Performance of Stillness

I’ve been scouring the city for Lego figures, to use in a performance installation on Abe’s theatre that I’m working on. The project, called ‘Performance of Stillness’, consists of digital photographs of miniature dioramas. The dioramas reproduce (in still-life) several incidents from Abe’s plays. One scene, for example, depicts the ‘ghost fashion show’ from The Ghost is Here (Yūrei wa koko ni iru 幽霊はここにいる); another scene will be the sheet upon which images, text, silhouettes and colours are projected in The Little Elephant is Dead (An Exhibition of Images) (Kozō wa shinda: Imēji no tenrankai 仔象は死んだ:イメージの展覧会); a third voyeuristically captures The Man from The Green Stockings (Midori iro no sutokkingu 緑色のス トッキング) dancing with his beloved green stocking.

My first lego purchase. I was lucky to find one with a camera. Lego figures (mostly) all have yellow skin, which is one reason I wanted to use them. An interesting fact is that according to Lego company, the yellow skin tone has been used for years simply to “reflect the non-specific and transcendental quality of a child’s imagination” (an answer to a questionnaire found in the sources below). Yellow is apparently a generic skin colour. So, I guess black or brown skin wouldn’t be ‘transcendental’ enough . . . for the very specific market demographic of white male children, that is (there aren’t many female Lego figures, either, as I recall).

These ‘tableau vivant’-like dioramas are, for one, supposed to resemble the mie 見え pose of the kabuki actor: the frozen ‘pose’ that an actor will strike (or, as is said in Japan, ‘cut’, kiru 切る) on stage to draw attention (and tension) to certain climactic moments in the Kabuki play. It was only after I came up with the idea that I recalled Canadian artist Diana Thorneycroft’s Group of Seven Awkward Moments collection (see sources), and I wonder if perhaps it served as an unconscious form of inspiration. Thorneycroft constructed dioramas based on famous Emily Carr and Group of Seven paintings, added comic accidents and embarrassing situations, and then photographed them. The idea is that the comic embarrassing situations ironically rupture the mythologizing of the Canadian identity (as constructed through the Group of Seven’s artworks), while also undermining  the photograph as a static and objective historical document.

When I change the hair colour of the yellow lego man, he becomes less transcendental, more Asian (the stereotypical Asian tourist with his camera in hand). As an aside, one of the miracles of Photoshop is that colour becomes an abstract “layer mask” that can then be replaced, altered, and manipulated independently of the other qualities of the ‘object’. Hair always has this uncomfortable in-between quality of being both a part of a person and not. Much like the mask, I guess, in all its manifestations.

As makeup and masks are to theatre, colour is important to my photographs. Roland Barthes wrote in Camera Lucida that “colour is a coating applied later on to the original truth of the black-and-white photograph. For me, color is an artifice, a cosmetic (like the kind used to paint corpses)” (1981: 81).

However, the very dichotomy of the ‘naked/painted face’, of ‘interiority/exteriority’, and of ‘reality/artifice’ were foreign to Japanese theatre before they were introduced by the West in the early 1900s. Karatani Kōjin explains that it was only after the fact that concepts of ‘authenticity’, ‘nakedness’, ‘artifice’ and so on became essentialized/universalized (rather than being seen as historically constituted/discovered, as was really the case). Before Japanese theatre adopted the conventions of Western realism, “audiences had found a vibrant meaning in the doll-like movements of actors and in the masked face, the face as a figure; now they had to search for meaning ‘behind’ the actor’s ordinary face and gestures” (1993: 57).

For Abe, too, cosmetics, like images, were not concealing or substituting an authentic experience (the naked face, the ‘reality’ of the image). By resisting the dialectic of makeup/face, or image/reality, Abe developed a method that attempted to escape the centripetal force of interiority, in order so that meaning could play entirely upon the surface of the body-mask- image, which has no depth and is, in effect, no longer masking anything, but expressing its own inherent vitality.

Abe’s own photography and theatre relate to each other in interesting ways. For one, there’s the “minimal, incremental” way (as Christopher Bolton says) in which Abe’s plays “break up units of meaning, like story and dialogue into smaller parts, isolating individual gestures, sounds, or images” (2009: 206-7). And I’ve already mention briefly in another blog entry how his understanding of photography was ‘theatrical’ — how the ‘stillness’ of the photograph has a performative dynamism.

Much like the ‘ghosts’ in Abe’s plays, which are both ‘here’ and ‘not here’, somewhere between dead (inanimate) and alive (animate), the photographic reproduction of still performances draws attention to a productive confusion between ‘fake’ and ‘real’ (ghostly and tangible) experiences. The link to kabuki is instructive here in that the mie pose of kabuki theatre freezes the actor’s body into an ‘image’, inviting comparison to the photographic medium, but in a sense that isn’t simply necrotic: the pose of the Kabuki actor is vibrant and living. Eugenio Barba refers to the mie in Kabuki as “stopping the film in that particular frame where the actor is showing a special tension: hence the meaning of cutting the action and of blocking a living immobility” (2005: 110); and moreover Barba also explains that the eyes of the kabuki actor, which are the fulcrum of the mie pose, function “like a telephoto lens, zooming in on the camera shot” (112) — in other words, the kabuki actor’s immobility should not lead us to assume they are simply passive objects. Rather they are themselves (like the photographer, like the audience) agents with their own scopic will and force. Through this confusion of the boundaries between inanimate and animate, I wish to capture what Abe conceived of as the image in process, one that renders something immobile but in a way that is still dynamic and (physically) affective.

Sources

Barba, Eugenio, and Nicola Savarese. 2005. A Dictionary of Theatre Anthropology : The Secret Art of the Performer. London; New York: Routledge.

Barthes, Roland. 1981. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang.

Bolton, Christopher. 2009. Sublime Voices : The Fictional Science and Scientific Fiction of Abe Kobo. Cambridge, Mass.: the Harvard University Asia Center : distributed by Harvard University Press.

Karatani, Kōjin. 1993. Origins of Modern Japanese Literature. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rolf, Robert T. 1992. Tokyo Theatre 1990. Asian Theatre Journal 9, (1) (Spring, 1992): 85-111.

Thorneycroft, Diana. 2008. Group of Seven Awkward Moments.

For the Lego questionnaire, click here.

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