Art

Performance Artists Probe East Asian Identity and Power Dynamics

As East Asian artists become increasingly visible, we chose to focus on their work at the Itinerant Performance Art Festival, where live art lent itself easily to political concerns.

Jerico Domingo performing “Consume Me” at the Last Frontier (photo by Emilio Rojas)

The annual nine-day Itinerant Performance Art Festival, first held in 2010 and organized by Hector Canonge, wrapped late May in Flushing Meadows Park but still remains on our minds as one of the city’s more diverse performance art events. It included dynamo Martinican duo Annabel Guérédrat and Henri Tauliaut opening the tri-borough festival with a gorgeous and humorous new work, a smart interactive piece by female trio Abbey of Misrule at Panoply Performance Lab, and strong Bangladeshi and Puerto Rican performers at Bushwick’s Grace Exhibition Space.

A question arises at these festivals: How does one cover them or judge the works fairly? For one, such series are often impossible for any one person to write about and see in their entirety. The sheer scope, on the other hand, allows for an impressive showcase of expression. Performers travelled to venues like the Bronx and Queens Museums, and from Baltimore, D.C., and Chicago on their own dime. And multiple themes ran through Itinerant: feminism, queer identity, post-coloniality, and the US presidential hell. However, no topic alone, however engaging and compelling, can guarantee an especially engaging and compelling performance.

As writers of East Asian descent, we chose to turn a critical eye to the work of East Asian performers in light of our increasing visibility, and, we’re positing, visibility in a genre that seems to lend itself easily to political concerns: live art.

Detail from a 2016 rendition of Jerico Domingo’s “Consume Me” (photo by Emilio Rojas, courtesy the artist)

On Itinerant’s opening night, at the 19-month-old Greenpoint performance venue The Last Frontier,  Jerico Domingo presented Consume Me, a work about US consumerism as it relates to ethnic food and identity. Shrouded in gold satin, the Filipino American chewed on and regurgitated dinuguan, a Filipino savory dish, while an assistant burned writing into her back with a loose touch; since Domingo has dermatographia, the lightest scratch produces temporary welts on her skin.

While the performers in the audience mused about this reaction that was produced without any fire, many audience members made assumptions about the material she was ingesting —  “It was dog food,” someone told us. Domingo’s piece seemed to be about the lingering power dynamics in the Philippines’ post-colonial legacy — she was repping the country where she was born by using its flag as setting, prop, and clue. This strong, uncomfortable work takes time and engagement to understand — part of what worked so well was her sitting still the entire length of the piece. There was no “going around” her; audience members were forced to ponder what she was doing.

Feng Jiang performing “Eastern Body Diary” at the Bronx Museum (photo by Hector Canonge)

Taiwanese artist Feng Jiang’s Eastern Body Diary created an awed silence in the room as audience members watched his internal struggle with his sexuality and race materialize in exasperated dance. Jiang began the performance seated at a table and typing at a laptop, then began quipping with a disembodied voice that represented a Grindr chat. “No Asians, no blacks,” the speakers sounded, “You’re Asian. Asians are only bottoms.” What began as a divulgence of casual daily discrimination against East Asian men and their emasculation evolved into a more abstract demonstration of inexplicable frustration with systemic racism. The voiceover began to explain to Jiang what was expected of Asians (the term “Asians” often dismissing the diversities of Asians and Asian Americans in the context of the US) and the artist slowly began to obey the commands, running left and right in increasing swiftness until his body became frenetic and twisting on the floor, unable to escape the constraints of Western identification.

Tianyu Qiu and fellow festival performer Ayana Evans participating in “Game 1” at the Bronx Museum (photo by Henri Tauliaut)

When Tianyu Qiu arose to perform Game 1 in a sharp Western suit, we waited with baited breath as he sat on one side of a chess board set up with game pieces of the same color on either side. It was disappointing to see nothing but an exact reproduction of Yoko Ono’s White Chess Set (1966/2015) with none of the attribution. Like Ono, Qiu invited viewers to play until it was confusing as to which game pieces belonged to whom. While Ono’s conceptual piece called for a way to collaborate and find a common humanity between opponents — at the time related to her protests against the US’s involvement in the Vietnam War — Qiu did not seem to add any deeper intellectual understanding to an existing iconic work of art. Ono’s work continues to hold relevance to a multitude of human conflicts that exists today, and it felt dishonest that a woman artist’s labor and obvious influence went uncredited.

Zhiyuan Yang for Drawing Hearts on My Dinner Table painted an area of the north wall of Grace Exhibition Space, shirtless and with a long brush that on one end was a Chinese traditional brush, and on the other a Western oil painting brush, which she held under the folds of her chest for the length of the evening. She later explained over email that the Western brush was easier to control, and that the Chinese one had her kneeling and creating more abstract hearts. Yang wore a homemade graduation cap adorned with a tiny Barbie dinner table set for one, which symbolized not only lonely singledom (dinner for one) but also female oppression in the domestic sphere. She painted the large cluster of painted hearts while listening to the songs of Teresa Teng, one of Taiwan’s most popular pop singers, who passed away in 1995. The favorite singer of the artist’s Beijing-based parents, Teng’s romantic music was banned in China in the 1980s at the height of tension between the two countries for evoking traditional ideas about femininity and thus being too bourgeois.

Zhiyuan Yang performing “Drawing Hearts on My Dinner Table” at Grace Exhibition Space (photo by Annabel Guérédrat)

At Flushing Meadows Park, Tina Wang performed the site-specific dance Studies #3, directed by Tingying Ma and with dramaturgy by Kang Kang. On the sunny day of the festival’s closing, in front of the New York State Pavilion for the 1964 World’s Fair, Wang struck poses inspired by qigong, a Chinese form of exercise connected to martial arts. Her deliberate, unpredictable, and dynamic postures rebelled against conventional rules about how we move our bodies in public. Emotions controlled the body, rather than practiced habits enforced by society. Unsuspecting passersby occasionally looked on with confusion and intrigue, revealing how the disobedient body conjures phobia and condescension.

Tina Wang performing “Studies #3” by Tingying Ma and Kang Kang at Flushing Meadow Park, Queens (photo courtesy the artists)

This year’s Itinerant Performance Art Festival featured welcome fragments of East Asian identity. The most successful performances accessed parts of East Asian culture that are otherwise overlooked — Tina Wang’s qigong or Feng Jiang’s perspectives on the gay community — or wove ideas in powerfully physical ways, as in Zhiyuan Yang’s performance, and Jerico Domingo’s durational sitting that denied immediate access to those not in the know, including one of us. Within just four performances, there were common threads in recognizing powerlessness and agency against dominant cultural and state forces. In the end, we both felt a radical potential in these artists’ examination of the common experiences of “yellow” bodies, or inheritors of the Yellow Peril legacy that generated racist fears towards East Asian peoples. These ideas, we think, are a possible unifying marker for political coalition.

The 2017 edition of Itinerant Performance Art Festival was held at various venues throughout New York City May 13–May 21.

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