Performance Art in Asia - A Personal Perspective

I am still wondering how I can write this piece on Performance Art in Asia. I know I am one of the people who best know Performance Art in Asia in general. I dare say my activities and NIPAF (Nippon International Performance Art Festival, since 1993) have exerted a significant influence on the development of performance art in several Asian countries.

Of course, I know that each country has people better suited to describe their own history and development of performance art. But on this occasion I would like to express my own views about Asian Performance Art via my own experiences.

First of all, I need to share my personal history and background, as well as that of NIPAF.

I was born in 1953 in Nagano and entered Nagano High School in 1969. In Japan, a big people’s movement arose in 1960. Because the Japanese government wanted to conclude the AMPO (US - Japan security treaty) many students, workers and ordinary citizens marched in huge demonstrations, which rattled the Japanese government. During that period the Japanese government also changed its energy policy from coal consumption to oil. Many coalmine workers were laid off and they also engaged in anti-government activities. Many artists and those involved in culture joined the anti-government movement. I vividly recall a big workers demonstration going to Nagano Station in front of my house when I was six years old.

Of course, People Power was not strong enough and the system remained unchanged. In 1964, we hosted the Tokyo Olympic Games. Many old districts were bulldozed to make way for new buildings and new roads. The so-called Era of Economic High Development arrived in the 60’s. A lot of US-influenced culture was imported including anti-Vietnam War sentiments and the hippie cult. Those times also spawned a strong Japanese underground culture, in which many people engaged in culture promoted anti-modernism activities throughout the country.

Since the mid-50s and 60’s, many artists have created lots of avant-garde performances; the atmosphere of society was so volatile that everybody wanted to express their own opinions directly to others. And 1969, the year I entered high school, was just such a time. As in the West, many university students and workers demonstrated in the streets. In my high school, students periodically organised anti-Vietnam War and anti-system demonstrations, while student meetings lasted late into the night.

But those movements crumbled with the arrival of the 70s. There were several reasons for this but the net result was that sympathy dwindled for the New Left movement. I also could not find any reason to go to school and stopped for a year. I hitchhiked to Hokkaido then started to write poetry. Maybe I was tired of expressing myself to the outer world and became more interested in the inner universe. I found that writing poetry was one of the best means of expression. I needed only one pencil and a notebook. But after that year, I hit a wall in terms of being able to express myself through words. I then thought of bodily expression - perhaps because I had previously been a good athlete. I knew something about the body and believed that actions spoke louder than words.

I performed for the first time in Osaka in 1975, before moving to Tokyo in January 1977. In those days, the so-called Live House and small rented space served as our place for expression. Live Houses existed not only in Tokyo but in so many towns throughout Japan. During that period, I embarked upon a one-month tour of Japan using Live Houses from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south. Through this tour of Japan I met many 60s avant-garde artists including Gutai, Kyushu-ha, Neo Dada, Zero Dimension and Japanese Fluxus artists. They were some 20 years older than me but several were still active.

In 1979, I performed one hundred times in a small rented space in Tokyo and wrote 99 poems, before publishing a book of poems in 1980. I also gave more than 30 performances in Tokyo in 1979.

In May 1982 I went to China, my first experience of travelling abroad. I did not go to perform. I went because my father had been a teacher and the leader of a semi-militarised agriculture group in northeast China during the war. The militaristic Japanese government had created a puppet regime and forced many Japanese citizens to go there. My father, with 140 students aged 14 to 16 years old, also relocated there but at the end of the war in August 1945 the Russian Army arrived and he was arrested and sent to a labour camp in Siberia. His wife and one-and-a-half year old first son died when she and 40 students who unsuccessfully tried to escape to Japan committed suicide. My father did not know that fact until he returned to Japan in 1948. Anyway, in 1982, he and his ex-students went to their former village for a memorial ceremony, the first time since the end of the war, and I went there with them. It was my first experience of going abroad.

This experience exerted a great cultural shock upon me. Even in Beijing, I remember that from the Airport to the city centre the highway was like a country road. From Harbin, we took a small bus to the village, and I remember how life was for the local people. Some houses were constructed of soil and straw, a new sight for me. After reaching the village, the junior school prepared a warm welcome ceremony for us, with students performing music and dance. My father and his ex-students all cried after we reached the hill where we could see the village until it was time to leave.

I was 28 years old - not so young for my first experience abroad. But anyway, I experienced a cultural shock. As a result, I decided to concentrate more on Art as I already knew that life was not so long but very limited. If I wanted to continue art, I would have to concentrate on my art activities as a professional if my life was to have meaning.

