Wednesday, October 31, 2007

798 Art Space - 5th DaDao Live Art Festival

Finally I can publish this post! Now that the Net Nanny of the Middle Kingdom has decided Youtube is no longer (at least for the time being) a threat to the Great Dragon (and pardon my not being direct, but I wouldn't want this post getting the "honolable censols'" attention!), we're allowed safe passage through the Great (Fire)Wall to enjoy the West's decadent obsession with recording everything (whether it will make someone lose face or not). And, so, I hereby present...

798 Art Space - 5th DaDao Live Art Festival

On October 7th this friend of mine, Fearghus Ó Conchuir (for those like me who fail to grasp the mechanics of Irish spelling, it's pronounced similar to "Okra Who're"), was performing at the "5th DaDao Live Art Festival" at 798 Art Space in Dashanzi (I mentioned Dashanzi, an area of factories that's being transformed into a cultural space, in my post "A day out in Dashanzi" in May). The idea of seeing an international live art festival at such an interesting space was too enticing. Plus, Fearghus had said he'd dance NAKED, and as much as I wanted to be there to understand what is an essential part of his life (DANCE), I do have to admit I was curious to see how people would react, too.

I have to admit I got a lot more that I had bargained for. I didn't really expect much, and I'd be lying if I said all the performances I saw caused an impression on me, BUT 1: I did see some that really surprised me, and 2: I'm no artist, and I don't feel at all qualified for judging any of the performances I saw, being able just to share very subjective ideas (subjective enough that I think they're best kept to myself, the subject).

What I appreciated (besides the chance to connect more closely with a friend through his art) was this feeling of seeing things happening in China, Chinese performers who were trying to do something daring, something new, maybe shocking (whether they achieved that or not is beyond the point, the point is that there are spaces where they can TRY). Maybe I couldn't understand half of the concepts the artists were trying to transmit, but I could feel the energy of the audience, trying to figure the performances out, surprised at what their eyes and ears were perceiving, happy to see things being created (and destroyed) in a space that used to be an abandoned factory, in a country that sometimes "Mings" and "Tangs" you sick (especially if, like me, you've discovered a much higher pleasure from the art produced during other dynasties, the Southern Song one, for example).

What I didn't appreciate: that the festival could not publicize itself so openly. Why? Probably self-censorship was at play; after all, this was not the kind of art the government would tout as "quintessentially Chinese" or "morally uplifting". If you want to know what happens when crowds for too uncomfortably alternative events get too uncomfortably big for the authorities, I can tell you Fearghus and other artists were twice prevented by plain clothes police from performing on a busy pedestrian street, a couple of days later (and yes, the performers were fully clothed). Also, I had missed a fantastic Tattoo Convention in July: on its last day, early in the morning, the police put a sign saying "explaining" that "all tickets for the day were sold out", and you could see a number of tattoo artists taking their equipment back home. So I could understand why the organizers didn't want to call attention to themselves. Also, there was little, if no, live art involving texts or language, dangerous tools that can too easily and clearly convey ideas (and you see this in all the international art that makes it to Beijing's art venues: there's painting, dance, sculpture, singing, but practically no contemporary dramatic art involving words).

But now, back to the performances! Sorry I can only offer you a glimpse, but my camera didn't have much memory left, and I wanted to make sure I'd get all of Fearghus's performance. So, here they are (with as little comment from me as possible):

Gao Xizi, Beijing: I - Long Life
Gao Xizi, dressed in pink, eats a pink cake with the help of two assistants until she can no more, and then is plastered with the remains of the cake. At the end, she makes a hand-sign that means "cute".

Artist, origin and piece name: unknown.
The artist kept writing the entries to a diary, day by day, using water to write on a circular strip of paper, over and over, coming back to the same point and writing over the already vanished entries, for hours...

Antipoeta Gerard Altaió, Catalonia, Untitled
The artist set a couple of rows of old-looking Chinese works (including some by Confucius). Then proceeded to place a fire-cracker within each, and finally blew them up , one by one. The recording couldn't capture how terribly deafening the sound was (one reason I didn't film more, as I needed at least one hand for the camera and couldn't cover both ears).

Tamar Raban, Israel: L.E.P.P. (Lesson on Performance in English / English Lesson on Performance / Performance in English on Lesson / Performance on English Lesson)
The Performance was based on words that started with the letters in the word "performance". Each performance uses different words, structures, and objects. The artist finished by "arriving" to the last "E", stepping on it, saying "exit", and "exiting" the performance space.

