I have been on the ground in Shanghai for 5 days, absorbing my surroundings in preparation for implementing surrogate pieces at the 2010 World Expo as part of People In Space.
Participating in the international performance art festival circuit requires one to tread through environments to challenge their voice, aesthetic, and conceptual practice to be expressed in the potentially unfamiliar. I believed that being active in festivals, both as an artist and organizer/curator would have prepared me for my excursion to Shanghai. It’s now clear that nothing could have prepared me for this overwhelming city. I have caught myself, mouth agape, stumbling through streets of infinite people aggressively pushing each other to get from Point A to Point B. Equally impudent smells abound from the trash baking in the oppressive heat, the accumulation of bodies, and street vendors selling any food imaginable on a stick (The melon impaled with chopsticks is an essential experience for anyone visiting Shanghai).
A cacophony of a language I cannot understand funnels through my ears. Everything is lit up here. Gargantuan buildings pulse with colorful lights. After physically bulling my way through crowds of consumers, I am rewarded with the Shanghai skyline, twinkling above the water.
Decorated boats bearing the names of corporations float by, each one more decadent than the next, engaged in a grandiloquent competition. Before arriving in Shanghai, I expected the massive population to be the most overwhelming and enticing, but the masses of people cannot compare to these monstrous manmade structures.
The third night I was here, I went to “Moved, Mutated, and Disturbed Identities,” an international post-master program organized through the Luxembourg Pavilion at the Expo at DDM Warehouse in Shanghai’s Art District. I stumbled into a concrete room, with a mass of people staring in the center. I snuck through the crowd and folded myself on the ground, a familiar scenario. Light illuminated a pile of trash and a pile of pig flesh accumulated on the ground next to a cart. Two men entered the space. Facing one another, one of the men tried to make intense eye contact with his counterpart, while holding what looked like swine tongue in his hands. The other man looked around his surroundings with a great sadness in his eyes, ignoring his collaborator. They engaged in these counteracting versions of looking for some time. They embraced, and then the man holding the meat returned to his position in front of the pig meat.
He began to engage in an action of stomping his right foot on the meat while simultaneously hitting himself in the face with the swine tongue he held in his hands.
After a while of doing this, the other man, a Chinese Street Singer began to sing a folksong about memory, and being forgotten. When his singing ended, the men hugged.
Although Nguyen Anh Tuan’s actions presented in “Celebrating the End of a Relaxing Time,” consisted of stomping, punching oneself in the face with raw meat, and confronting deep sadness, the piece felt strangely gentle. Perhaps it was because the action was framed with a warm embrace between the two men. Maybe it was the familiarity. This experience reminded me of how far reaching the universal language of art truly is. No matter how out of place one may feel, there are always ways in which we can communicate through the cultural barriers to find a piece of comfort.