Exotic Animal

Re-staging of Exotic Animal
By Dandan Liu (7th December 2022)

The production Exotic Animal by Ming Poon has gone through various stages. The first round of performances took place via Zoom during the lockdown in 2020, the second round was performed live in April 2022 in Berlin. In the two versions, I, as the dramaturge of this performance, observed noticeable differences in the group dynamics on the part of the audience. In the online performances, there was a large number of Singaporean audiences who had a different sensitivity and concern about racist power structures from white audiences and BIPoC* audiences who are socialised in a European context. While in the Zoom version where the audience could not see each other and sporadically interacted with Ming via the computer screen, in the live performance the infectious laughter, perceptible body language, as well as the exchange of glances between the audience created more intense social pressure that either encouraged or intimidated the participation of individual audience members. 

The development process of the performance is also a learning process for Ming and me, helping us understand how the individual experience of the audience resulted in the different ways they deal with the ‘audition’ situation, presented in the performance. Depending on how much the audience members are personally affected by racist power structures, they react emotionally very differently to the interactive part in this work. Presenting stereotypes on stage with participation from the audience is amusing and absurd in some cases, but could also potentially be uncomfortable for some BIPoC audience members, as their expectation for a safe space and empowerment through Ming, seen as their proxy on stage, may be left unfulfilled.

We spent a lot of time looking at the performance from different perspectives. What might the performance mean to white, BIPoC, and Asian audiences, who grow up in Europe or Asia, respectively? Is it even possible to create an interactive and reflective framework that bring new experiences and ideas to all the various audience groups in the auditorium? The positionalities, responsibilities and concerns of the audiences in relation to the theme of exoticisation are not only different, but are sometimes even contradictory. 

As dramaturge, I personally understand the interactive scene of Exotic Animal as a true, political struggle with real consequences. The individual audience member’s decision to actively intervene, participate, oppose, or remain silent reflects the complex social and personal factors that have played a notable role in their lived experience and history. The different reactions triggered in the audience may appear spontaneous, but their causes often lie far back in time. We can only hear their verbalised responses in the performance, but not perceive the thinking process behind them. 

While “action” in the political context is often seen as something intrinsically positive and meaningful, Ming and I are equally interested in the multi-layered meanings of “passive action” and “silence”. For us, not making noise, or the bystander effect, is also a form of participation that has a consequence in this performance. “Audience collaboration”, a performative strategy used by Ming, is not meant to realise a utopian community in the here and now, but to first evoke and make visible the hurdle and power imbalance which divides us. We must be able to live with the result of each evening’s audience collaboration and continue to engage with it after the performance has ended. 

A performance about (self-)exotification in art 
By Dandan Liu (3rd December 2020) for the online format

Although the value of performing arts and the strong competition between artists are hardly ever discussed in aesthetic discourses, they belong actually to the daily reality of the art world. The allocation of limited resources and funds to certain artists is justified by the social or artistic value of their works, even though there is no standard or universal criterion for judging the artistic value. And people’s opinions regarding this value are heavily affected by the cultural institutions, which not only decide whose works to bring to the public but also have a big impact on the artists’ artistic and social reputation, which in turn, serve as indirect indicators of the value of their art.

While the power position of the cultural institutions is already tricky within one cultural context, it is even more problematic from a global and postcolonial perspective. The selection of international artworks by Western art institutions, such as biennials, festivals or awards, has a power to shape non-European artists’ perspectives of themselves.

In Exotic Animal, Ming Poon problematises the value issue of art from a transcultural perspective. Using the dance audition as a placeholder, the performance attempts to reveal the different powers at play in determining this value and in the diversity policies in the cultural scene. Originally intended to ensure equal opportunity given to different cultures, these policies can often end up generating cultural chasms. In order to meet the expectations of these policies, minority artists often find themselves pigeonholed into cultural stereotypes.

Through the use of dance movements, Ming Poon shows the dilemma he faces as a non-European dancer, trying to navigate through European diversity policies. In this performance, Ming’s early ballet training – an art form which is rooted in European aesthetics and also regarded as a status symbol in Singapore – is meant as a commentary on the cultural colonisation taking over his body. Even his contemporary dance practice is derived mainly from European tradition, and decoupled from the social and cultural reality of his origin. At the same time, Ming rejects Chinese traditional movement techniques, because most of them are built upon very patriarchal, sexist and heteronormative values. So an authentic uncolonised subject has never existed in him. As such, he constantly tries to see his own performance through the eyes of the dominant culture – “the big Other” in lacanian psychoanalysis – and to meet its expectations. 

The diversity policy of cultural institutions means that Ming’s otherness can now be turned into a cultural commodity. But Ming has to construct that ‘otherness’, as he has never known of an authentic uncolonised subject in himself in the first place. Exotification and self-exotification go always hand in hand. Self-exotification is a strategy of value enhancement, which the minority will be willing to employ, in order to survive.

The exoticisation of art and artists is problematic, not only because it reproduces stereotypes, but also because it reproduces the fundamental conflict in the discourses over diversity about the notion of self and others, equality and differences, and the universality and the particularity of values. To select the artworks of artists specifically because of their cultural backgrounds and for the purpose of enhancing the diversity of cultural institutions, does not equate to acknowledging the value of their art. It could just be a preferential treatment given by the dominant culture to compensate for its historical oppression. 

The assigning of the meanings and values to an artwork can only be made within the context of the social reality, that the artist is trying to address and influence. Being unfamiliar with that social reality of minority artists, cultural institutions very often misread the meanings of and mis-assign the values to their artworks. Exoticised art is the product of an institutional othering process. It has meanings neither in Europe, nor in the country where the artist comes from. It is merely a depoliticised spectacle, which does nothing to address the actual problems of cultural differences and political conflicts.