Sunday, April 26, 2009

东宫西宫 "East Palace West Palace", video of the performance and some words about Censorship in Chinese Art.

The 三枝橘制作 Théâtre des trois oranges’s performance 东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace" in Beijing in January 2009 brought with itself a common attitude within Chinese government, censorship.

China has always had a cultural policy focused on maintaining what for centuries has been called "the health and harmony of the Chinese people", even if those vague words have been interpreted in many different ways in their vaunted 5000 years of civilization, it is certain that Chinese artists have never enjoyed creative freedom until they started leaving their country since the mid-twentieth century. So whoever decides to become a creator in mainland China should then take the consequences of it and act in accordance to it; examples of this are the notes and stories, some of them painful, of dozens of writers and film directors, from which some work had gained recognition abroad while the Chinese government reacted by banning and censoring the artist for two, three or ten years because they believed that the artwork in question was a detrimental act to the image of China or the Chinese abroad and / or jeopardized the health and harmony of the Chinese people.

The day of the second premiere (the work premiered in this company's version in 2006) of 东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace," there was a confusion among people who had been invited, as they were being told at the theater (either by phone or at the ticket booth) that the play would not be presented and that that night the play on stage would be 火车带我去哪里, which would mean something like "Where does the train take me? ", another Chinese play. Given the strangeness of the situation, I decided to corroborate with Xavier Froment, the play's and company's director, and with a nice phrase in a text message from his mobile phone he clarified that the play would be performed that day as planned but without the actual name, as the censors (Xavier calls them "the government") had decided that it was not an appropriate subject and the piece should not appear on file as "performed." So the play was shown in the theater but under a different name (though I'm not clear whether it was to satisfy a command from the government representatives or if the play was actually being hidden from them). What is clear is that we did get tickets with the real name of the piece and that these tickets were immediately disposed of so that there would be no trace of this representation (1). The photos below show some of that confusion.

东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace" is a piece written by playwright Wang Xiaobo in the 1990s and talks about a sadomasochistic homosexual relationship between a policeman and a man who seeks sex in park bathrooms near Tian'anmen Square. The piece was made famous by a movie of the same name (1996) and that caused the director to find himself under house arrest and banned from creating for several years by the Chinese government (2) . I am not sure if the version of Trois Oranges is based on the film or the original text of Wang Xiaobo.

I understand that the censors do not visit the staging of the plays before reading a synopsis of the play or of the staging; in this case they did not need anything else but the name of the work to recognize it in its list of forbidden works. However, whether because of bureaucratic inertia or simply because they left it for the last moment and wanted to wash their hands someone proposed renaming the play.

Photographs of 东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace" (Beijing. January, 2009)
Note: If you have any problems viewing this set of slides, please click the link in the box and that will take you to the my Picasa homepage, where the photos are.

东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace" is an interesting and courageous play in the context of current Chinese Theater (and the history of film that is behind it); there are no nude scenes but there are clear sex scenes between men and a very clear homosexual sadomasochistic choreography, the texts are clear and hard about the words and phrases used, containing much slang used by Beijing's homosexuals. I already recognize a characteristic of director Xavier Froment's actors and their performance: an apparent bodily passivity, avoiding the traditional excesses of Chinese realistic performances, the actors seem to move in a very defined choreography, having most of the time clear and specific tasks to carry on stage and thus avoiding any game of improvisation. The images on stage, another crucial point in Froment, require a great deal of preparatory work on stage and, when they become defined, their climax shows strength and an overall penetration in the viewer. I can recall that in an exchange of phrases of almost five minutes, the police officer (acted by Kang Luqi) is tying a large rope around his counterpart, but that action has no direct relation to the text, only at the end of the text, in a violent and emotional moment does the preparation make sense (you can see the images both in the video and in the photographs). The final scene takes us to the passion unleashed by the police; him, who had not accepted the game and seductive ways of the man of the bathrooms, exploits and literally rapes the man ad nauseam.

