Thanks to the invitation by Seiji Shimoda, Director of the renowned Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF), I took part in the festival this summer, presenting my research project at the Asia Art Archive on Hong Kong performance art and doing performances in a tour of 4 cities in Japan with 8 other international artists and some other Japanese artists. The NIPAF takes place twice a year, one in winter and one in summer. This year's summer event is called "Asia Meets Latin America" with a Japanese subtitle of "100 times courage" which showed the festival's commitment in spite of financial difficulties.
The NIPAF has been such an intensive experience for me. Meeting other Asian artists and 2 South American artists brought interaction among us and deep understanding of each other's practice in their own cultural and artistic contexts. Different cultural backgrounds contributed to different styles of works, at the same time work by every artist in the NIPAF consistently conveys strong artistic and social strength to challenge the establishments in different senses.
Among the artists, work by Htein Lin from Myanmar and Boyet de Mesa from the Philippines are the most concerned with social-political issues. Htein Lin, who is an active member in political movement and has been jailed for 6 years for being a dissident in his country, expressed his resistance to the suppression of opposite voice in series of work whereas Boyet de Mesa who worked as a community organiser, questioned the overwhelming influence of the USA on the Filipino government and society. Undoubtedly, the unstable political conditions in both of their countries give the artists lots of inspiration in creating their work based on current social issues.
On the other hand, other artists tackled issues such as cultural politics and identity, conformity and social norms, space and body etc in their work. For example, Xiang Xishi from Xi'an, China, who served Japanese Wine (sake) to the audience and then took off his clothes in various forms, raised questions about cultural exchange and cultural identity. Ronald Apriyan from Jogjakarta, Indonesia, represented a rebellious generation who attempts to break social norms by doing a series of kissing performances. Ghang Mihee from Busan, Korea, also explored her body aesthetics through a series of experimental Butoh (a kind of meditative dance originated in Post-war Japan) movement performances. Meanwhile, most Japanese artists, including Shimoda who presented twice his 10-year-old masterpiece On the Table, were doing work which expressed their personal concerns and struggles over existential issues. Artists from diverse cultural backgrounds may have different concerns, but they all use immediate live actions to communicate their feelings and ideas directly to the audience and pose questions about their status quo and circumstances in powerful ways.
As Shimoda said, the idea behind the NIPAF is to facilitate artists' understanding of others' work by exploring each other's background. The festival kicked off with the "NIPAF Asia Performance Art Tokyo Meeting" in which each foreign artist presented the performance art scene in their own country and introduced their works in a 60-minute talk. The festival reached its climax when we headed to Iizuna Height in the mountainous Nagano prefecture for the 4-day Summer Seminar after Tokyo and Nagano. Living together in a villa on the mountain, we had big dinner, we had great wine, we enjoyed bathing in Onsen (hot spring) and, most importantly, we had artists talking about their own countries' history and culture and had fruitful conversations on each other's culture. The most impressive thing was to have a great day out to the Daiza Hoshi Ike lakeside doing lots of moving and inspiring site-specific performance inside the park despite the fact that we had no audience other than the artists. The tour finished at Kumagaya in which outdoor performance plus short artist talks were held.
I was terribly amazed by the creative output we had in the NIPAF tour ¡V doing 8 performances and 3 artist talks within 2 weeks' time in 4 cities had never been an easy thing at all. Indeed the schedule was so tight that artists hardly had time to wander around the cities or towns and had some intakes for our performances. However, inputs from the cultural and intellectual clashes we experienced within the group did give us lots of insights into the creative possibilities of doing performances. The NIPAF offered an opportunity to artists, especially young and inexperienced ones, to put forward their work in an enclosed and concentrated environment. For example, one could see the noticeable progress of Nguyen Kimhoang from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, who did performance art for the first time in the festival. From borrowing similar techniques or forms from other artists to adapting them in her own style, she started to establish her methodology of doing performance art in search of her identity and self.
Thanks for the support of Seiji Shimoda, NIPAF helpers and other Japanese artists who contributed their efforts voluntarily to make the festival possible. As an artist, the NIPAF summer event offered me an inspiring and stimulating experience with explosion of ideas and encounters of astonishment. The festival is like a conference or symposium which facilitate discussion and brainstorming, what we exchanged is more than words, but also our shared lived experiences through actions and practices. This is especially crucial for performance artists because, unlike other material forms, performance art is such a fluid and intangible form that we can only experience the whole thing when it is live. In festivals or cultural exchange projects like NIPAF, artists have chance to see each others' work with reference to its cultural, artistic or personal context, which is the basis of critical discourse for further development. As a researcher, this also added dimensions in my understanding of work by performance artists by tracing and digging the inter-relationship between the work and its various contexts.
Regarding "cultural exchange", I still remembered the cultural shock I had when doing an outdoor performance in the Yoyogi Park in Tokyo. I tried to make friends with the passers-by in my performance and unintentionally angered a group of young girls who then shouted at me and called the Police to get us off. (Well, the well-mannered Japanese do have a strong sense of resistance to something that they do not want.) What troubled me was the question of cultural exchange ¡V how can I produce a piece of work which is related to local culture? How does my work make sense to local community? In such a concentrated and enclosed setting within the festival, I hope the NIPAF was more than a self-entertaining party. Time flies and two weeks did not mean a lot at all when we try to understand the Japanese culture in depth and to produce a piece of work with lots of Japanese cultural references. There were wonderful moments in Daiza Hoshi Ike lakeside park, in the Yoyogi park, in the Neon Hall in Nagano city, in the Sekishoji temple in Kamagaya, or in the studios in Tokyo or Nagoya , where artists were doing very moving performances, but attracting only a few audience. In this case, cultural exchange on one hand did bring fruitful dialogues between the participating artists, on the other hand it did not really mean communication with local community and local culture. Of course, this brought about some other questions, such as: do we do performance in the sake of ourselves or of the audience? Why do we do performance art? How to promote performance art such a challenging art form to the public while striking for the artistic development with critical discourse? What is cultural exchange? I would like to keep these unsettled wonders, not only for myself as an artist and as a researcher but also for the NIPAF and others. Performance art is more than words; it is a practice of actions and you never know what comes after the actions become live. In face of the unpredictable challenge and resistance, what we may need is "100 times of courage" to carry on.
- Wed, 2 Aug 2006