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Performance art: talked through but not out

Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez

Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez is a Manila-based writer and editor undertaking an MA in Art History at the University of the Philippines.

He Chengyao [right] He Chengyao [right]
Having attended a good number of Manila’s performance art marathons, I was all geared up for what I thought would be another free-for-all, another ride-with-the-wind event that would take me through turns from angsty to flippant. As it turned out, there was that and much more, though most of the top-up value sank in months after I’d found the time to make some reasonable sense of what had happened amidst the chatter and visual overload.

This latest Asiatopia was, surprisingly, not so amorphous discourse-wise. Perhaps it was riding on unquestionably good intentions—this being the first time that a full-blown symposium program was woven into the performance component of this virtually institutional art event begun by Thai artist-organizer Chumpon Apisuk in 1998. Even the physical layout (an elevated loungey ensemble) signaled that organizers were serious about getting people (who generally prefer to do than tell) to talk. Unlike much of the intellectual posturing that was abundant in previous performance pow-wows like PSi #10 in Singapore (2004) some very genuine cross-cultural gabbing went on—much of it still lost in translation, but uttered and laid out there just the same.

This latest Asiatopia kicked off fittingly enough with a Southeast Asia-inflected political situationer that touched on such charged ideas as art, state and public life. The opening salvo, a pointed yet amiable conversation between Singapore-based theorist Lee Weng Choy and Thai Senator Kraisak Choonhavan, helped set the mood for what would be a packed though congenial 4 days of action and dialogue. Arguably, this is no mean feat given the often bumpy routes taken through organizational histories of regional initiatives of a sympathetic bent. Asiatopia, of course, is right up there with PAPA (Platform of Asian Performance Art) and NIPAF (Nippon International Performance Art Festival) which have their own colourful stories to tell. Asiatopia itself has always taken place in Thailand, either in Bangkok or Chang Mai or both, with performances done in public spaces to force artists to deal with issues of language and reception. And there is indeed much to reckon with since Asiatopia’s participants have come from all over the world and translation needs to occur not just across cultures but also across class, gender, race, and creed. With Asiatopia’s coming of age, organizers find this as good a time as any to consider the various production and reception contexts that range from countries clamping down on performance (Myanmar and Singapore) to a country (Thailand) with at least one local government agreeing to play major co-sponsor.

In keeping with the themes of performance and the consequent privileging of process, none of the invited panelists was asked to turn in papers or outlines and could basically wing their way through discussions conducted at a pace reminiscent of your run-of-the-mill television morning or late night show. Refreshingly stripped of the jargon that pervades more academe-driven enterprises, Asiatopia still had its share of tangential talk on de rigueur performance studies fare—mediation of the body, the gaze, performance as ultimate commodification of the body, et al. Notwithstanding some wariness about theory, there was a much too obvious earnestness in questions to do with the body as cultural capital, radicality, intentionality etc. In the end, this Asiatopia still had people leaving much left unsaid, primarily because time was short and bridging cognitive gaps just couldn’t be rushed.

What cannot be said of this effort is that it was a stuffy affair. There were indeed some tense moments when obvious language problems became overwhelming, raising blood pressure particularly when it came to talk on gender and ethics. On the other hand, there was also some apparently good-natured ribbing when Chinese artist He Chengyao called on volunteers to partake of her homemade, spiced, fellatio-inducing popsicles, and Singaporean artist Lynn Charlotte Lu initiated a rigodon of clothes-swapping among artists and onlookers. And so despite the marked problems in levelling-off and translation (Filipino artist Jeho Bitancor’s parody of the capitalist corporate suit apparently came across as a Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra cameo to quite a few folks) the 40 or so artists, writers, scholars, curators and organizers still made a spirited effort.

Indeed, as in a considerable number of performance actions there and elsewhere, incidentals such as the wayward prop, timid audiences, or simply mixed signals made for a layering, a flavour enhancer upon creative work. This would certainly have been obvious to people who diligently attended all 3 of the string of evening Asiatopia performances. And it was on the very first evening that one intense performance by Thai artist Witchukorn Tangpaiboon had to contend with overpowering and unabashedly tourist-directed audio harping on royal greatness and Thai hospitality that was part of a nightly lightshow projected upon the Rama VIII bridge on the Chao Phraya river right next to Santi Chaiprakarn Park. This has been a favoured site for Asiatopia’s public performances that generally play on sombre themes to audiences made up of a mix of local students, gangs, strolling couples, and the backpacker overspill from nearby Khao San Road.

