Performative Protest and the Conflicted Search for the Self in: 7412 Kilometres of Relations at Big West Festival

7412 for Big West Festival (image supplied)
7412 for Big West Festival (image supplied)

On Monday the 28th of September 2015, a sea of yellow umbrellas flooded the government headquarters in Hong Kong in a peaceful demonstration to mark 12 months since the largest act of civil disobedience in its history. An act that most Australians are unaware of.

Nevertheless, 7412 kilometres away in Melbourne, two other Hong Kong-born civilians stage their own homage to this event. Surrounded by floodlights, dirt and a video camera, the dark recesses of VU at Metrowest in Footscray becomes the site of their demonstration.

Known as Occupy Central or the Umbrella Revolution, the 2014 protests in Hong Kong were a response to proposed electoral reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system which would allow unfettered control by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress [People’s Republic of China] over which candidates could be nominated for election. The demonstrations commenced with a strike on the 22nd of September 2014, leading to a protest outside the government’s headquarters on the 26th of September. Lead by students and youth as part of what is known as the Occupy Central with Love and Peace movement, the civil disobedience campaign grew over the forthcoming weeks as protesters blocked arterial routes across the city. Police tactics were employed to curtail the demonstrations, including the use of tear gas. Protesters persisted, donning yellow umbrellas as a symbol of their collective solidarity. The demonstrations lasted for 79 days, with as many as 100,000 protesters involved at any one time. Simultaneously, solidarity events were staged in London, Los Angeles, Tai Pei, New York, Copenhagen and Melbourne.

In the end, through the wear of prolonged resistance and persistent pressure, the protesters were cleared. But a reverberation had been made throughout the country and indeed across the global diaspora that continues to resound.

It is perhaps this reverberation that layers the air as we sit in the unassuming room off Nicholson St in Footscray. For Felix Ching Ching Ho and Natasha Phillips, this performance is not a protest directed at the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, nor at any governments nor civilians of any State. Rather, 7412 Kilometres of Relation – commissioned for this year’s Big West Festival – is a work that seems to exist purely to communicate the disembodiment of the Self caused by conflict, and the effect of dislocation from a homeland, in a raw and strangely tangible way.

Ching Ching Ho and Phillips were both overseas when they received the news of the protests and the unfolding events of the demonstrations, in Melbourne and London respectively. Using social media, the internet, the television news reports and constant phone calls to friends and family in Hong Kong, they were left to figure out what was happening by piecing together the fragments of disjointed information. The result of this was a complete dislocation from a series of events inextricably linked to their identity, their story, their safe space, and their future; a complete disempowerment to have a voice in a conflict that perhaps, rightly or wrongly, was theirs too. It is perhaps this power that these two artists seek to regain through this moving and provocative work.

7412 Kilometres of Relations is a multi-faceted work, and the assemblage of events and occurrences that unfold across several performative mediums in the piece are testament to the creative intellect and artistic capability of these two unquestionably committed artists. Intrusive camera angles and recordings of volunteered testimony; violent shaking of figures clad in emergency blankets; subjection to repeated water sprays, self-inflicted; large mounds of soil to fall upon, be beaten with; falling plants, uprooted and uncared for; the echoing of protest songs en masse, wall to wall: these symbolic gestures juxtaposed between calm and intimate conversation create intense depth throughout the piece.

The artists endear themselves to us as they tell us their story, their fears in being involved, their internal conflict in abstaining. We are hooked into sensing, if not understanding, the discord which is unfolding, we are challenged to confront the discord caused in ourselves when society is in disarray. We see that the act of protest, particularly when provoked in a peaceful society, may indeed regard a question of humanity that is so important it motivates one to offer up their personal safety, or their own sense of humanity, in order to achieve change. In the end, we embody the conflict with them, and perhaps for some, within ourselves too.

7412 Kilometres of Relations shows us what well executed immersive performance art can achieve. The work was created by lead artist Felix Ching Ching Ho, a highly accomplished performance-maker that has directed shows for Melbourne Fringe and MKA as well as previously worked with leading names in the Australian arts scene and the MTC, Arts Centre Melbourne, Malthouse and National Theatre of China (to name a few). Ching Ching Ho’s experience has honed astute skills in theatre and performance, demonstrated as she navigates through the make-shift orchestration of events with effortless composure and yet an intensity of purpose that grounds and centres the performance and all those within her orbit. Deftly accompanying Ching Ching Ho is Natasha Phillips, a theatre-maker who has produced and staged shows across a range of venues in London and recently completed the Melbourne Fringe Producer Mentorship under Josh Wright. A worthy companion to Ching Ching Ho, Phillips’ performance is uncompromising to the subject-matter and sincere in its delivery. Credit must also be given to stage manager Alice Ng for managing a performance of such complex arrangement.

In his acclaimed poem, Letters to a Young Poet #4, Rainer Maria Rilke advises us: “Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer”. In the closing sequence of 7412 Kilometres of Relation, as we watch Ching Ching Ho grapple with the question of her own views on democracy, on the conflict, the dull spotlight of the camera upon her face, we understand just what it is to truly embody the question of conflict. “I guess I’m looking for democracy within myself” she tells us. It occurs to me then, that perhaps those who are moving in masses, marching umbrella’s in tow, perhaps are living their questions too.

An outstanding achievement.

4 out of 5 stars

Nithya Iyer

Author: Nithya Iyer

Nithya Iyer is a Melbourne-based writer and performer of Indian-descent. Her work regards experimental and experiential arts practices in self-inquiry and connection to the Other. She has performed in experimental, roving and choreographed works in festivals and events across Victoria and New South Wales. Nithya has a background in Bharatanatayam from the Chandrabhanu Bharatalaya Academy and is currently studying a Masters of Therapeutic Arts Practice at the Melbourne Institute of Experiential and Creative Art Therapy.

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