(Before and After
New York)

Curated by Adrienne Edwards

Performa 15: New Visual Art Performance Biennale, New York City, 2015

New York, post et pre-figuratif (Before and After New York) is a performance by artist and anthropologist Royce Ng and Daisy Bisenieks working as the collective Zheng Mahler based on their experiences working with ‘the Bull’, an East African asylum seeker and trader living in Hong Kong, which transforms their fieldwork into a site-specific performance in downtown Manhattan. For Performa 15, Zheng Mahler use the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s encounter with a Chinese Opera troupe under the Manhattan Bridge in 1940’s New York as an inter-textual reference to re-frame their own ethnographic encounter as a dialogue between an African migrant and Beijing Opera singer living in New York.

Tasked since 2013 with researching the cultural residues of Asian-African trade for the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, Zheng Mahler allowed their subjectivities to become entwined with the Bull as he set up offices for a North Sudanese mining company in Hong Kong. Together they produced the exhibition A Season in Shell at the Johann Jacobs Museum which documented the trade of abalone between Somalia and Hong Kong.

Zheng Mahler use Levi-Strauss’s encounter with the Chinese Opera and his description of the city in his essay ‘New York, post-et prefiguratif’ as a frame to link this experience with a constellation of geographies, cultures and theatrical traditions. Bridging the migrant experience of the city as an object of study and subjective condition, the work moves between art and anthropology and from Hong Kong to New York as ascendant and enthroned global ‘centers’.

The dialogue between the two actors is interpreted by two New York based performers, Kenyan-American actor Irungu Mutu working from a script produced collaboratively with Zheng Mahler and Chinese dance therapist Nuo An from Chinese Theatre Works, a Queens based Beijing Opera Company performing fragments from Kuang-Yu Fong’s ‘Day Jobs: Opera Dreams’ based on the experiences of Beijing opera performers working day jobs in downtown New York. The piece is accompanied by a minimalist electronic soundtrack composed by Australian musician John Bartley.

The catalyst for the performance is deeply personal to the artists, the disappearance of the Bull from Hong Kong shortly after finishing their exhibition 'a Season in Shell'. It raised questions about the truth of his story as well as the artists own judgement and the ethics and efficacy of fieldwork as a form of performance and artistic research. The performance is in a way an elaborate folly constructed to bring back the Bull one last time to say goodbye and also a form of public psychotherapy, to 'work through' all the emotional baggage of interpersonal relationships and subjective experience which is usually cast aside in the positivistic ethnographic texts which anthropologist produce from fieldwork. It is also to give the subjective experience some form of collective meaning through the transubstantive process of art making that the performance finds its purpose.

The performance took place over the course of three nights from the 11 to the 13th of November 2015 in a empty shopfront on 350 Broadway, Manhattan converted into a temporary performance space for the piece.

2015, newyorkpostetprefiguratif, performance, porcelain chandelier, 2-channel video 56:00

New York post et pre-figuratif (Before and After New York) is a sequence of three migration stories, of African migrants in China, Chinese opera singers in New York and the migration and life cycle of the abalone from the depths of the Red Sea off the coast of Somalia to the sea food markets of Hong Kong. The third migration story is told through a video piece which mirrors the performances of the actors.

The performance is broken up into five acts based on the structure devised by Kuang-Yu Fong from her piece 'Day Jobs: Opera Dreams'.
i. flower words
ii. ambitious words
iii. soft-obedient words
iv. speechless words
v. crazy words

Photographs: © Paula Court, courtesy of Performa.

The piece ends with a young girl, alone on stage performing a dance to an absent lover accompanied by an exceprt from legendary Beijing Opera performer Mei Lanfang's seminal piece 'A Fairy Scattering Flowers'. This piece Mei based on a mural from the Dunhuang Grottoes in Gansu Province, China, a historical waystation on the Silk Road which tells the story of Buddha sending 'apsara' or fairies to earth to scatter flowers and bless a travelling monk. By invoking this piece, we offer the performance as a kind of blessing to the Bull to wish him well on his travels.

The centerpiece of the performance space features an abalone shell chandelier with porcelain lamps made in Jingdezhen, China. The form of the chandelier references the abalone shells traded by the Bull as well as a Nambikwara mother-of-pearl necklace collected by Claude Levi-Strauss in Brazil now in the collection of the Musee de Quai Branly in Paris.

The performance is framed by the Claude Levi-Strauss essay 'New York post et pre-figurative' which roughly translates into english as 'Before and After New York'. Read the essay.

This collaborative performance would not have been possible without the support and valuable contributions of a significant number of people. First and foremost, a special thanks to our co-directors, choreographers and lighting technician from Chinese Theatre Works Kuang-Yu Fong and Stephen Kaplin, and our performers Irungu Mutu and Nuo An. A big thank you to Yang Yang the video editor and designer for First Impressions and Working videos in Act 2 and 4, sound designer John Bartley, Chinese Theatre Works’ production assistant Yahan Du, Performa curator Adrienne Edwards and director Roselee Goldberg, Performa producing director Esa Nickle, Performa production assistant Guan Li, Herb Tam and Kevin Chu of Museum of Chinese in America, our production assistant in Jingdezhen, China Yu Xueping, Performa’s production team, in particular Danny Carroll. Roger M. Buergal and the Johanns Jacob Museum Zurich, M. Bullbull and Gavan Blau. Day Jobs: Opera Dreams was also developed with generous support of the Ko Festival and from Theatre for the New City.