ABOUT HOW ART CANNOT SAVE WORKERS
by Kate Mattingly
Does globalization create a flattening of identity? How do cultures respond to issues of imitation and authenticity? How is "the local" represented in a global world? How do the arts propagate the self?
Sadanand Menon, advisor to Chandralekha Group, described the economy in India during the June 22 "what to expect?" discussion: "44 percent of the country lives on less than $1 a day." Menon said 20 percent of the country is impacted by globalization; eighty percent are not. That is roughly 800 million people.
The more I watch in this China/India festival the more I am curious about the representation of the local or often-overlooked. In a documentary film by Rahul Roy called Majma, he gives voice to the lesser heard, showing people living in a small community buying or not buying wares hawked by street sellers. But the sellers are not supposed to be there, and authorities come and dismantle their livelihood. Existence is fragile. People are called upon to fill roles they would not choose for themselves. They talk about working "so that others may benefit from me." There seems to be a deep set interconnectedness of people – very different from individual freedoms. I think about growing up in the States, taught to achieve more, strive harder, and I think again of the States when a man in the film says "This is the age of superficial gloss."
Alongside the impact of globalization comes the question: how to recover the indigenous, the human, the local?
In Wu Wenguang's film "Dance with Farm Workers," the artists tell the laborers: "You are at the bottom of a social hierarchy but important to Beijing. We are doing this project so that people will understand what you want."
How does a government understand its people? Do the artists understand the workers?
SARS was first reported in 2003 by China to the World Health Organization (WHO), but the first death from SARS had occurred in 2002. The delay in reporting the epidemic - either to sustain public confidence or prevent attention being drawn to China's health system – exacerbated the search for causes and a cure. In their 2004 concluding report, WHO found 8,096 known cases of the disease, and 774 deaths (a mortality rate of 9.6%).
Living Dance Studio's "37.8°" takes on this social and political issue: a deck of cards strewn across the stage suggests the randomness of the hands that people are dealt (The only common trait to all SARS patients was a fever above 38 °C (100.4 °F), hence the "37.8" title.)
But the piece as a whole does not bear the intensity or coherence of Living Dance Studio's "Report on Giving Birth." Moments are interesting but indiscriminate: a man pedaling a bike that moves backwards comes on stage from time to time. The dancers' faces appear in the backdrop and images of busy streets are projected onto its surface. A woman removes a wig from her head and slowly walks through a row of the audience.
Each idea seems to relate to an aspect of the epidemic and its repercussions, but the connections are unclear. The piece feels two-dimensional – images made to illustrate what happened rather than create their own contents and interpretation. Is contemporary performance an effective medium for social commentary? I realize that it is rare in Europe to see choreographers taking inspiration from and commenting on social or political events through performance. A friend described "37.8°" as "documentary dance."
Personally I am more drawn to Wu Wenguang's photography project "En route – From countryside to city" in which he gave a camera to people living in more rural parts of China and not only had them take a picture of anything they chose, but to explain why they chose their particular image.
This project – eloquent, straight-forward, poignant – sheds light on parts of the world I have never seen. It shows the local. It touches on how the arts "propagate the self," like Hu Fang describes in "Survival Club." "En route" speaks to issues of representation and human rights. During the "what to expect" discussion June 22, political science professor Barbara Wicha said:
"While I see that artistically and culturally there has been significant change in China I do not see the same attention being applied to human rights. Yet when I am in China and ask people about this, the conversation stops." At the discussion, the conversation stopped.
Four days later The New York Times reported: "China must urgently tackle corruption and spread wealth more fairly among its 1.3 billion people, but political reform will be gradual and only under continued one-party communist rule, President Hu Jintao said.
In a major speech laying out his future agenda, Hu told Communist Party leaders they must meet a 2020 target for achieving a 'basically well-off society,' a key motif of his nearly five years as head of state and party chairman."
A presenter from Barcelona who was at SommerSzene events defined conservative centers of contemporary performance as places which present artists who affirm their own ideas about identity. Again, it is about propagating the self.
In Arjun Raina's solo performance, "A Terrible Beauty Is Born," he captures the call center employee's proclivity to self-transformation. Raina becomes this worker, describing this moment of crossing over when he leaves his town and adopts this new name, new accent, new way of being, and the moment of returning, coming back to the self. Again, the juxtaposition of the local and the global. What is our relationship between identity and the self?
The call center worker says "Empathy is an important part of our work. That's how people trust us." What is the relationship between a government and its people, in the States, in China. How about between the people of Europe and India and China and the States ... Is there empathy? Trust?
In "A Terrible Beauty," Raina leaves the structure, the fabric of the piece open: connections between characters and ideas are suggested, but not always drawn. Things are floating, possible. The observer sees parallels and makes the lines. Or not. I like this ambiguity, this space.
I am drawn to the social consciousness in the artists from India and China, their awareness.
A little history
One of the lectures in the festival examined the role of revolutionary ballets in China. In a paper outlining the lecture, scholar Feng Yuan wrote "Mao Zedong stated that art should serve the political struggle. Under the command of Jiang Qing (wife of Mao Zedong) in 1964, a national collective performance took place in Beijing, including a large number of dramas which modified the form of the traditional Beijing Opera involving new content. Those dramas were the predecessors of the later eight revolutionary Model Operas ... The Red Detachment of Women and The White Haired Girl are the legacies which help us to see the process of revolution and the strategy on nationalism. Not only did they illustrate the characteristics of Chinese Revolutionary Art, but also gave us insight into the process of how political myth was created on stage and dominated social life."
Such a powerful statement on the strength of the arts juxtaposes Wu Wenguang's matter of fact statement "Art cannot save the workers."
Different contexts, different means, different people. This last word reminds me of an idea in Giorgio Agamben's essay "What is a People?" He differentiates between lower case "people" and upper case "People," exclusion and inclusion, zoē and bios. Then adds "The concept of people always already contains within itself the fundamental biopolitical fracture. It is what cannot be included in the whole of which it is a part as well as what cannot belong to the whole in which it is always already included."