Friday, August 21, 2015

Ghost Month 鬼月 and other developments

Dear John by M.O.V.E Theatre
Post the devastation of Typhoon Soudlor the Taipei street clean up happened rapidly and efficiently, although there are now strange ‘gaps’ where once certain trees stood or branches used to be. Following on the theme of ‘now you see me now you don’t’, my research and reflection on all things ‘ghostly’ continues… 
Here is Taiwan, and throughout much of Asia, ‘hauntings’, it seems, are an inevitable part of existence. That shadowy world where all that is unresolved from life, its histories, stories, and conflicts dwell…Taking that further, all we won’t and don’t deal with, be it people, politics, place…or the past (make that skeletons various). For the superstitious, ‘they’ are merely waiting to reach out and grab us if we are caught out unawares, and 'they' must be appeased…but perhaps ‘they’ have us in their grip in ways we can only begin to imagine…but more on Ghost’s later…
The clean up!
Here at the TAV most of us are busy preparing for our resident artist joint exhibition False Start: Situational Exploratorium that opens on August 28. I will be exhibiting 4 dance films (Standing Bird, Standing Bird 2, The Drover’s Wives & Mermaid X) under the title: Through the Eye of the Lens: Dance on film - video explorations and experimentation with physical narratives (2008-15). As part of the exhibition program my current work in progress The Ghost Project Jhih (Dance + Theatre + Film) will be showcased on September 18 in a performance presentation followed by an artist talk/forum facilitated by exhibition curator Yen-Yi Lee. 
Yen-Yi Lee

This will be the culmination of my residency project that I have been researching and developing around stories, mythologies and more broadly the theme of Ghosts, exploring the concept of absence/presence and ‘haunted’ histories. I am also excited to be making a short radio documentary for ABC Radio who have commissioned sound artist Hsu Yen-ting (Asialink resident Fremantle Arts Centre) and myself to make a short feature currently titled: Hungry Ghost Month in Taiwan: Taiwanese Ghosts and modern day hauntings for their Earshot program. I will be posting more about the making of this soon.Recent weeks have been very much about research and exploring practice and methodology in addition to experiencing the diverse development processes of others. I have run 3 workshops under the title PhysicalNarratives:Exploring contemporary dance/theatre creation & practice. This has proved a great introduction enabling me to share with local performers, performance makers and directors, and we will continue working together exploring and developing The Ghost Project over the coming weeks. (see side page for more workshop pix)

I enjoyed sitting in with local Taiwanese Contemporary dance theatre company Horse who were running a sound based movement workshop here at TAV with sound designer/composer Yannick Dauby. I also went out to Taiwan University of Arts to see an open Rehearsal of M.O.V.E Theatre’s Dear John, a remount of a work that will be coming to the OZ Asia Festival later this year. This interdisciplinary work is an inventive, subtle, and entrancing encounter of the senses. Inspired by the music of composer John Cage and utilising new (and ‘old’) technologies the team generate sound, light and movement in this interactive performance installation. The audience freely move and engage with the various elements of this playful sound lab that seamlessly incorporates original live mainly percussive instrumentation, abstract movement and shadow play amongst its inventive features. A magical experience and one of the most interesting and stimulating performances I have attended to date here in Taipei. 

We also had the chance to catch up with Australian Director/producer Leisa Shelton (Fragment 31) and the Taipei Dance X-Change company who are here to collaborate and present their 3 x 3 new works program for the Taipei Arts Festival (post Dance Massive).TAV artists mixed with Treasure Hill artists in an evening of welcome and creative conversation, and we are looking forward to seeing their show and spending some more time together over this month. 
TAV & THV Resident Artists X-Change
TAV resident artists eteam held an in studio first time informal showing so we could view their self-produced feature length film Space Delay. This work takes the form of a video documentary/diary/performance of their strange and dream-like road trip in the US in search of land they had bought on e-bay, (but had never received the deeds to). This is an in-the-moment recorded experience of some pretty dodgy hotels and restaurants that felt like location film-sets as they ‘stalked’ these evasive landowners across the country. The journey was accompanied by narrated philosophical reflections on absence and presence, bizarre coincidences, and includes text from Hitchcock’s film Vertigo through to Bob Dylan amongst other quoted sources. Sitting with beer in hand on the floor in a Taipei studio it felt pretty surreal viewing!! It was great to attend their artist talk later in the week to discover more about their unique process and methodology. They never did track down the family whose property they bought, but it certainly proved great material for a rich and searching film about contemporary identity, the online community, privacy and surveillance.
eteam Artist talk
I have been continuing my walking, hiking and travels, locally visiting Lin An Tai House (one of the oldest still existing in Taipei) and the busy Xingtian temple as well as the historic hot spring town of Beitou, just out of Taipei. (view side page Taipei Tourist for more info & pix
Xingtian Temple

