Led by independent curator Biljana Ciric, throngs of spectators enter this vacant villa owned by the Ming Yuan group, its spaces wafting with the scent of ancient tombs. This site-specific performance art project is affiliated with “Proposals to Surrender,” the group exhibition Ciric curated last year.
An entire villa radiating with blue light appears before our eyes, a steady stream of sounds pulsates outwards from within as if originating from some kind of electronic mixing console. Artists Sergei Tcherepnin and Stefan Tcherepnin are the protagonists of today’s performance. According to their own explanation of their work, the story begins with their grandfather, Russian composer Alexander Tcherepnin, and their research into the Chinese composers who were affiliated with him in the 30s. In the mid-1930s, Alexander started a publishing company called the “Collection Tcherepnine,” which published scores by Chinese and Japanese composers with the purpose of introducing this music to the West. He also taught at the Shanghai Conservatory, where he had similar aims, encouraging his students to embrace traditional Chinese music in creating their scores for Western instruments.
Tcherepnin created a nine tone scale, called the “Tcherepnin scale,” whose “major-minor” chord is perhaps the very embodiment of the relationship between “major” (global) and “minor” (personal) histories which piqued the interest of the artists Stefan and Sergei. Though the big picture is that their grandfather’s entire life was devoted to the attempt to bring together music from around the world, creating different harmonic systems and scales —including the five-tone scale commonly used in Chinese folk music—the brothers Tcherepnin will not let their Chinese musician grandmother, Li Xianmin, go unrecognized for her personal role in these developments. In other words, the artists have a background which is wide-reaching yet personal: a backdrop for tonight’s performance which cannot be overlooked.
I remember a line in “Records of the Grand Historian” in which the Wushan “mountain spirit” goddess sings to herself: “It seems there is someone over there, in that fold of the hill, clad in creepers, with a belt of mistletoe. He is gazing at me, his lips parted in a smile…” Throughout history, music has long assumed a complex relationship between private human emotions and the court or monarchy. In this villa, filled with smoke, the sound enveloping everything becomes the primary presence in the space. The tones correspond to the artists’ grandfather’s preference: “I had always felt that the major-minor triad of C, Eb, E, and G is a “fundamental,” “ultimate” chord—therefore “harmonious,” “stable,” and low profile, different from the concept of “dissonance” in the classical sense of the term.” The overall tenor of the room, the core of this collaboration, seems to be about the artists meeting with their own family history.
A cube-shaped display case emanates from within with white smoke and light, trapped under the transparent cover. From time to time, the artists blow more smoke into the container to maintain the density of the fog within. The smoke seems to function in creating a ritualistic atmosphere. In the next moment, the two brothers pull out group photographs representing “memory.” The photographs are inexplicably folded and waved in the air, rising and falling, creating a rustling sound. In another room, a huge maze-like map sways in the hands of one artist, followed by a bloodcurdling sound. Venturing further inside, the viewer discovers a separate room in which there lies a large print-out covered in the characters 贺绿汀—the name of Chinese composer He Luting. The two artists did not grow up in China, and so here “history” becomes a device; Stefan and Sergei use ritual sacrifice as an emotional means to make up for a lack of memories of a past in Shanghai, or in China at all, and for a lack of memories of their own grandmother. The most urgent issue thus seems to be whether or not the two can find their own shadows in this vacant, haunted villa.
Stefan and Sergei Tcherepnin care deeply about the notion of “embracing one’s own heritage while adhering to the systems of another tradition.” The site is filled with attempts to do just that, including the presence of an actual musical instrument representing the East. Close to the completion of the performance, the audience is taken into a room that can only be peered into from above, where we see an organ of rare small size. One brother plays the instrument, the other sits playing the organ. In their song, they incorporate a quotation from He Luting’s 1937 song “The Wandering Songstress” (this quotation is the artists’ way of expressing the complex relationship between the East and West, past and present). It seems to me that this moment is precisely the kind of “chord” the artists use to manifest the overlap of time and space. When the performance begins, tree branches wrapped in plastic and cloth are shaken with some effort by someone else in the space, ushering us into limitless mystery and ecstasy against a dimly lit background.
After each of us has been led through the entire process, we sit in the celestial atrium pouring drinks and chatting. Suddenly it becomes clear: “this is witchcraft.” Scottish anthropologist Sir James George Frazer, in his seminal anthropological work “The Golden Bough,” talks about the homeopathic or simulated magic arts of old, which were usually performed through the use of idols, in order to rid the world of hateful people. But these methods were used for goodwill as well, to help good people come into the world. In this case, the artists seem to expect that their grandfather and grandmother can be resurrected through their magic. And indeed, the sudden appearance of ceremonial wine beside their portrait at one end of the table sets the scene for their grandparents’ contact with another Chinese artist, Pan Yuliang, whom they knew in those years: as if all the ghosts were already present, with no intention of keeping peacefully to themselves.
In a similar vein to those branches and strips of cloth, Guinean-Swiss artist Namsa Leuba would have something to say about resurrecting ritual. In her photographic work, Leub often collects ritual artifacts from Conakry, the capital of Guinea, and reconstructs them through the frame of Western discourse re-contextualizing the universal Guinean concepts. Like Stefan and Sergei Tcherepnin, she uses branches, plastic, and other materials, covering objects and people in these materials. In reconstructing this concept of the universe, she uses a model and creates an experience which the scientific world is incapable of providing, allowing the viewer to create their own associations and connections with the universe. Through this process, the objects truly come alive, more like themselves than before, not merely industrial.
Actually, the use of ritual is not uncommon in festivals that exist to this day. The Adonia, a festival celebrated annually by women in ancient Greece, in which they would pray for rain, takes place every spring. The Aughakillymaude Mummers of Northern Ireland—with their costumes made of oats, barley, and rye, wearing symbolic headdresses and dressed in orange woven straw gowns—still parade through villages during the days leading up to Christmas; and there are still Sardinian Mamuthones mask dancers, who carry cowbells and animal bones on their bodies late into the night to defeat the devil, pray for the harvest, and make sacrifices to mother earth. Originating in 1687, Edinburgh’s Burryman ceremony is still a vibrant local tradition whereby a local man covered head to toe in burrs is paraded around for nine hours or more in the hopes of bringing good luck to those who pluck a burr from his body. And in the Basque region of Spain, every February a man dressed as half-man half-bull participates in a procession, which was revived as recently as the 90s.
The revival of ritual does not stop at ancient festivals. This year, the hotly discussed Thai artist Korakrit Arunanondchai, expressing the binary opposition between east and west, through body painting, makes reference to the collective memories and traditions of the Thai people in search of “Phaya Naga” or mystical snake god.
Now here we are at the end: we have already drunk the wine that was in our glasses: our personal participation in the sacrifice. Stefan and Sergei announce: “Only when the last spectator leaves, will the whole work be complete!” Common sense regarding sacrificial worship tells us, the sacrificial ceremony is not over until you see off the final dinner guest.