As evidenced by the existence of paid mourners, the line between public mourning and performance art is blurry, enacted in the theaters of lament and ritual. In two distinct co-commissions for Performa 19’s Taiwanese Pavilion, artists Huang Po-Chih and Su Hui-Yu each staged theatrical productions concerning collective mourning and memorialization. Constructing a speakeasy-style bar lined with bottles of locally distilled moonshine, Huang commemorated the life of Song Yang, a Chinese immigrant sex worker who fell to her death from a rooftop in Flushing, Queens in 2017 during a police raid on the massage parlor where she worked. Meanwhile, Su paired simultaneous video projections with dance to pay homage to Tian Qiyuan, the openly gay, HIV-positive writer-performer who cofounded Taiwan’s first queer theater, the Critical Point Theater Phenomenon, in the 1980s.
Su’s cinematic installations — and with “The White Waters,” his first foray into live performance — reconstruct his recollections of encounters with media: pornographic fiction, for example, or Hollywood genre films. Unfolding across multiple screens against the sound of drums, the performance encourages something like a fugue state. Dancer I-Ling Liu, clad in translucent plastic outerwear, moves spasmodically between the screens and pushes them to guide the viewer through the narrative. With feverish grace, she executes the Grotwoski method that informed the avant-garde “Little Theater” movement, which included the Critical Point troupe and blossomed around the time that martial law was lifted. Onscreen, a many-eyed man and a woman with an alien bouffant crouch adversarially, circling one another. Suddenly they are naked and slick, as if dripped with honey. When they have sex, they are transformed into a single, metamorphosing form: the culmination of transhuman intercourse.
The performance reinterprets Tian’s 1993 “White Water,” a homoerotic all-male adaptation of a classic Chinese folktale, “Legend of the White Snake.” This morality tale follows a snake spirit who, upon becoming immortal, transforms herself into a human and falls in forbidden love with a man. While the story is shaped by a patriarchal ethos, White Snake’s transition from animal spirit to human engages with narratives of fluidity and “passing.” One of several queer adaptations, Tian’s iconic play came to symbolize queer desire and trauma to the LGBTQ+ community in post-martial Taiwan. Su’s “The White Waters” honors the influence that Tian and Critical Point Theater had on the tongzhi community, while exploring contemporary ideas about how media can alienate or connect us.
Huang’s “Heaven on Fourth,” named for the massage parlor that popped up in the place of Song Yang’s after her death, opens with the soft click of slides projecting newspaper headlines about the story, followed by a group migration to a bar where individuals eulogize Song with ethereal prose-poems. The readings were interspersed with the ritual drinking of cocktails containing moonshine (“to honor those that have gone on”) infused with Taiwanese mountain peppers (traditionally used, among other purposes, for soothing irritated stomachs and troublesome emotions), and ginger (which the bartender warns can be “very arresting”). Recreating an architectural trope of Flushing, Huang built a massage parlor above the bar. A woman taps me and asks if I would like a massage, informing me that it will last seven minutes: “seven minutes in heaven.” The massage and the cocktails were both well-executed (firm and piquant, respectively). Were they not casually yoked to a woman’s death, they might have been enjoyable.
When it came to light, Song’s story conveyed the trauma that law enforcement can impose upon sex workers, particularly sex workers lacking citizenship. (ICE has actually targeted prostitution diversion courts for deportations.) Her death catalyzed a media flurry that brought important issues to light, as well as grassroots mobilization of Asian sex workers across New York City. Red Canary Song (RCS), a migrant sex worker advocacy group formed after Song’s death, has held vigils for Song (one is upcoming, on November 30), and conducted know-your-rights campaigns. They also facilitated a WeChat thread where sex workers can share warnings about violent clients, and have continued to push for the decriminalization of sex work.
While Red Canary Song is mentioned in press materials for “Heaven on Fourth,” a recent Hyperallergic op-ed by two coalition members, KK de La Vida and Banyi Huang, reveals the extent to which the performance did not incorporate the voices of RCS, the local migrant sex work community, or even Song’s family and friends. Huang Po-Chih and Performa curators met with RCS members just five days before the performance opened. When it quickly became clear that the artist was ill-informed on migrant sex work advocacy and had used secondhand sources to learn Song’s story, RCS proposed a few rectifications: “Heaven on Fourth” could raise awareness for Taiwanese sex worker collectives, or host a workshop with massage parlor workers. Instead, RCS members were offered free tickets to a performance that marginalized their voices.
While Su builds upon his own relationship with Tian’s story, Huang seems to impose himself upon someone else’s — not unlike the splashy articles that sensationalized Song’s death. The work of organizations like Red Canary Song might be closer to the memorial we need.
Su Hui-Yu’s The White Water was performed on November 15–16 at Abrons Art Center (466 Grand Street, Lower East Side). The performance was organized by Maaike Gouwenberg, and was co-commissioned by Performa and Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab (C-Lab).
Huang Po-Chi’s Heaven on Fourth was staged at the Performa Hub (47 Wooster Street, SoHo), November 14–16 and 21–23. The event was organized by Esa Vincenty Nickle and Jo Hsiao, and was co-commissioned by Performa and the Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
Both projects were part of the Taiwanese Pavilion for the Performa 19 Biennial.