Fearghus Ó Conchuir, Ireland: Cosán Dearg
Without any warning, while people were finishing watching another performance at an opposite corner, Fearghus took off his clothes and, hands and feet painted red, started his dance, part of an exploration of moving bodies and urban spaces.

The only comment I dare express about the performances is my admiration for these artists that created something where there was previously nothing, and exposed it (and themselves) for us. I may not like a specific piece, or understand it, or agree with it, but I certainly craved their creating.

Monday, October 08, 2007

quick work-related trip to Mexico!

Well well well, it's been such a long time since my last post! I had sort of thought of making it a bi-weekly thing, but then again, the whole idea was to use this blog to share whenever there was something worth sharing, so the "a blog every two weeks" idea didn't really work.

Anyhow, there's two things I want to write about now. The first one is a trip I made to Mexico in September. It was work related, it was really short, I had just a couple days notice, and I barely had time to deal with work and frantically call whichever friends I could to ask for a flash meeting somewhere close to where I were at the moment (meaning, I wish I could have contacted and met everybody but, hey, I stayed FOUR nights!).

And now, just a biased, superficial glimpse at things that got my attention during those few days I spent in Mexico City, things that, after living away for a few years, seemed rather peculiar to me...
  • Mexico City's got a weight problem. I had to take the subway a few times, and it was so noticeable: about 70% of the people were overweight, and we're not talking discreet love handles here, ok? And before you jump and say anything about me being superficial, just think of the COST of the increase in hypertension and diabetes cases that brings, both on the healthcare system and on the poor Mexicans who might not have insurance or who may just not have easy access to doctors (or confidence in their healthcare system). Really worrying.
  • Catholicism is pretty much everywhere. I mean, of course, what could you expect, we were the colony of a Catholic power. But after living in Beirut, now in Beijing, and visiting a number of Middle Eastern and Asian countries in the last few years, the number of Catholic in-your-face symbols and the hard-to-notice presence of temples to other religions was pretty striking to me. Some 95% of Mexicans consider themselves Christians of some sort (and some 90% consider themselves catholics). Even the Lebanese and Syrians that reached Mexico, immigrants that have provided other Latin American countries with a Muslim element, were overwhelmingly christian. Jews number just around 50'000 (less than 0.05% of the population of the country), although their presence is readily visible in some parts of Mexico City (which boasts some 20 synagogues). And yet, pervasive Catholicism notwithstanding, on March 16th 2007 same sex couples could start registering their "sociedad de convivencia", which gave them basically the same rights as heterosexual couples that have cohabited for 5 years.
  • The native element: Indians. Making up more than 10% of the population, belonging to more than 50 different identities, and speaking more than 60 languages belonging to more than 10 different linguistic families, in Mexico City (and many other places) you'll unfortunately find them at the lower end of the social scale, many of them begging, like these woman at the right side of the entrance to the church. Even though in recent years there's been a lot more attention given to indigenous populations and cultures, out of those 60+ languages, some 20 are spoken and understood only by the eldest of their group, and some other 20 are spoken only by the eldest, understood (but not spoken) by people of middle age, and neither spoken nor understood by the younger generation. That is, a full 40 DIFFERENT ways of expression are on their way to extinction. Add that to the prevalence of ONE religion and the invisibility or assimilation of other cultural groups, and arguing for Mexico as a diverse multicultural country becomes rather theoretical (though true in the strictest and narrowest of interpretations, of course)...

  • My home! Well, my parents' home, anyhow. Located in traditional Coyoacán, which used to be a small town before hungry Mexico City swallowed it whole, still keeps its quiet, placid atmosphere (except on Sundays, when the main plaza finds itself flooded by visitors and hawkers). Old villas, stone churches, tree-lined cobblestone streets, small squares, book shops with a spiritual or alternative slant (although finding a poster ad in one of them for "sacred geometrical home systems that reduce earthquakes effects by 50%" was a bit too much), it's always been a relief for me to go for a stroll after a busy day, or on a quiet Saturday morning. After all this years, it is somewhat more crowded (especially during weekend afternoons), but it still is home, definitely, and that sense of wonder I had exploring the area, when we moved in some 20 years ago, is still there.

It was short, it was busy, I saw precious few friends, and barely managed to dedicate some time to my closest family members. But it was well worth it having my biological clock have a 13 hour zone change twice in 7 days. And, I still did have a day in San Francisco on the way back, which provided well deserved rest, fun, and probably the best vegan food I've EVER had (at Café Gratitude). (big thanks to my friends in SF!).

Next posting: A live art festival in Beijing, too alternative to receive much publicity lest the police decide "tickets were sold out" (never mind it was a free entry festival).