Diary of a Madman

Last weekend I attended Lu Xun 2008 鲁迅二零零八 at the new, still under construction home of DDM Warehouse. They have moved from Dong Da Ming Lu, now nestling in at that sculpture park complex on the west end of Huai Hai Lu, whatever it’s called. This traveling theatrical performance commemorates the 90 year anniversary of the publication of Lu Xun’s short story A Madman’s Diary 狂人日记, in which the narrator becomes convinced that he is surrounded by cannibals. The production was a joint venture between Shanghai’s Grass Stage Theater Group 草台班, led by Zhao Chuan 赵川, and companies from Hong Kong, Taipei, and Tokyo.

At first I was irritated at arriving about half an hour late, but as the performance continued, I started not to mind so much, as the piece was very loose and very long. For something that moved so slowly, I would have expected a higher degree of polish, perhaps nudging the action in the direction of ritual or choreography. In the absence of this, the piece would have benefited from greater density; nothing seemed to need to take as long as it did, and the transitions weren’t very tight. There were some recurring elements (laughter, a single character walking back and forth along one wall), and some fun ways of playing with the space (banging metal on concrete in the dark behind the audience, actors wandering about and speaking different languages), but the overall structure didn’t seem to hold these ideas together very successfully. The full dorsal male nudity and fire breathing felt completely gratuitous. But as I’m unfamiliar with the original Lu Xun work, it’s possible that some of the subtleties of the performance were lost on me.

I also caught Torturing Nurse’s gig the week prior, quite an usual set for them. At this, their 20th NOIShanghai concert, sound artist Yan Jun 颜峻 (who was down from Beijing to play with me and Bruce Gremo in a performance of Christian Marclay’s Screen Play, part of the Shanghai eArts Festival 2008 in Xujiahui Park) decided he was going to turn the tables by torturing Torturing Nurse (in his pajamas). Xu Cheng 徐程 was tied up in a bag with a microphone, Junky was tied to a table in a raincoat with a contact mic taped to his throat, and Jia Die 蛱蝶 was taped up to a microphone and chair. (And that’s all she was wearing; as an unintended encore, we got to hear her improvised offstage vocalizations as the tape was removed from her more sensitive regions.)

It was a fun set and a departure from their usual routine, but since Yan Jun led each member onstage to get gamely tied up in full view of the audience, any illusion that we were hearing the sounds of an actual struggle was punctured, robbing the piece of some potential punch, and the sound generated didn’t really live up to the spectacle’s promise.

Also on the bill were Justice Yeldham, the Australian whose instrument is a contact miced shard of glass, Japanese artist Noiseconcrete, and the live debut of Lao Yang 老羊, proprietor of Beijing’s venerable Sugar Jar shop, the best place in China to pick up underground or experimental music. Check out Gregory Perez’s pics (he’s also got some great ones from the Halloween show at Yu Yin Tang)!

After taking in these shows, I had a lengthy discussion with a friend about “experimental” art. I’m all for experimental art; in fact, I tend to think it’s the most interesting kind. But I always keep in mind something Richard Karpen said when I was studying with him, which is that you must consider the scope of the experiment you’re undertaking. Is it an experiment whose results might impact a broader section of the populace, or is it more of a junior high science experiment, which is done primarily for your own education and development? (He could be harsh.) Labeling a work “experimental” in no way absolves it of the need for logic and cohesion of some kind. Personally, I know I tend to sometimes be more lenient in evaluating experimental work, just because I’m happy to see this kind of inquiry going on, but ultimately experimental work requires the thoughtful criticism of artists and audiences to develop and grow, to help gauge the success of these experiments.

This leads to another issue. A lesson I learned from my pal Korby Sears back in Seattle, to which I return again and again, is the idea of sympathy; from an artist’s perspective, you’ve got to give people a reason to want to take the time to engage your artwork. Of course audiences should ideally be open-minded and receptive enough to meet you halfway, but you’ve also got to convince them it’s going to be worth their while and help them fill in the gaps to understand the context of your work. The people behind both of these performances, Junky of NOIShanghai and Zhao Chuan of Grass Stage, are doing exactly that, working to foster a scene in which new pieces and new ideas can be tried out, providing a regular forum in which people can experience new works, and that’s great to see. Putting these two ideas together, experimental exploration with sympathetic attention and criticism, would seem to be a template for a healthy scene.

BTW, Yan Jun and Torturting Nurse were just profiled in Time Magazine, along with Sulumi, B6 (whose new album comes out on the 15th, looking forward to it!), and Shenggy. Check it out!

1 thought on “Diary of a Madman”

  1. Hi Ben

    Just letting you know that I linked this post with a quote and pic on my new blog post. Thanks for this. I was hoping you would blog the torturing Torturing Nurse show as I thought it was the greatest thing I heard of when you related it to me at YYT.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *