Performance

A Play Caught Between the Lies and Truth of Storytelling

Louis Ozawa Changchien as the artist Lin Bo in 'Caught'
Louis Ozawa Changchien as the artist Lin Bo in ‘Caught’ at La MaMa (all photos by Carol Rosegg, courtesy the Play Company, unless otherwise noted)

When I first encounter the artist Lin Bo discussing his work “The Cage,” there is something about him that doesn’t sit quite right with me. He faces the audience at La MaMa theater and confidently relates the story of his development of a consummate conceptual artwork, “rally,” which he says he constructed to “subvert subversion.” It consisted of organizing a mass “imaginary protest” commemorating the Tiananmen Square massacre. He tells us that the context for this work is a Chinese contemporary art scene that’s often presented as deliberately provoking the ire of political apparatchiks, but that really only functions as a tourist attraction. He launches into a series of sly allusions to contemporary art failing to be critical or revolutionary, but rather being placating and self-serving instead, and I can’t help but think of other professional provocateur Ai Weiwei and the crowd-pleasing work of Yue Minjun. But Lin Bo is too polished a public speaker. Artists don’t usually have cadences so crisp and unhesitant, don’t pause within their narratives to give expert emphasis to certain phrases. He is too clear and convincing in his tone, has no elisions or oversold emoting. He’s an actor, in other words (real name: Louis Ozawa Changchien).

Advertisements for Miao Jiaxin's "Jail's Seeking Prisoners" (2014) (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Advertisements for “Jail Seeking Prisoners” at La MaMa (photo by the author for Hyperallergic) (click to enlarge)

A dangling thread made me suspicious from the start: a wall of copies of the advertisement for the piece “Jail Seeking Prisoners” in the area between the box office and the stage. In addition to the ads for a $1-a-night stay in an Airbnb that included a cage, there are photos of people who supposedly stayed there — one of them being Hyperallergic’s own Hrag Vartanian. I recall him mentioning the artist’s name, and it wasn’t “Lin Bo.” Even the most meticulously woven stories often unravel under diligent interrogation (which is why CIA agents do that, and also why we think art has a key role to play in critiquing culture), and Lin Bo’s story is soon subjected to this. It’s the start of a series of fictions like a set of Matryoshka dolls. Each subsequent story doesn’t so much build on the previous one as sit nestled inside, suggesting its presence by the threads left trailing.

(L-R) actors Murphy Guyer, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Leslie Fray
L-R: Actors Murphy Guyer, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Leslie Fray in ‘Caught’

When the next scene opens in Caught — which is presented at La MaMa by the Play Company — I see Lin Bo seated in a New York office, being interrogated by an editor and a writer — at first carefully and gently, then with increased fervor that matures into contempt. The question before them is whether Lin Bo fabricated a story of being imprisoned for several months for creating his fictional protest. This situation brings to mind the brouhaha surrounding a Mike Daisey monologue on This American Life that was found to be partly embellished or, further back, James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, originally sold as a memoir but discovered to contain completely fabricated passages. The audience is made to confront the idea that, as one of the actors says, “truth in journalism trumps truth in art.” This maxim prompts some soul searching: as much as I love the honest story that convincingly demonstrates clear relations of cause and effect, exciting me to action against the corrupt politician or whoever else, I also love the invented story, the characters drawn from emotional, not historical truth. However, emotional truth does not provide a stable basis for collective action: that’s how you get lynchings of black people in the dead of night.

Written by Christopher Chen and directed by Lee Sunday Evans, Caught reveals the too-close relationship between artifice, as in cunning craftiness, and the artificial, as in something fake and contrived. Visual art makes its living in that thin strip of conceptual territory. (The piece referred to in the copied advertisements is actually “Jail’s Seeking Prisoners [The Cage]” (2014) by Miao Jiaxin.) Art is usually, according to the rules of journalism, untrue, because it is imagined, then crafted, honed, edited. It’s meant to convince us not by revealing a hidden reality, but by enticing viewers to metaphorically see. Once you go over to metaphor, you are no longer dealing with journalistic veracity but with a lyrical interpretation, which arguably leads to a greater truth, or is simply a fiction. As Jennifer Lim, in the character of Wang Min, says in Caught, you get a “feast from mislabeled ingredients that tastes incredible.”

(L-R) Jennifer Lim, Louis Ozawa Changchien
L-R: Jennifer Lim and Louis Ozawa Changchien in ‘Caught’

The play is brilliant at inducing a kind of moral weightlessness, never quite letting us settle on solid ground. It seems built on the idea of constant negation, always throwing into question the information we grasped in a previous scene. Ultimately it suggests that we exist in an series of overlapping architectures, each with its own rules for storytelling: journalism, memoir, visual art, theater. All maintain their particular conventions through which a kind of truth emerges.

I have long believed that lying is one of the worst things we do to each other, because in lying we are trying to steal someone else’s agency. We tell lies to secure someone’s trust we don’t deserve — to get their money, sex, or a spot at the head of the queue. But Caught causes me to rethink this and see our artifices as guerrilla operations against a tyranny in which one type of truth, journalistic truth, holds sway over all others. The facts of the case compel us to find the defendant guilty, but there is so much that underlies the gathering of those facts, and their presentation, and the context in which guilty and innocent exist as antipodean comprehensions of what a person can be. Caught suggests we should add a third category in the middle: “Guilty, but …”

Caught, written by Christopher Chen and directed by Lee Sunday Evans, continues through September 24 at the La MaMa theater (66 East 4th Street) on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

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