HONG KONG — The staging of Lygia Pape’s 1968 performance “Divisor” on the streets of Hong Kong was a fantasy I never knew I had, but witnessing it was a dream nonetheless. Presented as part of the current exhibition A Journal of the Plague Year. Fear, Ghosts, Rebels. Sars, Leslie and the Hong Kong Story (May 17–July 20 2013) at the nonprofit space Para Site, this current staging of “Divisor” channels the potency of the seminal work into another context, one defined by the effects of colonialism, plagues, politics, contagion, sterilization, and segregation.
The exhibition itself explores the murky depths of Hong Kong society and its anxiety, fear, and paranoia. It traces such conditions through the SARS epidemic of 2003, one of the gravest health crises to hit this densely-populated urban space, and against the social changes that have taken place in this city’s long and complex history as a colonial British outpost handed over to China in 1997. In this sense, the staging of “Divisor” as a work exploring the relationships between individual expression and collective will felt like a moment of healing in what has become an incredibly politicised yet highly divided society.
Inti Guerrero, co-curator of the Para Site exhibition (along with Cosmin Costinas), explained the rationale behind re-staging “Divisor” to Hyperallergic:
The struggle for both the individuality and the collectivity one experiences in “Divisor” made us think of the boundaries we as humans construct amongst each other. During times of plague – physiological or cultural (social pests) – people become arrested in their own bodies. Contact, touch, being with others could result in contamination … Hong Kong is a megalopolis that needed a Lygia Pape, strolling in the heart of its downtown. “Divisor” temporally integrated the multi-layered and diverse society of this city.
I took part in the first staging of the performance on May 17, perhaps a dress rehearsal to the second staging of “Divisor” at Tamar Park in Admiralty on May 25 during Art Basel Hong Kong. At first, I was an observer — watching both from ground level and from the walkways that join the buildings on either side of Chater Road, where the happening took place. But as I walked alongside the modestly-sized group, Moe Satt, an artist whose work is included in the Para Site show, beckoned for me to join. Of course, I had wanted to but had not yet found the moment to do so. Something inexplicable held me back; as is often the case when you are confronted by a group of people you don’t know.
I wasn’t the only impromptu participant; a few others joined in. Together, we performed according to the directions of the exhibition’s co-curators along with other members of the Para Site team. We crouched low, performed “Mexican waves,” jumped up and down, flapped our arms, walked or ran and turned around, paused, and spread out as far as we could before rushing to form a tight huddle. We changed positions: heads plunged below the white sheet and bodies waded through a wonderful, intimate space. People rubbed sweaty shoulders with strangers and friends; finding a new order within a given frame of a white sheet — not unlike the white monochrome Pape’s “Divisor” invokes.
I think about intertextuality when I think about the monochrome. The idea that every text is formed from another, in what is essentially a vast and expansive textual blanket. When it comes to a monochrome canvas, a million things are going on — the paint strokes, the constitution of the paint. Then there is the canvas itself — a seemingly smooth surface characterised by cross-hatching threads, as textured as a pointillist painting.
This recalls a perfect moment at the 2011 Istanbul Biennial, in which an image of Pape’s original 1968 “Divisor” performance on the streets of Rio was presented next to Adriana Varejão’s witty appropriation of Lucio Fontana’s cut canvases, in which the slashes so characteristic of Fontana’s work were instead filled with shades of red oil paint oozing out of the slits like flesh. It was a statement on the canvas as an abstract body — like Pape’s white sheet with smiling heads poking out of it: a social body composed of individual, human elements.
There was a lot of laughter in the Hong Kong re-staging of “Divisor.” When the group managed to collectively fold the sheet neatly into a square at the end of the performance, there was a sense of achievement, too; simply due to the fact that a group of people had managed to turn a sheet into a symbol of that social fabric we all belong to, as abstract as such an idea might seem in a neoliberal city like Hong Kong, where market forces so often trump the needs of the community. This was a wake up call. A reminder that coming together as a society can also be a joyful thing, lest we forget: all it requires is a willingness to participate.
“Divisor” will be staged for a second time at Tamar Park, Admirality, Hong Kong on May 25.