Through my years of living in China I've learned that even when not written into law there are dozens of bans in the Chinese scene: it is forbidden to portray explicit sex, nudity, foul words, religious issues, political issues, to mention the current government, to address social issues, issues of general interest at the moment, scandalous issues, and a long list of etceteras. I've learned that it is better to stage pieces on the "accepted" list (that nobody seems to knows fully), which are generally called classical, before deciding to stage or create any new work. I also learned that street theater does not exist in its modern sense and is simply not done. I learned that in the world of art you can expect anything and you have to engage in a guessing game of what is acceptable or not, what is the trend and what not, what is the future I want for me and family and even colleagues and what not. The backlash to the "attacks" to the health and harmony of the Chinese people can be devastating to the creative (and biological life) of any Chinese artist.

I remember having witnessed several acts of this kind. Just after coming to Beijing in 2005 a gay-lesbian film festival that was going to take place in the industrial-arts Dashanzi 798, back then still an area of alternative art, was suspended; in 2007 a fair for practitioners Tattoo Artists and tattooed people was suspended after just one successful day, after the media had shown what must have been too many out of the ordinary people in a Chinese cultural space, the excuse for its cancellation was that the site could not support the number of visitors; in 2006 and 2007, two performative events were suspended by the police, a group of young people who wanted to surprise people on the street by giving hugs and affection, and an Irish dance group that had planned to do an improvisation at the Wangfujing shopping street.

The case closer to me (because it included a Mexican artist) was at the 2008 Biennial of Art in Beijing, which included several Mexican artists (I'll omit mentioning them). One of them was forced to erase part of his work to avoid being expelled from the biennial and the country (3). His work consisted of a triptych with images of men hanging after an apparent execution, and on the three sections the declaration of human rights was written in Chinese. We were one month away from the Olympic Games and it seemed everything that seemed critical of policies was extremely sensitive for the Chinese government. I am not sure how negotiations took place, but it is certain that there negotiations and Mexican representatives (including the cultural counselor of the Embassy of Mexico in China) were there, but in the end the outcome was what at the time felt to me (and it still feels so) like a humiliation for artists, art and Mexican art in general: the Mexican painter "erased" the text in Chinese in exchange for a stay at the Biennale (what did they tell him? what made him lose respect for his work?). I understand that he asked that this deletion (with white paint) were made by a relative of someone killed in Tian'anmen; I don't know whether they complied, but the act of "erasing" was completed, and I saw the work, the white splotches were there over not so clear Chinese characters and, what can I say? the piece had lost all moral and aesthetic value. The piece took on a new context is true, but the act was, is and remains a disgrace.

东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace" is another example of the censorship game in China and 三枝橘制作 Théâtre des trois oranges are used to it. The play took place and we enjoyed it, with a different context, even though I think the space was not the best for it. We enjoyed the performances of its two actors, which I still deem as having a strange monotony ... along with the feeling I get from hearing Chinese on stage, and we also enjoyed the images, but even more the courage to continue making a free theater in Chinese and with Chinese under these conditions.

Video 1: 东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace” (Part one)
"East Palace West palace" (Part 1) A Théâtre des Trois Oranges production in Beijing. By Gustavo Thomas
View in HD Download 720p HD Version Visit Gustavo Thomas's ExposureRoom Videos Page

Video 2: 东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace” (Second part)
"East Palace West palace" (Part 2) A Théâtre des Trois Oranges production in Beijing. By Gustavo Thomas
View in HD Download 720p HD Version Visit Gustavo Thomas's ExposureRoom Videos Page

Video 3: 东宫西宫 "East Palace, West Palace” (Third part)
"East Palace West palace" (Part 3) A Théâtre des Trois Oranges production in Beijing. By Gustavo Thomas
View in HD Download 720p HD Version Visit Gustavo Thomas's ExposureRoom Videos Page

Final comments...

