Annie Jael Kwan, Practice-as-research: PASAR

As an independent curator and researcher, the Diverse Actions Leadership Bursary has come at a timely moment where I’m exploring new areas of interest related to coastal regions impacted by rising waters, the oceanic, Anthropocene and radical futures.

From 2012 my work with Something Human has focused on ‘movement across borders’ as a broad premise – thinking about when and how borders become transgressed and their impact on notions of identity, belonging and social relations. As curating live art is a big part of my practice, my approach has been thinking through bodies on/as thresholds.

I was deeply inspired by Lynn Lu’s 2018 performance work, haumapuhia rising, that referenced an origin myth of the Tuhoe people of the Maori, where the betrayal and drowning of Haumapuhia in a spring by her own father led to the creation of the arms and inlets of the great Lake Waikaremoana. Dressed in a white gown with long dark hair, resembling a wrathful female spirit, Lu floated face-down in the sea for the duration of the festival, while a layered soundtrack played from the waters with voices of women reading a series of poetic texts.

For one of my classes that I taught at Central St Martins on Producing the Body: place, politics and practice, I discussed how ‘bodies-in-water’ is becomes productive in thinking about transformation. The floating body is itself one that does not stay still. Performing in the water, the artist was situated at the boundary between sea and sky. The bobbing waves meant her body was moved up and down in constant negotiation of that boundary, being above, between and below the different states of air and water, bringing the artist to physical nausea. The body-in-water is one that becomes transformed too. Over the durational 2 hour performance that was repeated over 9 days, her skin was saturated repeatedly with salty sea water, curling her fingers and toes, even as water seeped into her ears, eyes and nose.

The oozing through of physical boundaries of the artist’s body with reference to the origin myth, also speaks metaphorically of the desire to bridge the chasm between pre-existence and existence, life and death. Nearly drowned or drowning, the body-in-water is a gasp away to life-giving oxygen. The durational extension of the performance – its relentless repetition also suggests an artistic and philosophical struggle with primordial anxiety as a way to confront the anxieties and rage at the historical and contemporary suppression of women and their bodies. This example of a live performing body-in-water provides impetus to think further about water issues, especially in relation to climate change and global political and social conditions.

The Diverse Actions grant provides me time, space and resources to develop this new field of research both in terms of developing a practice-led approach to research, as well as the opportunity to delve deeper into research. To launch this new research project, as a starting point I worked with Lynn Lu to bring her new work-in-progress performance work as part of PASAR (Post-Asian School of Alternative Rites) that was presented at the Palace of Ritual during the opening week of the 2019 Venice Biennale.

Drawing its title from the poem, Point B, by diaspora artist Sarah Kay, the work recalls mythical vanished lands including Atlantis, Hyperborea, Thule, Mu, Rutas and Lemuria, and scientifically confirmed ones such as Zealandia, Dvārakā, Kerguelen Plateau, and Maui Nui. Sited at the fragile yet resilient island of Venice – slowly tilting and sinking since the 5th century – old and reinvented rituals memorialise the eventful reconfigurations of land pay tribute to the rising waters.

Three actions comprised the work:

Part l. At dawn along the sinking eastern edge of Venice, she inscribed – using a brush and brine – the names of submerged and submerging land masses. As the sun grew hotter and evaporated the water, these names materialized in salt crystals. As the city awoke, pedestrian footfall gradually wore away the crystalline calligraphy.

Part ll. Along the water’s edge, she wrote – in chalk – a continuous litany of names of submerged/submerging lands, in the contour of Atlantis superimposed onto the city of Venice. This textual outline was gradually worn away by footfall.

Part lll. Researching the demise of lands lost to encroaching oceans, as well as the lands at risk of submerging – such as Venice, and London where she lives – she referenced the Buddhist/Taoist Hungry Ghost Festival that is observed in many parts of Asia. The belief is that during the Hungry Ghost Festival, the dead return to visit. And we, the living, venerate them by burning incense and joss paper, and offering them food and entertainment. Finally, we see them off back to the underworld with floating lanterns shaped like lotus flowers. Variations of this practice of putting candle-lit offerings to sea – as a way to commune with the spirit world – are found all over Asia: from China to India, Japan to Cambodia, and from Myanmar to Thailand. Participants attended a workshop with the artist to create a floating offering to the sea, using flower/vulva-shaped vessels fashioned from rice paper. They used candles, incense, joss paper, flowers, rice, salt, seeds, and/or herbs. If participants had a personal demon to exorcise/put to death, they included a hair clipping to symbolise letting it go. And if they had a wish, they wrote it on a piece of joss paper and added it to their offering. All offerings were set afloat in a nocturnal ritual.

This blog was orignally piblished on Annie Jael Kwan's website. PASAR is made possible with the support of Diverse Actions and Art Council England.

Banner image credit:

Image credit: Annie Jael Kwan

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