The central thesis of Work-Life: The Making of Community, a two-day forum presented by Theatre Training and Research Programme and the British Council argues that communities are centered on creative activity. It puts forth that communities are constantly and spontaneously being generated through the reception and spectatorship of creative work, which can emerge from the most quotidian, deformalised settings not commonly associated with the elevated realm of the arts. But communities formed through spontaneous gestures are tenuous constructs – they can disperse as quickly as they have been created. In fact, I would say that sustaining a community beyond that fleeting moment of its birth is the crucial challenge and most of the time, this is attempted through its active differentiation.
Differentiation creates identity. But this essential mechanism of identity construction is constantly being challenged by the assimilating powers of the global village. This tension comes under examination in performance artist, Mem Morrison’s latest performance-installation, Ringside, now playing at the National Museum of Singapore in conjunction with Work-Life. Previously seen in the United Kingdom, the work draws upon a lifetime worth of the artist’s personal experiences of traditional Turkish Cypriot family weddings celebrated within his community – the Turkish Cypriot diaspora in the UK. It presents itself as a wedding, Morrison’s very own special day, and we, the audience, are the guests and participants of the matrimony rituals of a foreign culture.
As guests of a wedding feast, each member of the audience is kindly offered a red carnation to be pinned on our clothes and then graciously ushered into the gallery theatre in small groups by the wedding helpers. We are asked to take a rather inconsequential group photo and made to role play in it. I was, inconveniently, the bride. We then take a seat at the long tables arranged along three sides of the gallery theatre. The name tag before me reads “Mehmet Mercan”. We are told to put on the headphones on the table and the wedding begins with Morrison’s appearance. There is some singing, some purely indulgent dancing and lots of fuzzy, monologic talking. We are introduced to the various ceremonial objects and rituals. There is an earthen vase, which contains coins contributed by the audience. Supposedly, it represents the bride’s virginity, or so we are told. The entire supporting cast of thirty ladies emerge, dance around aimlessly and begin wrapping plastic sheets around themselves, wearing them as wedding gowns. Morrison wanders amidst them and attempts to choose his bride, but with little success. The ladies depart. He violently smashes the ceremonial vase. The hymen is broken, or as we are told.
As I viewed, or rather “participated” in the wedding rituals put together by Morrison and his supporting ladies, I was reminded particularly of the wedding party in Jonathan Demme’s film Rachel Getting Married and the culturally heterogenous wedding guests in it. The resemblance is striking particularly in the segment when Morrison goes around the tables with his mock-up video camera, filming the guests and introducing each relative, friend and acquaintance. The effect is, at times, unexpectedly amusing and ironic, with bewildered members of the audience finding out that they are the cousins from Cyprus, and at times in the wrong gender. It must be said that the multiethnic and transnational profile of the audience (not atypical of the Singapore crowd at the theatres) plays a significant role in adding much depth to the performance. Even the thirty ladies are decidedly diverse in terms of their age, ethnicity and the clothes they wear, despite being all clad in black.
Such elements, together with the other performative, spatial and aural aspects of the work, contribute to the overarching sense of the transnational utopia that is the “global village”, as described in the writings of Marshall McLuhan. The immersive and tribal style of the soundscape, the vast, barren expanse of the central performance space as well as the aimless abandon of the ritualistic dancing brings to mind what McLuhan described of “primitive and pre-alphabetic people” who had lived in “an acoustic, horizonless, boundless, olfactory space”. In his writings on media theory, McLuhan had eloquently argued that the new media had recreated in us the “multidimensional space orientation of the primitive” which facilitated the shift in human consciousness from one of an individualistic, fragmented and linear nature to one that which identifies itself with the collective, possesses integral awareness and is capable of lateral and multidirectional flow. While the work does, most of the time, succeed in communicating this new sense of human awareness that forms the spirit of the “global village”, the deeper issue it probes is the reception and appreciation of cultural difference and diversity via these continual and rapid lateral movements across the globe.
Through irony, Morrison highlights the many problematic cultural disparities inherent within the seemingly lively, harmonious global village and attempts to then immerse the audience into a culture that is hitherto alien to them through their participation in the traditional wedding rituals of his culture, with the hope that a deeper and meaningful appreciation of the Turkish Cypriot culture can emerge. Realistically speaking, it is practically impossible to achieve a total appreciation of a foreign culture through a singular performance like this. But at times, the work does succeed in creating some vague emotional connections and this usually happens when things are kept simple, intimate and personal. A fine instance would be the segment when the audience were presented with an album of wedding photographs from Morrison’s family. The vivid commentary by Morrison on the memories of each wedding featured in the photograph was particularly effective in creating resonance.
Interestingly, the work also seems to be communicating the artist’s personal disenchantment towards traditional culture beneath the veneer of a celebratory feast, with the fanfare agonisingly trying to cover the silent protest within. For one, the props of the ceremony, from the utensils to the wedding cake, all exist as mockup illustrated cuboid boxes. The wedding girls carry a vapid expression about their faces throughout the performance, even when they are waltzing with the guests on the dance floor. They are all merely hollow, ceremonial objects. The plays veers towards a more overt, angst-ridden expression towards the second half which shows Morrison in various positions of ennui and constriction, revealing the ongoing contestation between personal feelings and the communal traditions and expectations, particularly in the instance of a wedding – a personal affair that is also a communal spectacle. This is in fact made explicit in the performance’s ending sequence which shows the wedding girls revolving rapidly around the artist, tying and wrapping him up in layers of lace that have been embellished with fake dollar notes. While there is remarkable vigour and immediacy in these deeply personal sequences, they seem to, unfortunately overshadow and obfuscate the broader thematic examination of cultural difference and diversity, which I believe actually holds much more complexity, depth and urgency.
I believe the performance would have worked much better if it was more structurally simplified which may help in making it more thematically focused as well. In fact, the best parts of the performance are its simpler, more understated moments, when we are just browsing through a wedding album or when Morrison goes around filming us with that video camera of his. As a whole, the work attempts a melding of theatre with performance art, but the result, I’m afraid, comes across as belaboured and contrived, at times reflecting an indecision towards which end of the spectrum it should move towards. Much of the verbose, inconsequential talking could have also been cut down, after all, the work relies more on the language of the performative body than that of the spoken word. The soundscape, while absorbing most of the time, could have also been fine-tuned and simplified, for the reverberative effects and play with the stereophonic balance begin to sound gimmicky and excessive over time.
The work’s greatest unfulfilled potential, for many, would probably be its interactivity. With so much anticipation built from our entrance into the wedding hall, it was a tad disappointing that the interactions with the audience came across as tokenistic. In fact, the segment in which the ladies dragged members of the audience on to the dance floor to dance was the only point where there was actually sustained audience participation, during which I was, inconveniently, the first to be waltzed onto centre stage. But since there were only thirty ladies and almost twice the number of guests, the remaining guests were very kindly left at their seats to be quietly awed by the spectacle of bad dancing unfolding before their eyes. The interaction with the performance site was also wanting, but this was largely due to the relatively dull and uninspired choice of venue, given that Ringside was previously staged at civic and town hall spaces in its home country.
An afterthought did cross my mind as we left the gallery theatre and reemerged into the cavernous, vacant interiors of the national museum. Would it not have been better if the performance was expanded to take on the entire museum? The potential interactions with the cultural, historical and architectural identity of the space would have been boundless and the sense of participation greatly enlivened, bringing us in from the peripheries of the ringside into centre of the sprawling, lively global village.
Ringside is now playing at the National Museum Gallery Theatre from the 4 to 6 March 2010. Work-Life: The Making of Community takes places from the 5 to 6 March 2010.