That same year, in December 1982, I had the opportunity to go to Paris. It was very much by accident. I had just finished a performance in a small Tokyo Live House when one of the members of the audience told me he had a one-way air ticket to Paris and encouraged me to go there. The ticket had a 10-day time limit. He told me that he was studying in Paris and had bought a return ticket to Japan but had decided to marry in Tokyo, so he no longer needed the ticket. Of course, it was illegal to use another person’s named ticket but he knew how to circumvent this. Anyway, I reached Paris safely with a little money and stayed for three months. This, too, was a big cultural shock for me as it was my first encounter with real Western culture. Because I had no money, I did hundreds of street performances in Paris to earn a little each day. During this three month period, I was considering how I could live as an artist. People in Paris treated me warmly. After returning to Tokyo, I organised several art events featuring many Japanese same-generation artists, musicians, filmmakers and dancers. I realised we had lots to achieve in the cause of art development as there was no public support system for our activities. I always spent my own money . . . but always willingly, and we often got drunk and discussed upcoming projects.

The second opportunity to travel came in 1986, and I did various performances in several European countries for three months. I also spent three months in 1987 and 1988 in Europe. It was not so difficult to schedule because there were many opportunities and I was well accepted as a young avant-garde Japanese artist. Almost every week I could perform in small theatres, galleries and museums, and even received an artistic fee.

In 1989, I decided to go to Korea. I had no real knowledge of Korea even though the country was so close. I performed once in Kyoto then used the artist’s fee to go to Shimonoseki to board a ferry to Pusan in Korea, where I stayed three days before moving on to Seoul. Maybe this one-week trip served as my first artistic research abroad.

In 1990, I was invited to perform by the Pusan Youth Biennial and See Art Festival in Korea organisations.

In 1991, I performed twice in Hong Kong at events organised by Mok Chiu Yu, whom I had met in Tokyo in ‘87 and also in ‘90 in Tokyo and New York. He came to see my performances in New York, which had been organised by Franklin Furnace, and he invited me to Hong Kong. My performance was well received by Hong Kong people and I heard that a theatre group was impressed by my physical performance.

After Hong Kong, I went to Bangkok to buy a plane ticket for Bangkok-Athens-Warsaw/ Frankfurt-Bangkok-Hong Kong. I had heard that there were lots of discount travel shops in Bangkok. I joined a performance art festival in Greece and Poland and also did several solo performances in Germany before returning to Hong Kong two month later. Then I heard that someone in Taiwan wanted to meet me, so I went to Taipei to meet Wang Molin.

These two people - Mok Chiuyu and Wang Molin - were the entree for me to real Asia, with the exception of Korea. We talked a lot, discussed a lot and drunk a lot with their good friends. Even though there were no performance art movements there, there was tension because it was just after the Tiananmen incident in 1989. Those two China-related areas needed more new social perspectives, and maybe needed new avenues of artistic expression after the underground mini theatre movement. On several occasions they and their friends organised my performance art workshops and artist’s lectures for local people. But performance art development was often not easy.

From 1999 onward, I was also invited to many festivals in Korea. In fact, so many art festivals were held in Korea in those days - they always had a performance as the opening event. Their financial situation was not so good but artists organised themselves with their students. Sometimes, those students spoke better English than the teacher artists. And some older generation artists spoke a little Japanese. I was so impressed by their independent way of organising art festivals by themselves. It was the same in Poland. The performance organiser of an art festival was always an artist himself. Only artists understood the rudimentary point of performance art and the festival. Also, artists had a better network in the art field.

So, I decided to start NIPAF in February 1993 because the festival in Poland had been such a good experience. Some days we really had a good time - producing good art work, having great conversations - and consuming lots of beer! I knew it would be hard work but I also knew I was the only person who could organise this kind of international performance art festival in Japan. In the first NIPAF in ‘93, there were only two Japanese and three Korean artists, while the remaining ten came from Europe and Canada. Anyway, it was a big success: not only in Nagano - Art Magazine in Tokyo expressed a keen interest because it was the first real international performance art festival in Japan.

In 1994, I met leading Singapore artist Tang Dau in Japan. I asked him to participate in the second NIPAF in 1995 but he suggested Lee Wen instead. In NIPAF95, Asian artists only comprised Lee Wen, two young Hong Kong female artists recommended by Mok Chiuyu, and one female Korean artist. For NIPAF96, Lee Wen recommended Thai artist Chumpon Apisuk. And he recommended Amanda Heng, a female Singapore artist. In addition, Wang Molin recommended Chen Chieren from Taiwan and Ma Liumin from Beijing. In fact, Molin did not meet him until I showed him the portfolio of Chinese avant-garde artists that Li Shengtin, a famous Chinese art critic, had sent me. Molin went to Beijing and met them and decided Liumin should be the first artist from Mainland China to join NIPAF. Molin and I tried to organise TIPAF (Taiwan International Performance Art Festival) just after NIPAF96 finished. This failed, however, due to financial constraints. Anyway, for NIPAF96 I could invite artists from four Asian countries, excluding two from Japan.