I could not remove from my memory an interview that the BBC did with the Chinese writer, Liao Yiwu, who started creating again after 4 years' imprisonment and continuous censorship of his work for years because of his writings full of pain and fury, writings related to the 1989 events of Tian'anmen Square (4). Him, in an extremely passive and detached manner spoke of having turned towards spirituality and forgetting hatred, rebellion and passion, and of how now, with a tinge of wisdom, he prefers to engage in playing the flute, which he learned to play while in prison, and in trying to get his writings read and keeping them from being destroyed. When the interviewer, at the end of the interview, asked him to expose his thinking as a way of ending the program, he chose to play the flute instead of speaking. I heard this music as a metaphor for impotence, as the tragic end of someone who has been defeated by the universal power of the state and its censorship, someone who awaits enlightenment as a defeated hero.

Liao Yiwu was a dumb playing the flute to keep talking.

(1) As a curiosity, on the internet I found the diary of someone in China who mentioned the event in his internet diary (I advise you to copy the text in Chinese and use the Google translator to read it in English):

衙 役个子很高不是重点;他身长九尺,有着紫色的头发和金黄色的眼睛,这也不是重点。他抓到女贼后没有送交官府,没有放她自由,而是做了第三个选择。他要了 她,从此以后把她铐在柱子上,据为己有。她喜欢这样的选择,白天,她就画眉施粉等待他回来,为了晚上他能够更加爱她。花容月貌在脂粉与时间中渐渐流逝,最 后变成残花败柳。但这又怎样呢。觉得爱,那么就去爱吧。
东 宫西宫在表演上很大胆。对SM了解一些的人会看到更多东西。。我第一次知道原来话剧的视觉效果也可以这么厉害。而话剧想表达的感觉,最后也在久久不息的掌 声中得到了肯定。我忘不了阿兰的眼睛。黑暗里依然闪烁如星光。他那么忠实于自己的感觉,不管目光,不管伦理,甚至不管自己的伤痛与毁灭。下贱与尊严都需要 被重新定义。灯光瞬间转换,突然映出阿兰血红的长衫。疯狂的做爱。
散场后,我正在预订下一次的演出门票,人走的已经差不多了,一回头突然看见那三 位话剧演员,和热情的观众一起留影。他眼睛依然那么明亮。那个时候我真的很想去问,为什么要选择这样少数派的题材。接受者虽不少也终究有限,限制又多。这 条路,会辛苦吧。。也正是这样,才尤为珍贵。爱极了阿兰,台上的阿兰,台下的阿兰,阿兰可能是你,可能是我,也可能是他."
(2) "East Palace, West Palace is a remarkable film. In 1997 the Chinese government put its director, Yuan Zhang, under house arrest and confiscated his passport. His friends smuggled the movie out of the country so that it could be shown at the 1997 Cannes film festival. We are at once talking of a film with political and artistic implications. The movie is tightly focused on a nightlong interrogation of a gay man, detained in a public park by a policeman. The political ramifications are clear, implying not only a broader indictment of the repressive regime in China, but also addressing the issue of intolerance of human differences everywhere. On the more personal level, East Palace, West Palace explores with unexpected sophistication and intimacy the expression of emotional and sexual feelings through the personal history related by the protagonist, even as he seduces his captor. Beautiful camerawork, top notch acting, and wonderful use of sound, music, and interposed theatrical images combine to make this a revealing, touching, and convincing exposition on the complexities of love.It seems only fair to alert potential viewers that the pacing is slow as the film gradually builds in intensity. Patience is required, but it is also generously rewarded." Arthur Lazere.
(3) If you go to the part of the Biennale's website with the Mexican pieces (translating from Chinese using Google's Translator), we discover that the works of the Mexican artists cannot seen (at least on Chinese servers, from where I access the site) even though one of the Mexicans, Javier Marín, was one of the winners of the exhibition. Here is the link to the pages of works by the artists:
(4) You can see the full interview on the website of the BBC:

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you are interested in using any text, image or video from this Blog, please contact the author writing your e-mail and information in comments. (comments are private)
Gustavo Thomas. Get yours at