Ann Hirsch: Playground at JOAN
“Paradiso: Performing The Renaissance”
Artes Mundi 7 selectors announced
Dispossession, a collateral event of 56th Venice Biennale
Rachel de Joode
Mariana Castillo Deball at Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Oaxaca
Miriam Böhm: At On at Ratio 3
your body is my body
New Zealand Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennale—opening dates
The Space Between
Anarchic Color in Katharina Grosse’s Paintings
Anna Franceschini at Kunstverein Düsseldorf
Milan Design Week. Federico Pepe
And the Word Is… at Gershman Y
Meyer Vaisman at Portikus
‘Totally Happy’: Radical Chinese Theatre
Tian, who has been involved in Beijing’s independent theatre activities since the late 1980s, founded the Paper Tiger Theatre Studio in 1997. Since then, the company has produced many of his highly experimental works, which often incorporate improvisational techniques and dance movements. In the last decade, with the Chinese government’s investment in the development of the creative industries, the country’s theatre scene has thrived, thanks to newly built theatres and a nationwide online network of ticket sales. Yet Tian has remained an outsider from this system, which primarily presents and promotes entertaining dramas targeted at a mass market. Many of his productions can only be seen in his own studio or in international theatre festivals outside of China.
Totally Happy was realized as a co-production between Paper Tiger Theatre Studio, Münchner Kammerspiele in Germany and Goethe-Institut China, and was first staged in the Münchner Kammerspiele last October. The fact that the production could not be performed legally and publicly in China spoke volumes about the intricate politics of obtaining the right permission for any form of public expression. To highlight the fact that these two stagings had to be dubbed ‘internal rehearsals’ in order to keep the company out of trouble, Tian opened the play by standing up from his seat in the audience and giving a short speech about his ‘rehearsal’ approach – in this case as a deliberate artistic gesture. Throughout the performance, he occasionally made brief interruptions to give instructions to the actors or to ask them to re-perform certain scenes. In doing so, he became ‘part’ of the performance. Despite their necessity, the interruptions felt somewhat strained and obstructive to the production as a whole.
Photo: Liu Yin.
The initial idea for the play was rooted in Tian’s own childhood experience of growing up, according to him, ‘during the craziest period of “mass movements” in China.’ As Tian says:
‘Everyone, without exception, was swept away by this mass torrent. Since childhood, I was told throughout my education to become a tiny little “screw” in the grand revolutionary career; only in this way could a life become meaningful. Thus, the ideas of individualism and self were synonymous with “sin” and “filth”. Under this heavy, inevitable pressure, the idea of becoming part of the mass actually came from the fear of not being accepted by it, or the times.’
A research-based play two years in the making, Totally Happy took its title from a survey conducted with a randomly chosen group of Chinese people in their 20s and early 30s who were asked to describe their memories of a formative mass experience. As part of the research process, members of Tian’s studio carried out interviews and surveys, both with artists and scholars, as well as with a large pool of other people, about their perception of communal groups and their experience of the ‘mass’. As it turned out, the unanimous answer given by the younger generation of Chinese was ‘Fei Chang Gao Xing’ – ‘totally happy’.
The play itself was a mixture of genres and methods. Comprising a Chinese and European cast and crew, the production was an unusual collage unfolding in time, bringing together different texts and statements from news reports, research interviews, fiction, and documentaries, fragments of which became words and lines articulated by the performers. Both Chinese and German were spoken on stage, with translations appearing on screens at both sides. The movement on stage – both individual and collective – and the interactions among performers were based on stories, events, images and emotions drawn from research into the histories and phenomena of masses of various cultural and historical periods, in China and beyond. Their totality, as the director wrote, aspired to ‘an accidental encyclopaedia of mass performances in performance.’
Photo: Liu Yin.
For a Chinese audience, certain references were obvious: scenes alternately recalled pollution and the public fear of it; the panic of the SARS outbreak in China in 2003; the socialist revolutionary sculptures and figures in paintings that have adorned public spaces in China since the 1950s; a square-dance that is performed by thousands of small groups of middle-aged women in public squares across the country as a form of exercise; the desperation and suicide of a seven-member family; moments of revolutions, group excitement and blindness, and so on. Equally, references to Germany’s Third Reich were symbolic but highly recognizable.
The play, full of references to both historical and contemporary moments, and to Chinese and European contexts, did not proceed linearly. Rather, it was like an unravelling string of re-enactments and portraits of mass commotion and evidence of group mentality, sometimes charged with pointed forthrightness and deafening energy, other times filled with the poison of mutual destruction and distrust. The play presented the paradox of being an individual who makes up a collective, a condition that sometimes contradicts the needs of individual existence.
Photo: Liu Yin.
Ultimately, the ‘risk’ of staging such a production in China lies in its demonstration of deep disbelief in any form of ‘mass movement’. As such, the play contradicts the government’s mandate and persistent rhetoric for creating a harmonious front in Chinese society toward the outside world, and keeping the collective in order to defuse any threats to their power. Recalling the increasing number of uniformed and plain-clothes police force that have recently appeared across Beijing – even in public buses that run through some of the most heavily guarded areas, such as Tian’anmen Square – the cost of maintaining a unified ‘totally happy’ front is running higher and higher for the government.
Thanks to the electric performance of the cast and the exceptional, minimalist set design, the two-hour performance was evenly paced and remained engaging throughout. Perhaps most memorable was the lighting, which transformed the simple stage and cast the different scenarios with subtly different emotions. There is no doubt Tian has tapped into one of the most fundamental and relevant issues in Chinese society, if not in the global community today: the potential and yet the blindness and destructive nature of any large group or mass movement.
Carol Yinghua Lu-->