Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
xhe
Photo by Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

“xhe”: Caught Between a Square and an Octopus

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By Loo Zihan

(1460 words, six-minute read)

To preface: a statement to disclaim. Artist-choreographer-dancer Daniel Kok and visual artist Miho Shimizu remind the viewer in an artist statement[1] for xhe that any response to the performance is always already inadequate, calling for a critique of spectatorship and gesturing towards the plurality of selves.

I caught both performances of xhe on the 12th and the 14th of October, and stayed within the space for as long as I could afford and had capacity for.  The work runs for five hours, with the audience free to enter and exit at will. This response should not be read as what this gargantuan beast of a performance is, but only what it was from the perspective of this blinkered subject.

xhe unfolded in the Annexe Studio at the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay as a part of the institution’s annual dan:s festival. Specific “audience tips” were introduced at multiple points before the show – via a microsite, text messages to ticket holders, and in the the programme, alongside the above-mentioned artist statement. These “audience tips” became our rules of engagement, the artist statement our key to decode the work. The statement opens with a quote from Virginia Woolf’s Orlando on the simultaneity of multiple selves, and goes on to critique the nature of audienceship. The public is framed as a “dystopia” with a multiplicity of expectations; the statement goes on to propose that the performer refracted through these expectations should “mirror the pluralism of the audience”.

 

Photo: Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

 

One can read in this thought provoking statement and xhe a sustained development of Kok’s previous experiments that centres on the artist manifesting the libidinal desires of its audience and challenging the limits of spectatorship. Two specific pieces that I am reminded of from Kok’s oeuvre are his 2016 collaboration with Luke George titled Bunny, where he solicits objectification and submission from his audience, and his 2009 solo QnA, where he adopts a strategy of direct questioning and polling of the audience on what they would like to experience each evening.

Upon entry into the space, one is greeted with two facing set walls plastered with a panoply of patterns and colours, and a large assortment of materials casually strewn on the floor. These materials range from coloured wires, to long tubular soft sculptures, to large swathes of fabric. Miho Shimizu’s vibrant design reminds one of dazzle camouflage used during World War I to break up shapes and escape detection, conceptually in alignment with the shapeshifting premise of xhe. The ethereal soundscape of electronic music duo Grey Filastine and Nova Ruth, positioned at opposite pillars in the space, draws a central axis of focus and tension between guttural vocals and percussive beats, and make up one third of the spectacular performative trio. The movement-oriented duo that make up the other two-thirds of this trio are Daniel Kok and Berlin-based dancer-choreographer Karol Tymiński. The performance score that can be deciphered is as such: Tymiński, Kok and Filastine & Nova take turns to activate and dominate the space – effectively allowing each other to take brief moments of respite throughout the performance marathon.

 

Photo: Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

 

As specified in the “audience tips”, physical participation in the performance was “possible but not necessary”. We would come to realise that participation ranges from inviting spectators to manipulate various objects in the space, to moving alongside the crowd. There are no fixed seats in the Annexe Studio and most spectators opted to position ourselves at the periphery of the space on the floor. In line with current conversations around the ethics of audience participation in immersive performances, there was one unsolicited moment during the 14th October performance when Tymiński laid on top of me. I was a little taken aback at the absence of communication preceding and following that moment. My response was petrification, in fear of moving without prior understanding of the performer’s physical limitations. Moments like that serve to remind this spectator of the pragmatic incommensurability of relationality. In that moment, both performer and me were bodies on display: one making the decision to engage, while the other coerced into performing a non-response. I am reminded that this desired utopia written in the premise of xhe, where identity is “interconnected” and we are all “trans-individuals”, is ultimately situated within a world where there are very real consequences, on the bodies of the audience and performer, to breaking this contract of spectatorship. Perhaps xhe is located in the collective ‘ideal place’, but also the ‘no place’ of a utopia that resists its own manifestation, disintegrating in its striving towards a multiplicity.

This paradox of representing what resists its own representation became particularly apparent when the performance took an unexpected turn. We were at the halfway mark of the 14th October Sunday afternoon performance. Kok had just finished performing an evocative and magnetic solo segment that demonstrates the overflow of his corpus – with tears, mucus and saliva spilling out of his orifices. There was an extended lull in the performance where he went to the microphone and delivered a rare moment of direct communication to us. With a tone of surrender he proclaimed that Tymiński is in pain and unable to continue the performance, and this lull we are witnessing is actually Tymiński’s turn to be performing. Kok candidly presents his exhausted and vulnerable self, but persists in sustaining the performance with his team. However unfortunate it is for a fellow performer to be incapacitated, this was a moment when the premise of this performance as “bricolage”[2] was really challenged.

 

xhe
Photo: Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

 

If this is truly a world where the “pluralism of the audience” is reflected in the multiplicity of the performer / “trans-individual”, it should also imply that no single entity is irreplaceable. Indeed, the tone of the performance after Tymiński’s exit shifted into the register of care, and it was interesting to observe how other invisible and plural selves in the space recalibrated themselves to mend this gap. One of these invisible selves that had been haunting the space is the third credited performer Chloe Chotrani. Chotrani moved in, alongside Shimizu and Nova Ruth, to hold space and tend to Kok’s exhaustion. It is in the last hours of the 14th October performance that one is reminded that these three figures of care have been persistently present, even though most (as I did for the 12th October performance) would have taken their presence for granted.

The metaphor I would have to describe Chotrani, Shimizu and Nova is that of oxygen. A presence that is light, omnipresent, and necessary to sustain the spectacular performing body. Chotrani in particular, with a practice she refers to as focused on “studies of softness”, worked in the background to prepare for Kok and Tymiński’s outbursts of spectacular movement. She modelled a mode of alert and responsible spectatorship as she positioned herself among the rest of us – gently asking the younger spectators to focus, and smiling as she invited you to make way. I would call it a mode of conscientious pre-emptive watching, where she is viewing the present filtered through the perspective of the always arriving future. Her contingent body is in a constant state of preparedness, hovering slightly above the ground between landing and taking off.

 

Photo: Bernie Ng, courtesy of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay

 

Returning to the cipher, Kok and Shimizu claim in their artist statement that xhe is “concerned with audienceship as a political question”, and it is important to be reminded again that the inadequacies or success of the show should be bracketed with the inability (and impossibility) of this subject to wrestle with an unwieldy creature in all its tentacular complexity. The paradox I would like to highlight is why, in a performance that demands for our reimagination of identity markers, there exists a refusal to see beyond these normative, prescriptive roles? Why is it that in this purported utopia / dystopia that is being collectively assembled by both artist and audience, the labour of care and maintenance falls yet again on female (and in the case of Nova Ruth and Chotrani, unapologetically brown) bodies? I am thinking of this in conversation with the ongoing tension in critical theory on how we account for tangible systemic inequalities as we gravitate towards a post-human world.

Jean-Luc Nancy[3] calls for being-other as not being otherworldly or “Other (the inevitably “capitalized Other”) than the world” but a fundamental alteration of the world our bodies are contained in. In this desire to become an entity between “a square and an octopus”[4], I am reminded of the urgent need for us to attend to the existing limits of our bodies and participate as an ethical agent in this world we share: to locate each other not in Other worlds, but attend to an alteration of our communal present to make it bearable in our co-existence.

 

[1] An online version of this artist statement is available as part of the production dossier in the section titled “Concept”.

[2] A term used by Kok and Shimizu in their artist statement to describe the production.

[3] Nancy, Jean-Luc. Being Singular Plural, Stanford University Press, 2018.

[4] This metaphor was mentioned several times in the synopsis and artist statement for xhe.


xhe by Daniel Kok and Miho Shimizu was performed at the Esplanade Annexe Studio on 12 and 14 October as part of da:ns festival 2018 organised by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.

Guest Contributor Loo Zihan received a MA in Performance Studies at New York University on a National Arts Council of Singapore (NAC) Arts Scholarship and a MFA in Studio Practice from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His performances have been presented at various events, including the Singapore International Festival of Arts in 2016 and the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015. Zihan was awarded the Young Artist Award by NAC in 2015.

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