As it came to a close, the tenor of the 7th Asiatopia seemed to be of studied optimism—a looking forward to things that would get done. One particularly prickly and extended symposium session had to do with churning out a manifesto of sorts which didn’t quite materialize despite impassioned efforts to wrestle with the critical language imposed upon current South-East Asian performance practice. Indonesian artist Iwan Wijono was particularly emphatic in pointing out that the Asian impetus to perform prefigures Western academic acts of naming/discourse on performance. Not surprisingly, his recommended tract was an overt flouting, pitting traditional and ritual performance vis-à-vis performance art (more specifically, traditional performance in relation to western-inflected action art). Other points raised had to do with artists having to reckon with the ‘burden’ of criticality, of being pushed to dish out politicized work owing to reigning genealogies that trace performance back to Dada. This in turn gave rise to questions of historicisation and the consequent putting forth of narratives demonstrating parallel routes taken across continents, and that this simultaneity in effect privileges the ‘primitive’ and ‘animist.’ It was at this point that Cambodian academic Ly Daravuth raised the spectre of sanitized integration, citing an ongoing Issan retrospective at Bangkok’s Emporium Mall as a classic case of tradition being folded into modernizing discourse.

In hindsight, this Asiatopia clearly bore witness to a palpable frustration with Western dogma even as its protagonists continue to opt toward engagement with the global artworld by recognizing the power relationships governing tradition, modernism, and contemporaneity and ultimately developing an indigenous discourse rooted in lingua francas and local contexts. Indonesian writer-curator Heru Hikayat for instance cited jeprut—which invokes a break with, a conscious disruption—an Indonesian term already in currency and associated with provocative action. Still other Hikayat citations touched on art’s overly privileged status, this hinted at in the works of fellow Indonesians Handy Hermansyah and Tisna Sanjaya—with the latter giving out pungent jengko seeds as a stinging critique of development-driven deforestation. Arguing for the critical edginess of the simple action as constituting valid resistance, dovetailed with Thai critic-academic Thanom Chapakdee’s cautioning against critical recognition morphing into institutionalization—a watering down of political impact in art that he says, “underachieves at an ideology level.”

This emphasis on the dynamism incumbent on those hoping to keep their art practice edgy seemed to be uppermost in the minds of a number of Asiatopia’s participants as they pointed to the need to break with tradition even while exploiting its positionality. Related to this was the need to define what constitutes acts of resistance even as creative tension continues to be lost to liberalism or a seemingly democratic opening up in some sites. This resonates with Chumpon Apisuk’s call to reckon with Asiatopia’s gains, cautioning against the danger of becoming mere appendages to state-sponsored culture. As is the case for several other artists working out of countries represented in Asiatopia, the Thais seemed to be astutely aware of the crisis within their ranks and not just vis-à-vis the state. All this was talked about with an openness that cut across national borders—a continually evolving discourse on the nature of performance itself, and the conjuring of a range of frames paired with the interpretation of current art practice.

Asiatopia continues to create a space that allows for the co-existence of persuasions at variance—where artists like Thai Kosit Juntaratip doesn’t consider what he does as performance and Wijono openly resists labels, wary of being subsumed in mainstream discourse. Here is the classic wanting to be on the map but also aiming to have a say in how one gets there syndrome—not wanting to have work blend into a nebulous murk that global performance seems to be turning into, yet being at home with attendant ambiguity and open-endedness. The long-term challenge partly has to do with dealing with diversity without flattening out differences in practice.

While nothing may have been carved in stone at this Asiatopia (and that of course has arguably been the essence of performance), this event feeds into the collective project among artists, critics, curators and allied cultural workers in this part of the planet to flex their own muscles rather than having western scholars do the theorizing and provide the nomenclature. Asiatopia was a strategic move to beef up the ranks. It also ministered to a need to pool together documentation in a yet to be decided form. Whether physical or online but definitely multi-lingual/multi-format this archive would be used for networking and would further interaction begun at this first symposium-festival.


7th Asiatopia and 1st Southeast Asia Performance Art Symposium, director Chumpon Apisuk, Queen’s Gallery and Santi Chaiprakarn Park, Bangkok, Thailand, Nov 24-27, 2005

Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez is a Manila-based writer and editor undertaking an MA in Art History at the University of the Philippines.

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 8

© Eileen Lagaspi- Ramirez; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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