The Journey West Travel Office, 43 Zhonglouwan Hutong, Beijing, China
19 June, 2011
Last weekend in the hutongs around the historic Drum and Bell Tower area in Beijing, Alessandro Rolandi from Italy and Megumi Shimizu from Japan staged the performance "Something on the Way." This was included as part of Stephanie Rothenberg and Dan S. Wang’s "Journey West Travel Office" (a “performative installation that casts a critical eye on global tourism”). "Something on the Way" drew upon a mixture of traditions from Epic Theatre to Japanese Butoh performance to impose something of a delay into the everyday life around these narrow hutong alleyways.
In simple terms, "Something on the Way" was a walk that the aritsts undertook from the Travel Office to Zajia, a bar and performance space a few streets away. Even though only 300m separates the two sites, the artists massively extended their walk in both time and concentration as they slowed their pace down to a crawl, drawing out every step of the way into a hyper-controlled set of movements. Starting at 3pm, they didn’t arrive at their destination until 7:30 that evening.
Despite its historic status, the area in which they were walking still holds a sizable population of "locals" who call the hutong alleyways home, so the artists’ actions took place amongst many different constituencies of people: tourists snapping shots of the picturesque architecture and "authentic" local color; locals popping in and out of their homes; street hawkers setting up their trailers next to banks of parked bicycles; and, in amongst all this, drivers trying to negotiate the straitened spaces in between. When I try and put Rolandi and Shimizu’s action into some kind of perspective, its successes and failures highlight for me the tricky position of art and artists in society, especially when they deliberately go out of their way to create a provocation.
Any work that aims to “make strange” and confront the audience with an everyday gesture (such as walking), raises issues that usually remain in the background. By inserting themselves into a unusual situation the artists potentially exposed themselves to the full range of reactions, positive through negative. In this case, this was usually a physical accommodation to their presence, a change of route, a delay while the artists slowly got out of the way – a minor annoyance. But if the action works to produce some permanent change in life or attitude, as I believe it aims to do, this can be very uncomfortable for people to accommodate as they go about their daily business.
The nature of this intervention almost suggests something of a "violent" relationship with the world around it. As I followed Rolandi and Shimizu and became part of the walk’s pace and being in the world, the artists’ disconnection seemed to present an attitude of passive-aggression. By occupying that public space, the performance demanded a reaction. Through the artists’ inability to become absorbed into the environment (given the rules they had set themselves), they created an aura of being separate from the rest of the life that went on around them.
Towards the end of the walk two events took place that brought to the fore the potential of this event and also its problematic. Many of their audience had taken up station waiting on the steps outside Zajia and as the performers turned the final corner and came within view the audience spontaneously began clapping the artists on. However, this gesture of support became slightly farcical, as those last few meters took about thirty minutes to complete, the clapping becoming somewhat forced as time wore on. This difference between audience-time and performer-time was an interesting, amusing effect of the piece, drawing clear attention to the strictures of its methodology.
Also on this final stretch, the performers were required to cross the road to reach Zajia. Up to that point they had been able to walk on either side of the road, more or less avoiding the passing cyclists and cars. But their progress across this road put them directly into conflict with the cars – and Beijing drivers are not known for their patience.
In their work, the artists bring up connections with Brechtian Epic Theatre and the "Distancing Effect" it relies upon. "Something on the Way" did have this effect, but I wonder whether it was too aggressive given the context? Did it become less effective as a result? Are subtler, less overt means better suited to the task? Of course, subtlety holds its own risks.
In the end I do question the results and benefits of this piece. It seemed too easy for it to have a negative effect, in terms of aggravating the communities it comes into contact with and risking reinforcing stereotypical divisions of “us” versus “them” – artists (or even "foreigners") as somehow separate from the society in this place. I’m not convinced it’s enough for artists to insert their actions into the environment and then leave it up to the audience to deal with them, without more of a give-and-take in the process.
-- Edward Sanderson
(All images courtesy of the artists.)