2015年曾參與荷蘭藝術節，茫然不知地走進碩大的阿姆斯特丹市立博物館（Stedelijk Museum)，誤打誤撞地在其中一層走進Tino Sehgal作品《如此變奏》（This Variation）的房間，在漆黑的世界裡逐漸撐開瞳孔，隱身於黑色的角落，聽著看著表演者的歌聲與舞步，也看到入口光源處多少觀眾好奇，最初是戰戰競競摸黑進內，及最後仍能放開懷抱，有些人如我一樣安坐一旁，有些更走出來一起跳舞，表演者與觀眾融合起來，利用一起交流的觸感，滋潤了那個只有丁點餘光的世界，就這樣不知不覺就過了一個多小時，是個很美好的時光。
究竟香港當下的現況，對Sehgal及其作品帶來多大衝擊？看過演出之後，我腦中一直徘徊這個提問。原因是，與其說Sehgal的作品是打破表演與展覽，遊戲與舞蹈的關係，更準確的說法可能是將表演者與觀眾的距離越趨貼近，但仍保留如絲這般的距離，而僅僅依據空間、語言、動作，維持二者的關係。正如是次在大館策展的「信任&迷惑」活動中，Sehgal的兩個作品《這些聯繫》（These Associations）及《如此變奏》一樣，二者都是把空間作為社交儀式來呈現，前者原為倫敦泰特現代美術館（Tate Modern）邀約作品，今次本地表演者在監獄操場遊戲，與路人／觀眾說自己的故事；後者如上所說，表演者在漆黑的房間唱歌及起舞，等待觀眾從光的入口悄悄進來，又慢慢飄離。
Tino Sehgal: Close Contact Yet Out of Reach
Original text: Felix
Translator: Chermaine Lee
In 2015, I attended the Holland Festival in the Netherlands. I was confused as I entered the enormous Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, and found myself in a room showcasing Tino Sehgal’s artwork This Variation. In a world of darkness, I hid in a dark corner, let my eyes gradually adjust to the environment, listened to the songs and watched the dance.
I saw some visitors show their curiosity at the entrance - they hesitated a little before entering the dark room, but eventually relaxed. Some sat to one side like me, while others went up and danced with the performers. The interactions brightened up the dimly-lit world. An hour passed by swiftly - it was a good time.
Fast forward six years, to when I saw the same artwork again at the JC Contemporary in Tai Kwun. The differences between now and then, here and there, politics, timing and changes left me with an altered impression, even though the work still featured human interactions and explored people’s reactions in the dark.
How much impact does Hong Kong’s current situation have on Sehgal and his work? I kept asking myself this after watching the performance. Instead of saying that Sehgal breaks the barrier between performance and exhibition, as well as between play and dance, to me it’s more accurate to say that the artwork bridges the gap between performers and audience, yet still maintains a tiny distance between them, depending on space, language and movement to link them together.
In the trust & confusion exhibition in Tai Kwun, Sehgal’s These Associations and This Variation present space as a social ritual: the former was initially a commission from London’s Tate Modern Museum, and this time, local performers played games in the Prison Yard, telling the passers-by / audience their stories; in the latter - as mentioned above - performers sang and danced in a dark room, waiting for visitors to sneak in from the entrance where it was light, then slowly drift away.
Something that sets Sehgal’s shows apart from the usual community activity is that they do not confuse the role of the performers with that of the audience: regardless of how close the two are, the performers take the lead and the audience follows. However, when I had the pleasure of watching the performance it was a weekday afternoon. The performers worked non-stop in either the inconspicuous dark room or the square outdoors, but the problem was the pathetically small number of spectators - at times I was there on my own, or with only one or two other people.
Without many spectators, and in Hong Kong where the audience is used to being reserved and keeping a distance from the performers, how can an artwork like this, which focuses on interactions, be realized to the full? Not to mention that now we are under the pandemic policies, where the government has set strict boundaries on the pretext of controlling the virus, treating performers as potential carriers of infection and imposing multiple anti-virus measures on them. This inevitably separates the performers from the audience. If interactions in close proximity may risk violating the law or spreading infection, this kind of artwork that explores the distance between human beings is destined to “fail”.
Of course this can be seen as a ‘failure’ from the perspective of administration, as the number of spectators, and therefore of interactions, was too low. Nonetheless, it is useful for the work as it reflects the region’s reaction shows how the Hong Kong audience responds to interactive artworks which are not strictly theatre or dance. Furthermore, from an individual perspective, I could see that Hong Kong performers and spectators both had the wisdom and the right mindset to engage in the interactions. During These Associations, performers walked up to the people watching and told them personal stories they had prepared in advance. The spectators listened in silence, and sometimes responded, turning the performance into a conversation. In today’s depressing environment in Hong Kong, this was an extremely rare opportunity for performers and spectators to converse one-on-one and enjoy the space, a moment to feel free from the pressure of the current situation.
Interestingly, since I was mostly on my own, I received lots of attention from the performers in the dark room of This Variation (other visitors poked their heads in from outside, then left). In These Associations, I stayed for only half an hour, but ended up listening to the stories of four different performers because I was the rare spectator to be present. One of the stories was about a performer complaining to his / her close kindergarten teacher, rather than his / her parents, after receiving corporal punishment in primary school; another, about severing social media ties, was the most bittersweet.
How should we categorize such spontaneous and playful artworks that rely heavily on interactions with the audience? Are they plays, exhibitions, dance or community activities? I think Sehgal did not just seek to challenge the boundaries between them, he simply did not care. In Britain or the Netherlands, the audience is used to conversing with the performers in a show, because it is commonplace for them to express their views to strangers. Yet, in Hong Kong, if we categorize a show as “dance”, the audience will assume this is something to be taken seriously, especially when the term “contemporary dance” is used. In the city, speaking freely has become a risk, so artists often have to engage in self-censorship. Citizens risk paying fines for having a barbeque and wild boars find it hard to survive. In a dark room with strangers, how do we remove the packaging and the protective bubble of art (which does not actually protect it), and simply enjoy the peace and freedom of experiencing close contact and interactions in such a performance?
This Variation and These Associations
大館 Tai Kwun
Artist: Tino Sehgal
Exhibition: 23 October 2021 – 5 December 2021, 3/F, JC Contemporary and Prison Yard, Tai Kwun.
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