Also in 1996, a Tokyo art museum invited me to organise a performance art event, so I put together the Asian Performance Art Series. The museum asked me to stage five weekend performance events: we invited artists on successive weekends from Korea, China, Singapore and Thailand. I realised that just one NIPAF a year was too infrequent to invite enough Asian performance artists. Since 1996, NIPAF has run two festivals a year. One is international and held in February, while the other focuses on Asia and is held in July.

In 1997, Le Liue, my Quebec artist friend, and art centre director Richard Martel, who participated in NIPAF93 and NIPAF96, asked me to produce an Asian Performance Festival in Quebec. Lee Sanjing from Korea, Ma Liuming from China, Chen Chieren from Taiwan, Chumpon Apisuk from Thailand, Chandrasekaran from Singapore and I were invited. In fact, prior to the NIPAF96 Festival, organisers and artists in the West had no idea about Asian performance art. The NIPAF was probably the only way Western organisers could be exposed to Asian performance art. Likewise, it was a way Asian artists could contact the Western art world.

Nevertheless, in those times it was very difficult to invite artists from Asia to NIPAF because my research in Asia was inadequate. I only knew Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan. So I embarked upon a research trip to South East Asia. In 1996, I went to Thailand, in 1998 I went to Singapore and Indonesia, and in 1999 I visited the Philippines and Myanmar.

We invited Arhmaiani from Indonesia to NIPAF98 and Aung Myint to NIPAF99 in February. I had no information about the Philippines but e-mailed several art galleries about my research trip to Manila, following which Yuan Moro Ocampo and Ronaldo Ruiz visited me there. After several discussions with them, Yuan Moro Ocampo suddenly told me he wanted to organise the first PIPAF in December 1999. Because Arahmaiani and I were organising the first JIPAF in Jakarta in February 2000 he said he wanted to hold the PIPAF before the JIPAF.

In Thailand, after his experience of NIPAF96, Chumpon Apisuk launched performance art events and then started Asiatopia in 1998. He said performance art often happened in Thailand but only as an opening event at exhibitions; in fact, he did not know about the existence of performance art festivals in the world until his participation in NIPAF. This is what Yuan Moro and other leading Asian artists told me. Several Asian countries already had performance art but only put on short performances and infrequently. They did not know that today performance art was so important as an art medium. After the NIPAF experience, however, they realised it was an important and interesting artistic activity. This is what I felt following my experiences in Poland in 1991. Even meeting over just a few days - directly meeting artists – was an impressive experience.

The impact was substantial, not only among artists but local society. I first met Myanmar artist Aung Myint in Singapore in 1998 on the way to Indonesia. I asked him about performance art in Myanmar, and he said he had already experienced it. I decided to invite him to NIPAF99 in February. He produced a very good performance in Japan so I decided to go to Myanmar to discuss performance and art with a video show. It was amazing that even in such an authoritarian society Aung Myint had his own gallery in his house and organised modern art exhibitions and my performance there.

I also went to Beijing in 1999, where my performance was organised by Ma Liuming. After NIPAF96, I sometimes met him abroad. In 1998, I met him again in Austria and he said he would organise some events for me in Beijing if I had time to go there. We had already invited Zhu Ming to NIPAF99. In Beijing, Liuming invited two other Chinese artists, Sheng Qi and Wang Mai. We undertook private performances in Liuming’s friend’s factory in the surburbs of Beijing. Many people came to watch, including famous art critic and rock music celebrity Cui Jien. Shu Yang was also in the audience. The following year, he organised the Open Performance Art Festival with Chen Jin and Zhu Ming. They sent many invitations to international artists with the NIPAF catalogue. Later, Shu Yang organised my video show in Beijing and also introduced me to Xian, Xian Xishi, Chengdu, Dai Guanyu and Yuji. Then I went there.

In the early 1990’s, I often went to Central Europe, not only Poland. Slovakia’s Nove Zamky (directed by Juhasz Jozef) and Romania’s Transylvania (directed by Uto Gusztav) performance festivals had been well received every year since 1988. I met so many artists there. In the beginning they just sent lots of invitation letters and no-one knew who really attended until the festival opened, just as in China and other Asian countries. Sometimes, the NIPAF catalogue served as a good guide book because it included artists’ contact details. They sent invitation letters even though they did not know who he/she was.

