By Agnes Tam (17th December 2022, English Theatre Berlin)
This is a performance about and of failure, as revealed by Ming Poon in the post-performance talk.
The concept of performance originates from a failed audition the artist went through. In that audition, Poon made it to the round to present the solo piece he prepared. That got the jury interested, who asked Poon to re-stage it, giving him 15 minutes to make it “more Chinese”.
Poon transported the 15-minute into this presentation and opened the time window for audience intervention. Also as revealed in the post-performance talk, this session, without exception, is where failures invite themselves to the stage.
The timer projected on the backdrop of the stage started to count-down, “What should I do to be more Chinese?” The audience were invited to shout out their ideas from their seats. Initial response was timid and predictable, such as, “Tai Chi”, “Dragon” and what not. After a few minutes’ warm up, audience was eager to speak up, expanding their single words into complete sentences. Upon hearing their ideas, Poon would ask audience to precisely describe the body movement associated with their ideas.
A quick glance around the venue offered a sketch on the demography: those who engaged were either BiPoC or those who are familiar with the artist. The split between the participating and the observing (silent) audience grew wider minute by minute. Poon shared his experience from previous online and offline presentation in the post-performance talk that those reluctant ones tend to be those who erred on the side of caution. They are usually the ones who are non-BiPoC and are sensitive to racial issues, and therefore choose not to engage altogether.
Ironically, the conscious effort to avoid mistakes by non-action directly co-created a failure – failure to engage audience. This is by no means a criticism but a well-crafted point of entry to closely examine the keyword of the night: failure.
To equate failure to weakness is a symptom of a meritocracy, Leistungsgesellschaft in German. Let us consider “Leistung“ as performance, as in a machine. That allows us to equate performance to productivity to positivity, as the measurement of success. This equation is validated by our society. But it is flawed in that it translates ability (performance) to morality (positivity). Seen this way, we can make sense of the audience’s non-action as an action to preserve at least an appearance of a positive society. Being indifferent to difference, in this setting, of course is to maintain the space of diversity. But it would be a self-deception if this acknowledgement to diversity is to be taken as a knowledge of diversity.
I would enlist the motto in the age of enlightenment: “dare to know” to hold a mirror against such appearance of progressive-ness. Back in the days, that was a call to demystification where religion was at its limit to explain the world to the world. A self-empowerment of common people indeed, but it also took the courage of them to debase the knowledge that they had long held as truth. The courage to know is to acknowledge one’s ignorance. Hence, prerequisite for “dare-to-know” is “dare-to-fail”. Again, it is not about morality, it is within our ability.
When it comes to social attitude, language is a major and basic element. It is my experience that in everyday language, the word “exotisch” is in more liberal use than in English language. It is a word that encapsulates the value judgement by the civilised/the enlightened. It is a category of the unknown or untamed by those in the know. Hence to call something exotic is at a once a claim to power position.
Although dictionary entries tend to neutralise the power connotation in the word exotic to say that it means something “foreign” and the like, the word is essentially another adjective that represents the off-white. For example, tour operators would not describe the mammals (human included) living in the North Pole exotic, even though they are as rare and foreign as the wildcat in South-East Asia. Regardless, in German and English, the word hints at consumerism: exotic fruits, exotic animal, and exotic destination. To go back to the example of artic and tropical animals. They are both “exotic”, a.k.a. foreign – according to dictionary definition. Why tropical exotic experience is up for grab in a flight + hotel package, while we are told to think thrice before venturing a Nordic trip for the sake of the wellbeing of mother earth? The way we narrate our surroundings essentially reflects how we structure our relationship in the world.
Power imbalance between the jury in the audition and the artist is the impetus of this production. To collapse the power structure – as the saying has it, has to start from the fundamental. If we speak of the power to distribute social resources rests in the hands of gated communities, let us not forget that it is the gate, the doorman that first gate to keep out the unwanted and uninvited. The receptionist or the mail-sorting person also holds the key to the power, where they can effortlessly put someone through the line to the person in the position, or cut your call, or delete your email (cf. Kafka’s »the Castle«). It is no joke that only when you are in front of the guard of a gated community that you feel the power of the powerless. That said, the equally urgent task to shake up the power-structure lies in the Volksmund – the popular tongue. Only when we kick-off a structural re-wiring do we see a faint hope.
“Describe to me, how does a dragon move?”, Poon gave the audience a very practical take-home, to adapt to daily practice: “tell me, how does this exotic XYZ appeal to you?”
Your dragon is not my dragon; your meat is my poison.
While the clarification questions serve to pinpoint and to concretise a vague and abstract idea, it underlines the asynchrony in common sense in the first place. A dis-appointment. An appointment is a fixation, a meeting point; to pre-fix with a hyphenated dis – indicates a dislocation, a meeting that did not take place.
The costume of Poon is a spot on dis-appointment. Through the presentation Poon was in a yellow jumpsuit, an immediate reminiscence of Bruce Lee (as in »Game of Death«) a popular Chinese-ness icon. Yet as someone brought up in colonial culture, Poon did not consider himself “Chinese” enough. As such, the yellow jumpsuit was at most a self-reflection that it was but a yellow skin only. As Cantonese vernacular (or maybe in other languages too) had it, a banana, yellow outside and inside white. The dis-appointment between appearance and substance is not his failure. Instead, we have to question whether it is a legitimate expectation.
In the last segment, Poon changed into another jumpsuit that wrapped him up from head to toe. That turned the yellow skin to be his single identifier, or so we thought. Faceless, Poon re-staged his solo, which he ended with the same posture (of touching his thigh) in the audition experience segment. There, with his own choreography, the artist pro-/claimed the ownership of his body. With that, he turned the table around where he dis-appointed the part and parcel of yellow skin.
For a moment, the artist in this faceless outfit struck me as an Oscar Award statuette. True, is identity not about projection and performance? But in whose script?
The post-performance talk ended with a callout from a member of audience: “Imagine, all of you, if you are an exotic animal!” Right, we all have our exotic animal moments. Yet, not all exotic animals are created equal.