By Beijing Paper Tiger Theater Studio
For the youth of today’s China, the English word “cool” is used to denote an attractive, stylish or innovative quality, whether it is in a person, a product or a way of life. In this performance, Beijing Paper Tiger Theater Studio sought to examine that culture of “cool” by exploring the connotations of its Chinese equivalent, “酷” (kù) – which also means “cruel”. Thus the question arises: is it cool to be cruel?
In response, the performance delivered an unrelenting barrage of visual imagery, conveyed primarily through intense physical theatre. The audience was continually confronted with the cruelty and violence, in its myriad forms, found in modern society. The harsh symbolism employed in its vignettes invoked the spectres of decadent excess and waste, societal one-upmanship and hypocrisy, commodification of art and culture, political persecution and terrorism – all of which were presented in extreme, expressionistic mise-en-scène.
The characters in the performance had no real identities. They were reduced to mere digits, trapped in the ritualistic routines of their daily lives, and endlessly complying with the demands of their society. Indeed, they appeared to be no better than inmates in a prison: repeatedly responding to the call of their respective numbers, unquestioningly carrying out their scheduled tasks, and frantically scrubbing themselves clean of all traces of abuse and torture.
In this way, the performance sought to re-sensitise the audience to the inherent ruthlessness and brutality which constantly simmers, near boiling point, beneath the surface of civilisation. However, there was also a codified and choreographic sensibility in the performers’ movements and gestures, which was often accompanied by a soundtrack of chilled, ambient electronica. The crux of the performance’s inquiry lay in that juxtaposition: why is cruelty cool? What human quality causes us to accept and adopt violence in our everyday existence?
Such an inquiry has a particular resonance in the context of contemporary Chinese society, in view of its dialectical contradictions and tensions, and its history of political oppression and violence. There is also growing concern and unrest in China over the social, economic and political problems which have arisen as a result of the country’s head-long rush into capitalism, and its rising prominence as a superpower on the global stage.
In that regard, one of the most poignant images in the performance was the hammer, which was used as a prop by the performers. Once a Communist symbol of proletariat power, it was wielded in this case as an instrument of pain. Another unsettling image was that of raw vegetables, the agricultural produce of the peasantry, being forcefully shredded, grated and chopped to pieces by the performers. Within a single generation, the ideological shift in China has been so dramatic – and so violent – that many of its people are struggling to understand and keep up with the resultant changes; and those images reflect their anxieties and distress.
During the post-show dialogue on 13 June 2010, certain members of the audience sought clarification from the director, Tian Gebing, as to the meaning of the performance. Each time, he essentially took the position that it was for the audience to arrive at its own interpretation. Tellingly, one of his final responses was that even if the audience did not comprehend the performance (“看懂”), it was nevertheless important for them to witness it (“看到”).
So observe and draw your own conclusions; do not succumb to apathy.
Filed under: Uncategorized
You know, I’m not really ready to make a coherent judgment about this. And I’d hate my voice to seem like it’s speaking for the opinions of everyone on the blog.
So this will be an open thread for now. What was the best and worst of the festival? What was its personality like? What do we want next year?