Lin An Tai House
Beitou Hot Spring (and me)
Then traveling further afield I undertook a short 3 day adventure to Hong Kong and ferried across to the historic Portuguese port settlement now casino land of Macau. I was here for meetings and to witness the absolute eye-popping circus-theatrical extravaganza of Dragone’s House of Dancing Water. Seated with a courtesy Moet in hand, there is no subtlety to this superb spectacle. Its routinely water-drenched audience (in complimentary ponchos) lapped up this high energy performance where ship-wrecks, floating pontoons and temples appear and disappear into water that jets, spurts, floods, and then drains on cue across the show. A ‘flabbily’ loose love story involving the predictable struggle of good versus evil in their customary power battle sees lovers re-united and, as a contemporary twist, the once ‘poor’ young man from ‘China’ triumphs as the powerful ‘new’ ruler of this magical world. It is wonderful and wild and outrageous in equal measure…a hanging human chandelier with about 10 aerialist duos moving in well-oiled synchronicity is seriously gob-smacking, and motorbikes flying through the air above you…Why not? Any connection to anything in the storyline? Well no one seemed to mind or think it mattered all that much. An unforgettable experience in every way imaginable!!
Taipa, Macau - Casino world, a city of contrasts
Town Square, Old Macau
Ruins of St. Paul, Macau

And meanwhile Hungry Ghost Month has begun…..
With roots in Buddhism, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a time of honouring ancestors and appeasing the ’hungry’ ghosts or malevolent spirits (also called ‘Good Brethren’) that wander in the world of the living when the ‘Gates of Hell’ are opened once a year. Religion and belief in Taiwan is a mix of Buddhism, Taoism and Chinese folklore, and the Taiwanese are considered a particularly superstitious people. "87% of office workers said to believe in Ghosts." (China Post) Significantly this honouring of the ‘hungry ‘ ghost it is based on a widespread belief throughout Asia that a person’s spirit continues to exist after the death of the physical body, and that they are capable of affecting the lives of the living for either ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

So what’s a Hungry ghost?

The hungry ghosts are ancestors not given a proper funeral or burial, or who have no family to maintain ancestor veneration/worship ie: make offerings to them on a regular basis. They may have died a violent or ‘unhappy’ death. Suicide, accident or drowning…interestingly, they may also be ‘unmarried women’, who are viewed as particularly ‘troublesome spirits’ who tend to exist in this limbo land as they are unattached and unable to be looked after by family. If a ghost is ‘unhappy’ in the afterlife it is believed that they have the ability to influence the lives of the living by bringing them bad luck.

These Gates of Hell are opened once a year during the Hungry Ghost Month and all the lost and hungry ghosts of hell are free to roam the living world. To appease these lost souls and to prevent them from causing the living harm or injury (or dragging them back into the underworld), people put food out for the ghosts to enjoy. Elaborate ceremonies and rituals are also performed to please the ghosts. They are often called ‘hungry’ ghosts as they cannot swallow. Ghosts are said to be recognised by their dishevelled hair, hem-less garments, lack of a shadow or footprint, a red glow, short-sightedness, fiery lips and mouth. (Not hard to miss!)

This year ‘Ghost Month’ in Taiwan will run from August 14 to September 12 with key activities around 27 – 30 August. Here’s a extensive list of some of the many taboos I have discovered around Ghost Month.
Offering table & burning of paper money outside local boutique

10 or more things to avoid in Ghost Month

1. Start a relationship, get engaged or married. (all will end badly!)
2. Do not celebrate a birthday, a funeral or have a baby or undergo any form of surgery.  (hmmm could be challenging)
3. Do not start a business, move or buy a house or car, travel and yes…this has an actual downturn effect on the local economy.
4. Do not swim…ghosts live/hide out in water.
5. Do not leave wet clothes hanging outside overnight. (Ghosts are known to hop inside of the clothes)
6. Do not sleep with dishevelled (messy) hair (as you may be mistaken as one of them)
7. Avoid saying the word ‘ghost’…do not say out loud where you live, sing or whistle, or play a tin whistle or stay out after dark …(all could attract unwanted attention)
8. Don’t wear red (it attracts ghosts) or black (ghost’s will think you are one of them and they are attracted to these colours)
9. Don’t step on or pick up offerings, or anything you see on the ground…especially money (they may have put it there to catch you) and keep away from walls and also trees as ghosts ‘stick’ to them.
10. Don’t spit, stare at a fire, or open an umbrella at night! And don’t turn around when someone taps you on the shoulder.

    * Burn incense and light candles and make special offerings of prayers and food/drink for ‘hungry ghosts’ /lost souls and deceased relatives as gesture of support/care.You can often see appearing specially set tables outside shops and businesses.
    * Burn ritual joss paper money ‘hell bank notes’ and ‘goods’ (usually paper mache copies of cars, houses etc.) to ‘please’ the ghosts. Burning is how items are sent to the spirit world.
    * Hold a feast on the 14th day of the 7 lunar month and light lanterns to show the ghosts the way back to Hades/hell/the 'other' place.
    * Give a special and often colourful live performance (opera etc) and keep a front row of seats empty so the ghosts have somewhere to sit.
    * Maintain place settings at your dinner table for those who might want to come and eat with you.

      Now on Ghost Brides, Ghost weddings…and more, you will need to read my next posting….

      Undertaking a residency is a rich and wonderful experience on so many levels…but it wouldn’t be worth it if it didn’t have its various challenges too…
      When I finish this letter I will go back in the studio and wonder yet again:
      What on earth am I doing? Fortunately one step leads to another, but
      they are not like words in a sentence making sense.
      (Geoffrey De Groen - painter)
      TAV Workshop participant

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