Jess T. Chiang, Banyi Huang, Wen-You Cai, Donna M. Mah, and Lu Zhang at Special Special for the occasion of Ben Shu (本术): Transcultural Healing Through the Elements, 2020.
When Euripides commented on the decline of Greek tragedy, followed by the rise of comedy, he wrote, "the ‘public’ is nothing but empty words, and it has absolutely no equal and self-sufficient value. Why should an artist assume the obligation to cater to a power that shows its power only by quantity?" He bemoaned that art is constantly subject to the masses and the market. To what extent should artists consider the audience in the creative process?
Like a lot of my friends last year, I binge-watched “The Big Band,” one of China’s hottest music reality television shows, to entertain myself during the long hours in quarantine. The TV show was a nostalgic retrospective of modern Chinese rock and pop music that featured obscure, washed-up, or defunct bands who would compete for votes from a live audience. In the season finale, two bands with opposing energies remained. One band, Re-Tros, has an experimental electronica sound that oscillates between Post Punk and New Wave, informed by band leader Hua Dong’s many years living abroad in Germany. They sing in English with a robotic cadence, matching the music’s sharp angularity. The other finalist, Wu Tiao Ren, maintains roots in Chinese folk and blues-y storytelling, often singing in the regional dialect of their hometown, Haifeng. Their deceptively simple verse structures are accompanied at times by accordion and acoustic guitar and centers the poetic humor in everyday life. Wu Tiao Ren draws inspiration from migrant worker social surroundings, and seems to thrive from unlikely collaborations.
Wu Tiao Ren on “The Big Band.” Image via Youtube.
My younger self would have identified with Re-Tros’s rigorous intellectualism, as I used to be someone who disregarded public approval and comprehension in the process of making artwork. Soon, I realized that the value of art is all subjective and financially dependent on a few gatekeepers. I went into a dark hole questioning whether art matters, and to whom, until I learned about the work of socially engaged artists who created unfixed relationships between their work and the audience such as Gordon Matta-Clark’s artist-run restaurant, FOOD (1972); Rikrit Tiravianija serving pad thai (1990) in an art gallery; and Tino Sehgal’s This Progress (2006), in which visitors were invited to engage in conversations with docent performers about the idea of progress as they walked up the Guggenheim Museum’s ramp.
I began wanting to make art that looks into forms of social relationships to counteract the traditional dynamics between artist, artwork and audience. Instead of placing the artwork and the artist at the center of the audience’s gaze, I sought to create situations in which people’s experiences and interactions with each other were the focus.
Aria McManus and Lu Zhang on a Pool Date, 2017. Special Special.
Wildman Clab was founded in 2017 with its inaugural work, Boat Date: It Takes Ten Years Practice to be on the Same Boat, where I created a platform for blind dates on a Chinese river boat installation during a residency at NARS Foundation in Brooklyn. People met on “dates” by signing up for one-hour time slots, not knowing who signed up to meet them. In my eyes, participants were matched through the Chinese concept of yuánfèn (缘分), in which one's good deeds in past lives lead to the "fateful coincidence" of meeting another person in this current life. The event was restaged as a "Pool Date" as a part of Special Special's summer group show SPF.
The word “Clab” of “Wildman Clab” is a combination of the words “club” and “lab”, which each uniquely evoke spaces of study, research, experimentation, amateurism, and community. Social oddness defines the “Wild,” which can be understood as primitive, ancient or simply Asian. The work exists in the social engagement of the clab’s collaborators, audiences, and their experiences. Through its various projects, Wildman Clab questions what can be considered normal or civilized as defined by a Western centric world view.
Handle with Poetic Care, 2018. Special Special.
In 2018, Wildman Clab was invited to be in-residence temporarily at Special Special after organizing Handle with Poetic Care, a poetry swap and live reading where everyone came dressed in masks. Since then, the Wildman Clab Manifesto has been realized through its Frontiers Conferences, which are a series of performances, poetry readings and workshops, sometimes in conversation with exhibiting artists, that have explored vulnerability, language, and marginalization, among other themes.
The Frontiers Conference Ben Shu (本术): Transcultural Healing Through the Elements at Special Special was a result of a conversation that Banyi and I had at the end of last year. Banyi mentioned wanting to straighten out the blockages in her body and mind, and excavate our past self and future selves. We talked more about collective anxiety and social fears. Could a performance/event help us and others?
Ben Shu (本术), or “root practice”, included a somatic exploration of Zhu You Shu (祝由术), an ancient healing process that involved praying to the origin of a disease by speaking directly to the spirits. It consisted of a short reading, demonstration of verbal and gestural incantations, and a discussion among the five collaborators who organized the event: Donna M. Mah, Jess T. Chiang, Banyi Huang, Wen-You Cai, and me.
Watch the full Frontiers Conference Ben Shu (本术): Transcultural Healing Through the Elements.
During a planning meeting on zoom, Donna, an acupuncturist and Chinese medicine educator, suggested that the five of us could represent the five elements of Chinese metaphysics (fire, wood, water, earth and metal). As we discussed how to describe the program, Donna was very conscious about the word performance, which she considered self-serving and lacking educational intent. She preferred to call it a workshop, which would offer something practical to the audience.
Through this semantic discussion, I realized that even though Frontiers Conferences was created to be accessible to its participants, Donna made me realize that I believe, most of all, that art making doesn’t have to be fixed, resolved, or offer a conclusion. Sometimes it’s about the process itself. Just like during the Ben Shu program, I was hesitant about writing the incantation referenced in the Zhu You Shu text knowing that I am not an expert practitioner, but I was still willing to share my exploration process.
Lu Zhang writing the incantation referenced in the Zhu You Shu text.
True to Special Special’s mission, I created Wildman Clab to reconcile my own conflicts about art making and accessibility. Each Frontiers Conference is like writing a poem that resists a center-margin divide, disrupts how market-driven art tends to be, and allows for chance rather than scripting what is supposed to be seen or experienced as art. According to Lauren Berlant, “Giving shape is not the same as solving the problem of crisis, or having the right emotions about it. Indeed, two poems confront a tone- an atmosphere, feeling, sense of flatness in the world.”1 At this moment, I still don’t have concrete answers to all the questions Wildman Clab has asked me, but it has allowed me to give shape to my doubts.
1. [Lauren Berlant, Thinking About Feeling Historical, University of Chicago, August, 2008.]↩