CONVERSATIONS

CONVERSATIONS: A Response to Stacey Duff’s article “Floating and Theft in Wuhan.”

In the current issue of Yishu, Stacey Duff analyses a recent installation in Wuhan by art collective WAZA (abstracted in RedBox Review’s ‘Yishu Select’). Here, RedBox contributor Iona Whittaker offers her own response to his review and to WAZA’s installation.

Having also been present at the installation, this writer feels there is a dimension to the work that Duff does not fully address: its physical form. The speakers’ spare, clinical structure is totally removed from any human physicality; at the outset they appear insubstantial and abstract, but this first impression opens up a useful line of questioning: where does the work stand in relation to the musicians and, in turn, where does the viewer stand in relation to the two? In terms of the viewer’s sensibility, one could ask whether this strange accumulation of individual sounds emanating from inhuman devices, presented in the rarefied environment of an art installation and under the pretext of capturing a slice of local life, is more or less ‘substantial’ than the experience of a street performance. As a type of documentary work that draws attention to a particular minority, does WAZA’s piece signify for the viewer the presence, a re-presence or the absence – a trace – of these ‘floating’ figures? It could be seen as a metaphor for the musicians: the sound of their voices and instruments is suspended daily in a cacophony of urban noise.

Those who attended the opening were compelled to walk amongst the forest of speakers, listening intently to each in turn, straining to separate the noise of one musician from those surrounding it in close proximity; in direct contrast, on encountering a performer in the street many are inclined simply to push past or to listen, but at a distance. The physical relationship between the viewer/listener and the work is thus far more intimate and focussed than that which is common between a passer-by and a busker in the urban environment. Like the musicians, the speakers are impermanent; but they are also faceless, non-tactile and insensitive. It could be asked whether this is a comment made by the artists on the treatment of the displaced population; Duff’s ethical angle should on this basis be extended to include the awareness – or not – of the migrant musicians. It can be argued, therefore, that the work intervenes in the relationship between the viewer/public and street performers. Whether the effect for different viewers is finally one of empathy or detachment will depend on individual sensibilities. Having experienced the installation at first hand, this writer felt that it rendered the encounter with the musicians – although indirect – more potent. Their floating existence and the identity of their music seemed somehow distilled through the particular physical form and collective ‘voice’ of the speakers. For this viewer, then, WAZA’s installation conjured a powerful represence of Wuhan’s street musicians that left a lasting impression as both an unusual sensory experience and as a strong socio-political work.

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