NIPAF is a rather different kind of festival because we cover almost all artists’ international travel costs as well as the cost of hotels, food and trains, which in Japan are so expensive. As director, I needed to know who the participating artists were. Sometimes I relied on friends’ recommendations but I always tried to go to their country because I believe it is most important that the director knows a participating artist’s background as performance art is very close to one’s society and life. If, as director, I was unfamiliar with their background, then I could not introduce such artists to audiences with any degree of confidence.

Anyway, I travelled a lot in Asia to promote performance art but not only in Asia, of course. Even when there was no performance art to see I promoted performance art. Yes, we need more artists involved in performance art in Asia! I went to Ho Chi Min in Vietnam for the first time in May 2000. I did one performance plus a video show. About 50 people attended - most of them artists - but all were social realism artists. After finishing my performance, the majority of guests quickly disappeared, saying that performance art was too new an art for Vietnam. But three young female artists stayed and I asked one of them if she could do performance art. She said ‘yes’, even though she had no experience. I decided to invite her to NIPAF Asia, which was held in July 2000. Her name was Hoan Ly - she did an amazingly good performance even though she was just a beginner in performance art.

I know performance art is not so difficult an art medium. Artists need no special technique, no special training or materials. We need space but not ‘dedicated’ space. We can perform anywhere, even in the street. Actually, many artists in the Philippines and Indonesia specialise in street performances. Sometimes, they perform in political demonstrations.

Asia is a vast area. I am only familiar with North and South East Asia. But even in that region there are many different countries with different languages, religions, social systems and history. Some countries have a fair amount of freedom of expression, while some countries are in a really bad situation even now. Those places have a history of Western and Japanese colonialism.

I remember in 2001, I organised the Asian Performance mini festival in New York named Japan Society and Shiga Museum of Art. It was just three weeks after 9/11 in New York. It was still a tough situation but so many New Yorkers attended, and in Japan it was also well attended. The artists came from Korea, Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar, Thailand and Japan. I explained their background to the audience and how different even the same area of Asia can be. At one point, however, I realised that rice was our common main staple. It means that our countries have a strong rice field view in our memory.

In 2003, I organised an Asian performance art tour in Central Europe, visiting four countries - Slovakia, Hungary, Poland and Servia-Montenegro - with 15 Japanese, three Mainland Chinese and two Taiwanese artists. That kind of foreign NIPAF exchange tour was important, and was co-organised by NIPAF and local artists. For this kind of international co-operation, we need a really good relationship. But we already have such a good network around the world. In fact, NIPAF has already invited more than 350 artists from 50 countries. In the last decade, I have organised NIPAF exchange tours with China, Korea, Vietnam, Myanmar, Indonesia, Singapore, Poland, France, the US, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, etc. and always try to include Asian artists as tour members whenever possible because I know Asian artists need more experience. Last year, in November 2007, we staged the third China-Japan exchange in Beijing, Chengdu and Xian. I found it works to have performance art events in these cities, even when there are already some other performance art festivals directed by Chinese artists like Open Art Festival and Dadao Art Festival.

This year, Asia is hosting so many international performance art festivals. The Philippines is hosting its TAMA (TUPADA Action and Media art) on an annual basis and TUPADA every two years. Singapore is holding its Future of Imagination, while Korea is holding the KIPAF and KOPAS. In China, the Open and DADAO are on and there are performances in other cities like Xian, Chengdu, Hong Kong and the Macao MIPAF. Thailand is hosting Asiatopia, and Taiwan the TIPAF. In Indonesia, you can see Perfurbance in Jogjakarta. Many performance art events or projects have been held in several Indonesian cities, and in Vietnam and Myanmar. The development of performance art over the past 10 years in Asia has been remarkable. At the beginning of this year in Myanmar, my artist friend Aye Ko and his colleagues opened a new art space in Yangon, called New Zero Art Space. He wrote to me saying they wanted this space for their own new art space, for exhibitions and performances, and as a meeting place for artists with their own art library. I have still had no time to visit but I believe that this space is not only their hope but the hope of all of us.

A catastrophic earthquake struck China in May and a terrible cyclone hit Myanmar, killing an enormous number of people. Both were terrible events, as was the 2006 tsunami and last year’s earthquake in Indonesia. I always heard such news while abroad on art trips. Many children were victims of these incidents. It was really hard to check the news sometimes because it was so sad. Many Western and Asian artists e-mailed me to ask about artists from Myanmar and China whom they had met in NIPAF because for a while e-mail was down. I realised that this kind of global feeling and anxiety is really important - and one of the positive results of our performance art networking activity. Still, many different problems exist in our society. It is like cultural differences exist even in the same Asia. Nevertheless, we can have hope in today’s world even if life is often so terrible - because we have this medium called performance art.

Seiji Shimoda
(Artist, NIPAF director)