History Lessened

Promotional image for The Ma(r)king of Nanjing: 1937

Promotional image for The Ma(r)king of Nanjing: 1937

As an anti-theatrical piece, the problematics of The Ma(r)king of Nanjing: 1937 can easily be construed as its defects. In using the word “problematics”, I refer to the inherent limits of the theatrical form which the work exposes and critiques, whether intentionally or otherwise. On the other hand, a “defect” is that which encumbers, cripples and perhaps in this case, stupefies. Nelson Chia’s solo performance at this year’s fringe festival contains a fair share of both.

The piece is the third and final instalment of a series called Nanjing 1937 which Chia initiated in 2007, based on his research into the events surroundings the Nanking Massacre and the contemporary responses towards it. While I did not manage to see the earlier stagings, it is clear that the artist is taking a reflexive stance for the present version, critically dismantling both the construct of history and his own practice.

The performance is akin to a lecture conducted under sedation. Chia deadpans throughout the show’s hour-long running time as he shows us a montage of images, video clips and text that documents his research and travels to Tokyo and Nanking. For most parts of the show, the ghastly photographs of the massacre are referred to but never shown. Instead of historical artifacts, we are shown mostly anecdotes that describe both the memory and the act of remembering. There is an interview with a random sushi chef, in which Chia probes his awareness of the massacre. This is followed by the showing of a video of Japanese apologist Shūdō Higashinakanoa and a Facebook group that promulgates the massacre as a Sino-American lie. The formative text of Chia’s research is Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, from which he retells the stories which Chang had excavated from surviving victims and soldiers. The second half then shifts the focus to the bombing of Hiroshima, highlighting the story of a young girl dying from post-attack complications who endeavours to fold a thousand paper cranes. The cranes eventually find their way to the Nanking Memorial Hall, expressing a desire for peace between the two countries.

Central to Chia’s inquiry are the problematics involved in constructing the historical and the performative text. In the case of the former, Chia foregrounds how history is built largely upon memory, which is itself a fleeting construction. We rarely hear the witnesses speak for themselves; their testimonies are presented either as text or filtered through the voice of a putatively disinterested narrator. Consequently, what resounds is not the ring of authenticity but the silence of the many narrative gaps. There is an undercurrent of pathos harboured within this silence. It is the pathos of the historian, of the act of writing history, of looking into the impenetrable murkiness of a past that can never be completely known.

Chia also draws attention to the figure of the historical writer. In a photo montage that reads like a memorial to Chang, he chooses to highlight her all-too-human susceptibilities. In fact, a reversal of roles seems to occur between Chia and Chang: while Chia, the artist, appears clinical and detached, Chang is portrayed as depressive and mentally unstable, driven by the intensity of her research to suicide, not unlike the archetype of the tortured artist consumed by his art.

More interesting are the problematics of the performative text, which are significantly heightened in a work that takes on a historical event as politicised and sensitive as the Nanking Massacre. During the post-show dialogue, Chia revealed that he made the conscious decision not to “perform” for this show, deliberately imposing a distance between himself and his materials such that he becomes a mere purveyor of anecdotal content. In fact, this distinction is highlighted in the segment when a video clip from the first instalment of the performance is played. In the clip, we see Chia dart about on the stage frenetically, face smeared with makeup in imitation of Noh theatre. It is a stark contrast to the artist as he appears before us presently, clad in black and staid as a bureaucrat. The artist’s ego has been displaced by a figure of apparent neutrality. This obliteration of the artist’s presence is echoed in the set, which is stripped bare and coloured only in black and white, assuming the semblance of a hermetically-sealed vault where history dwells in an untouched, authentic state.

Chia performing during the first instalment of the project, Nanjing: 1937

Chia performing during the first instalment of the project, Nanjing: 1937

But Chia’s endeavour is necessarily fraught with difficulty, pointing to the paradoxical and thus untenable nature of the artist-historian hybrid. While Chia can stop performing, he cannot stop his work from being consumed and reconstituted as a performative text. By virtue of him being on a stage and watched by an audience, his every act, however inconsequential, becomes gesture. This problem is exacerbated in the context of a work where ethical standpoints become complicit, compelling us to decode the artist’s gestures in terms of what he endorses or censures. Evidently, the sanctuary of neutrality which is sought cannot be found within the domain of theatre.

Regardless of whether they are deliberate or not, these problematics provoke thought and form the work’s critical core – one which is unfortunately hampered by what I’ve earlier described as its “defects”. A common perception is that the oppositional nature of an anti-theatrical piece omits any necessity for craftsmanship, when the converse is probably the case, since the degree of reflexivity required demands even greater attention to performance structure. It is a precarious feat – requiring one to operate within the theatrical frame while deconstructing it, almost akin to tearing down a building from the inside. One can easily be crushed by the rumble.

Granted, Chia did make some ingenious moves in this respect, such as his decision to take over the pre-show announcement – an act that signifies the shedding of his artist persona. However, his reflexes for the rest of the performance are unimpressive: his stilted, monotonous voice annoys over time while his aimless walks around the stage are distracting.

Furthermore, he indulges in various theatrics along the way that arguably disrupt his professed mission of taking a distanced, reflexive stance. The behemoth paper crane that is wheeled out at the end of the show, for instance, is a beautiful but ultimately vacuous spectacle. In fact, the restrained, meditative tone of the show entirely falls apart at the end with such cheap appeals to sympathy. With all due respect to the victims of the atrocities, I question the necessity of that final montage of gory photographs of the massacre and the Hiroshima bombing. As the images come on, Chia turns his back on the audience and faces the screen, standing straight with a reverential stillness that invokes the tired me-against-the-world trope. The subtle pathos of the historian has been crudely supplanted by inflated pathos of death. The sequence does nothing to elucidate the mind, only serving to coerce the hapless viewer into making a moral judgement.

To make things worse, it ends in the most uninspired way possible, with Chia posing a sophistic and ultimately pointless moral conundrum to the viewer: would you have dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima if you knew it could have somehow prevented the Nanking Massacre? The problem not only lies in how clumsily this hypothetical scenario is crafted (it clearly makes no chronological sense), but also in how such fancy speculative strokes add little value to the discourse on ethics and historiography. Why ask a question that is going to lead us to a dead end?

In fact, the inquiry loses all discursive rigour by the end of the show. Okay, so the Japanese are in denial. Higashinakano is a total fraud. The massacre most certainly did happen, but the soldiers aren’t at fault because they have been systematically indoctrinated. Is this not the consensus that has already been reached for years now? To reinforce it is to belabour the point.

Clearly, what the project really needs now is a radical expansion of its inquiry. It needs to push farther and ask questions that can open up new fields for investigation, not formulate meaningless koans for the sole purpose of stupefying the mind.

The Ma(r)king of Nanjing: 1937 was an event of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2011, which took place from 5 to 16 January 2011. The production played at the National Museum Gallery Theatre from 7 to 8 January 2011. An edited version of this essay was first published on The Flying Inkpot.

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