A Supernatural Dance Explorer’s Art and Wanderings
BERLIN – In a scene from his video installation “The Wanderer”, artist Choy Ka Fai, having traveled thousands of kilometers to a spiritual gathering near the town of Ulan-Ude in Siberia, kneels at the feet of a shaman, head bowed, eyes closed. A shaman’s assistant introduces Choy.
“He’s from Singapore,” says the assistant. “He’s an explorer of supernatural dance.”
This title is one that Choy, who lives and works in Berlin, adopted while developing “CosmicWander: Expedition”, an ambitious and immersive exhibition that grew out of his research into shamanic dance practices across Asia. First presented by the Singapore Art Museum, where it opened in January, the exhibition is on display at the KINDL Center for Contemporary Art in Berlin, until August 22, as part of the annual Tanz im August festival in the city.
In the center of a large gallery, displayed on six screens, “The Wanderer” encircles a vibrant pink carpet platform where spectators sit. Its five chapters correspond to the five countries Choy visited for 18 months: Taiwan, Vietnam, Russia (Siberia), Singapore and Indonesia.
Opening with a 3D game prototype inspired by his time in Taiwan – where he went on a nine-day pilgrimage for the Taoist sea goddess Mazu – the 42-minute work then moves on to documenting channeling rituals. spirits, with text providing insight into their complex stories. Among other videos and costume pieces, the exhibition includes interviews with religious practitioners from “The Wanderer”, on topics such as how some became shamans and what they do for their day jobs. (One is a chef, the other is a tour guide.)
A video artist by training, with a master’s degree in interaction design from the Royal College of Art in London, Choy, 42, often examines the relationship between technology and the body. His work, which may have a satirical side, has been featured at Sadler’s Wells in London, at ImPulsTanz in Vienna, and in previous editions of Tanz im August. This year, it’s part of a scaled-down version of the Berlin Festival, which features a mix of indoor, outdoor, live, and online events: an effort to stay flexible at a precarious timeframe for live performances.
“This hybrid was very important to us,” said Andrea Niederbuchner, curator and producer for Tanz im August. “We really wanted to do something that we wouldn’t have to undo.” If all goes according to plan, Choy’s “Postcolonial Spirits”, a scenic work exploring the Indonesian trance-dance form dolalak, will have its premiere Thursday at the HAU Hebbel am Ufer theater.
“CosmicWander” isn’t the first project to take Choy across Asia; for “SoftMachine” (2015), he interviewed more than 80 independent dance artists in five Asian countries. In our recent interview, he spoke candidly about his position both as an insider – “an Asian entering Asia,” he said – and as a foreigner, sometimes viewed with skepticism. Last year, a work he presented at the Taipei Arts Festival, sponsored by “CosmicWander”, drew accusations of cultural appropriation.
“This is the eternal anthropological question,” said Tang Fu Kuen, artistic director of the Taipei Festival, also from Singapore and who works with Choy as a playwright. “How can a foreigner enter a foreign culture and see it from a new perspective, from different angles? “
“He is not exploitative as people think,” Tang added. “They think, ‘Ah, he’s just going around, going into different countries, getting away from the culture.’ But for Tang, Choy’s job is more to honor and learn from those he meets. “He is always tempered by his own understanding, while being respectful and faithful to the voices he meets.”
Prior to the opening of “CosmicWander” at KINDL, Choy took a break from the show setup to talk about his career as an artist and where his wandering has taken him. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
What prompted you to dance and work with the body?
I studied video in art school and I continued to do theatrical performances, collaborating a lot with dancers and musicians. I am more and more attracted to dancing because I always find language to be a problem. Although this is ironic, because in the last 10 years of my dance work there is a lot of talk.
But what really started was when I went to London to study design in 2010. I pulled myself out of my comfort zone and everyone I worked with. At that time, I was playing with muscle sensors, and I just had myself, my laptop, and a few sensors. I became like a bedroom scientist tinkerer, electrocuting myself, trying to stimulate muscle movement.
You call yourself a self-exiled artist. Why did you leave Singapore?
I was exhausted from the infrastructure there. To meet certain grant requirements, I had to produce and produce. There was no time to think. I left to have more head room.
Your “SoftMachine” work focused on independent dance artists in Asia. What led you from there to the shamanic dances?
It started with a piece called “Dance Clinic” in 2017. I was working in West Papua. [on the island of New Guinea] with a folk dancer who was trained in contemporary dance. I was playing with this brain wave sensor, and I had this question of what happens to the brain waves when you go into a trance, when the body is possessed, or goes into a heightened state of consciousness.
I started to wonder if I put this motion capture sensor on a shaman and the god enters the body while he is doing this dance ritual – if I capture this digitally does that mean I capture the dance of god? This was basically the opening line of my proposal for “CosmicWander”: what if I could digitize this intangible divine presence? It spread from there.
One of the rituals you attended for “CosmicWander” took place in Singapore. Did you learn something new about your own country?
In Singapore I saw this hybrid between Chinese and Indian, Taoist and Hindu shamanism. The shades are so interesting. Like, you can actually put this Indian flower garland on a Chinese god. When I saw that, I thought to myself: why are singapore artists so afraid to express themselves? These shamans freely express all that is possible.
I came out with the theory that religious practitioners in Singapore are more liberated than artists. Because artists worry about censorship, or self-censorship. The arts in Singapore are heavily subsidized by the state; many artists survive on state funding.
Do you mean they are afraid to criticize?
They are afraid of losing their funding if they get it wrong. But no one knows where the border is. There are cases, if the government or [arts] council thinks your art is having a negative influence on the people of singapore, they will stop your funding from taxpayers’ money.
Are you a religious person yourself?
I am Christian. I believe in Jesus. But I stopped going to church. This is an other story.
Something a little more personal: Before going for a walk with the sea goddess [in Taiwan], I was in a bad mental state.
What was happening?
It was the lowest point in my personal life. I had just separated from my partner. We were together for almost four years. This moment made me no longer believe in all the things I believed in.
I was already doing all the research [for “CosmicWander”]. Then it happened, and I wasn’t sure I should continue to be an artist. Then I was like, “I got the funding, so I’m going to go for a walk with the god.” I got up for it. And the experience was quite transformative mentally and physically.
Did doing “CosmicWander” restore your faith in an artist?
It gave me back the belief that there are many wonderful things in life that I haven’t experienced yet. I think that’s a simple way to put it.
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