art writer, I consider it my privilege and obligation to recall a piece in as many details as possible so as to empower others, those who were not there to see the performance, with sufficient traces to reconstruct the vanished artwork. In performance critique, the oft-cited doxa—"You just have to be there"—stresses the irreplaceable multi-sensory presence of a time-based artwork and presumes the impossibility of representing this complex presence in recording documents. My quixotic longing confronts this fidelity to an embodied past by placing my trust in the virtuality of common imagination, hoping to leave enough branches, pedals, crinkly leaves, rhizomatic roots, and wizened seeds so that future gardeners might grow the tree back—even if they can only approximate the lost tree. Given my belief, it's ironic that I shall resort to the rhetoric of embodied presence to treat Multiversity's concluding performance.
"Encounter," an improvisational performance technique that the German artist Boris Nielslony has developed with "Black Market International," was introduced to Yeh Tzu-Chi when Nielslony participated in the 2009 ArTrend performance festival (see Yeh 2009). Nielslony stresses that each performance made through the "encounter" of artist-participants operates on "a principle of open cooperation" (liveartwork, online). Indeed, "open cooperation" was the reigning principle for the "multiversal" encounters that characterized Multiversity's group performance, which included not only those who had presented solo pieces in this festival, but also students who had taken the performance workshops, plus some spontaneous audience volunteers. The performance happened on 321's largest meadow. A few props were scattered on the grass; these tables, chairs, baskets, tapes, and yarns, besides the existing ruined architecture and climbable trees, became the multicentric nodes that attracted impromptu actions. Any live gesture, however fleetingly made, extended performance energies like invisible threads to bind other simultaneous actions into a chaotic fractal structure. My two eyes were not enough to follow all encounters at once, torn between contingent attractions and curious surveys. I could not but give in to my mortal limits.
What did my own encounter with "Multiversity-in-Practice"—the name I gave to this festival's culminating performance—teach me? It inspired me to let go of my urge for Borgesian omnipresent descriptions and my hubris to ever be an enabler for others. "Just be there," thus spake the Art Village! I was simply another sentient body experiencing being alive, playful with relaxed engagements, watching others doing the same. [Photo 30]
( The original text is published in TheatreForum, issue number 54. 原文刊載於 TheatreForum 期刊第54期，文長12頁，附圖20張 )