Friday, February 3
|An OtB Discussion
“How do artists respond to extreme social and cultural conditions”
January 31 - February 2 2006
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Thursday, February 2
Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven
Young Jean Lee
I'm a Korean-American female writer/director, and I feel like I could make a lot of people happy by writing a linear play about a dysfunctional Korean-American family that "challenges stereotypes" (there's a buff, gay teenaged son who is dealing drugs and failing out of school!) and explores issues of racism (the father gets made fun of at work for his accent and can't get promoted!) and intergenerational conflict (the grandmother moves in with the family and drives everyone crazy with her old-school ways! the gay son comes out of the closet and everyone freaks out except for the sister who is contemplating plastic surgery to look more white!). It would have a title like “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” or “Kimchee Pizza” and at the end, the sister who is contemplating plastic surgery would kill herself because her white boyfriend dumped her for a blond WASP and said, “Did you ever really think I would marry you, you stupid chink whore?” and she was like, “But I’m Korean!” and he hit her in the face and said, “Whatever, you ugly, slant-eyed gook.” She would deliver a moving monologue and then kill herself in some gruesome way (maybe by carving out her own eyeballs?) and the predominantly white audience would be like, “Oooooohhhhh!” and then I would get lots of grants.
I think artists should make art about whatever they want, and I’m all in favor of people responding to issues of racism and sexism and whatever else in their work, but it’s discouraging to me that so much of the art that deals with these issues employs cliched formal elements that white audiences have grown to love and expect from artists of color, primarily because they make the work so familiar and unthreatening. I know an African-American choreographer who recently made an absolutely brilliant show with African-American dancers that used none of the standard cliches of African-American identity politics (although it was very much about race), and this white New York Times reviewer was all disappointed and like, “Where’s the black male rage? Where’s the ooga-booga?” It was completely racist and infuriating.
On the other hand, I don’t want to be reactionary and not deal with race in my work at all, since I want to write about it. My last show didn’t have anything to do with race (although the cast was unintentionally multi-ethnic with no Asians), but the name of my new show is “Songs of the Dragons Flying to Heaven” and it’s a Korean extravaganza with Korean people and dancing and issues and all that. But there’s also this white couple that shows up out of nowhere and starts having a relationship drama that has nothing to do with any of the Korean stuff, and eventually the white people eat the play and we never see the Koreans again. Even though the play isn't anything like the play described above, it’s been getting a lot of attention, and I think at least part of that has to do with the fact that on some level I'm fulfilling people's expectations of what I should be doing.
Monday, January 30
Welcome to the latest installment of our issues blog where we're exploring how cultural and social conditions play into the work of artists. This conversation occurs as we are hosting choreographer Boyzie Cekwana and his company The Floating Outfit Project from South Africa. Boyzie has written the following statement about his work for our program:
"I am beginning to suspect I have lost my sense of humor and perhaps more critically, my sense of objective irony. Increasingly I am drawn to respond to the realities of the ordinary struggles and small triumphs of people around me. It is from this background that I have chosen to construct this work. A lot of unanswered questions about what it is about, who it is for, what it represents and in which context it is located still plague me."
"I do however, know what it is not; it is not about art, nor is it about entertainment. At most, it is a commentary on a prevalent social paradigm in a changing, contemporary society. In collaboration with actors, I have tried to bring forth/unearth the dichotomy between an ancient culture clashing with one that is more modern, urban and largely of Western influence. Through praise singing, itself a timeworn art, we trace through the skeleton of the bastion of male dominance in our cultures. Such dominance is intrinsic in the development and spreading of a pandemic threatening to decimate generations of Africans. The young people, in particular."
I offer his words not for deconstruction but only as an example of the intent of one artist in making two particular dance works that will be performed at On the Boards. As a white male arts administrator, I feel on slippery ground when asking questions about culture and society, mainly because such questions seem to get asked mostly in the presence of non-white artists. And in seeking participants for this blog, I started by asking two Asian-American artists and one African-American artist. Is this the old issue of non-white artists mostly being framed in relation to their perceived culture?
Already this season we’ve had several Caucasian artists who have arguably taken on social and cultural issues. Sarah Michelson’s DAYLIGHT seemingly took on her own disenchantment with a particular art form—modern dance—in light of a culture that possibly cares less and less about it. The Builders Association’s SUPER VISION examined issues of surveillance, data and identity in the digital age. Allen Johnson divulged his own run-in with child abuse in ANOTHER YOU (though the show was about far more). While we did ask Marianne Weems a lot during her visit about the social and cultural commentary in SUPER VISION, these questions were never really posed to Sarah or Allen. Don’t most artists respond to the world around them? And in increasingly conservative times, isn’t the very act of making art inherently a response to social conditions?
The art scholar Johanna Drucker answers with a big emphatic "no" in her book SWEET DREAMS, which argues that the notion of an oppositional legacy—artists responding against the stuff around them—is outdated and incorrectly contextualizes artists in a way that is no longer valid. One only has to think of how many artists turn their noses up at the idea of their work having to mean some thing to understand Drucker’s point. Yet, I wonder if Drucker really factored in the apocalyptic goings-on of today’s world when penning her book because there sure appear to be a lot of artists like Boyzie who have a lot of ripe material at their disposal when considering what their next art work is going to tackle.
How do artists respond to extreme social and cultural conditions?
To inspire dialogue, we are posing some over-arching questions related to the work we are presenting this season. With each topic, we invite peers and collegues to join us for Opening Night Pre-Show Talks, and Blog Discussions.
For our run of Boyzie Cekwana/The Floating Outfit Project, we're posing the question How do artists respond to extreme social and cultural conditions?
Beginning at noon on Feb 2, 2006, several individuals will begin discussing this topic. We invite you to read and join in the discussion by pushing the "Add a comment to this blog" button at the top of the page. Lane Czaplinski, OtB's Artistic Director will begin the discussion with a question/statement on Tue.
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