The Many Lives of a Handscroll: Inspired by Zhai Yongming’s ‘Ambling along the Fuchun Mountains with Huang Gongwang’

By | 1 February 2017

While some actors recite lines from the poem, others read aloud Taobao links, daily horoscopes, status updates on their smartphones. Is it an act mocking those flickering screens in the darkness downstage? Theatre ‘is always a self-destructive art, and it is always written on the wind’, Peter Brook writes. Since its premiere in 2014, the play has undergone two major modifications. The playwright Zhou Zan 周瓚has added soliloquies in the latest version in order to loosen up the sometimes overpowering intensity of experimentation in previous performances and make the play more accessible. As contemporary Chinese poetry and experimental theatre are often viewed by the mainstream as metamorphic modern art forms lacking clarity, Chinese classical poetry and ink wash painting are often regarded within the same spectrum as stagnant traditional forms.

How to read contemporary poetry? It depends on how we understand contemporary art. How to understand contemporary art? It depends on how we apprehend contemporary reality. How to comprehend contemporary reality? It depends on how we grasp this dark coil, this tangled yarn, this bunch of problems, which is the dead knot of modernity. (Section 27)

There has been (and always will be) this tension between past and present for the arts. Tradition is often accused of weighing down and suffocating contemporary innovation. But this idea can also be turned on its head – the present, perhaps unconsciously, has obscured, alienated and even buried the past. From both perspectives, it is a downward movement. Yet the dust of time, that pressure felt by all forms, can be alleviated through dialogue with other forms. That will be when the invention of life comes in: as a painting, a poem and a play.

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