In 2019, with the support of the Diverse Actions Leadership grant, I worked with artist Lynn Lu to bring her new work-in-progress performance, the ocean’s refusal to stop kissing the shore, as part of PASAR (Post-Asian School of Alternative Rites) that was presented at the Palace of Ritual during the opening week of the 2019 Venice Biennale. It’s now a year on. As we navigate the strange and surreal waters of the pandemic, and images of a hauntingly beautiful and deserted Venice circulate online, Lynn offers some reflections on the project.
the ocean’s refusal to stop kissing the shore is a newly devised site-sensitive piece that you performed in Venice as part of PASAR for The Palace of Ritual. Could you please explain how your process and methods of research from which you created this work?
This work came out of research on the relationship humans have with the natural world, the rituals we have devised over millenia to commune with, or attempt to control nature, and folk wisdom in an epoche of the Anthropocene. The context of Venice as the site for making this work called for contending with the rising sea level in particular, as the frequency and severity of acqua alta has increased at an alarming rate in the last century.
I delved into the history of submerged lands, civilizations lost to the seas, and geomythology. According to environmental archaeologists, myths are largely based upon a combination of geological events, that catastrophically impact society. And myths open a window to events that can be recovered, retrieved and even dated. While Atlantis may be no more than legend, other tales of similar calamities are true. The city of Dwaraka, for example, described in 4000-year old Sanskrit texts and long believed to be a mythical kingdom Lord Krishna departed from, has been discovered – intact – under the sea, on India’s Saurashtra coast. The line between fact and fable is less distinct than we imagine.
I wanted to create a litany of names of lands submerged and in the process of submerging – both real and imagined – as an invocation and augury. It was important too that that this list would be materially eroded by routine human activity. Then thinking through ways by which we might collectively come to terms with this demise, I researched the vast diversity of folk rituals surrounding the Hungry Ghost Festival observed throughout Asia, and ways by which we collectively care for the spirits of our dearly departed as well as implore them to protect us from harm.
Your research process develops along the historical, conceptual and affective on one hand, and on another, in working through the materialities and forms to express the ideas, which has resulted in performance works that operate quite differently in terms of aesthetics, narrative, relationship to site and audience. For the ocean’s refusal to stop kissing the shore could you explain more about it how you bring all these aspects together to manifest the participatory workshop and ritual?
Drawing from the process described above, I wanted to address a number of ideas in three parts:
Part l. At dawn along the sinking eastern edge of Venice, I inscribe – using a brush and brine – the names of submerged and submerging land masses. As the sun grows hotter and evaporates the water, these names materialize in salt crystals. As the city awakens, pedestrian footfall gradually wears away the crystalline calligraphy.
Part ll. Along the water’s edge,I inscribe – in chalk – a continuous litany of names of submerged/submerging lands, in the contour of Atlantis superimposed onto the city of Venice. This textual outline is gradually worn away by footfall.
Part lll. Researching the demise of lands lost to encroaching oceans, as well as the lands at risk of submerging – such as Venice, and London where I live – made me think about the Buddhist/Taoist Hungry Ghost Festival that is observed in many parts of Asia. The belief is that during the Hungry Ghost Festival, the dead return to visit. And we, the living, venerate them by burning incense and joss paper, and offering them food and entertainment. Finally, we see them off back to the underworld with floating lanterns shaped like lotus flowers. Variations of this practice of putting candle-lit offerings to sea – as a way to commune with the spirit world – are found all over Asia: from China to India, Japan to Cambodia, and from Myanmar to Thailand.
Although the incense we burn and the floating lanterns we craft are exclusively for our own ancestors, we come together once a year to perform these rituals collectively. As such, it was important that this part of the project was participatory and that audiences would create their personalized offerings alongside others doing the same. And the liturgy itself is a recreation of fragments drawn from myriad related age-old practices.
Participants were invited to create a floating offering to the sea, using flower/vulva-shaped vessels fashioned from rice paper. They include candles, incense, joss paper, flowers, rice, salt, seeds, and/or herbs. If participants had a personal demon to exorcise/put to death, they included a hair clipping to symbolise letting it go. And if they had a wish, they wrote it on a piece of joss paper and added it to their offering. All offerings were set afloat in a nocturnal ritual.
For the ocean’s refusal to stop kissing the shore you reconfigured materials and myths to create a ritual to for relinquishment and reconciliation to oncoming and ongoing loss, how important is it for you that rituals have power? Do you think performing a ritual has an effect despite or in spite of belief or audience?
Growing up in a secular family whilst being educated by nuns from the age of 5 to 18, I often wondered about the purpose and efficacy of the profusion of Catholic rituals – the prayer, chanting, confession, baptism, candle-lighting, incense-burning, etc – and ultimately concluded that it was all bunk.
However years later, I learned to tell fortunes (palm-reading and tarot cards purely as a fun and easy means to quick cash. Although I approached the craft as a total cynic, I was surprised to find that my predictions often came true – and uncannily so. Knowing full well that I wasn’t psychic, I began to understand the power of suggestion, the power of belief, self-fulfilling prophecies, and our overwhelming need for some certainty in a chaotic world.
During the 2008-9 subprime crisis, I devised a one-to-one performance in which each visitor described what they were apprehensive about or wished to know about their own future. Then they cast coins to obtain a hexagram which corresponded to a text in the Book of Changes. I consulted an antique copy of the I Ching, and appeared to translate directly from the original Mandarin to English. In fact, I was quoting from memory a complete collation of the very finest predictions in The I Ching or book of changes: A Guide to Life’s Turning Points. (B. Walker, 1992)
Regardless of the question asked, each person received an identical, gleaming, radiant omen. Some people came with trepidation, nervous about what the I Ching might reveal. Others announced that they didn’t believe in fortune telling, but were simply curious about the experience. Either way, each person walked away with shining eyes and a spring in their step. For months after this performance, I continued receiving emails and letters from participants gushing about the “accuracy” of the predictions.
So yes, rituals undoubtedly have power. They provide us with a sense of control in a sometimes scary and uncertain world, giving us the courage, comfort, coaxing, or closure we might need to in order to move forward with confidence. Even for those of us who think it’s all bunk.
In making work you often have to embody the performance, how do these actions and/or encounters transform you or your practice?
In performing – often alongside my participating audiences – over the last couple decades, I learned how I am viewed in different parts of the world, and that I’m generally perceived to be harmless and trustworthy. This has enabled me to devise works that demand a lot from my participants, with confidence that they will comply. My audiences have readily and publicly given up their underwear, their darkest secrets, their blood, ingested my bathwater, and even risked shark attack.
One year later, we are in the midst of navigating the very surreal waters of a world with and/or after the pandemic, in moving forward, how do you think performance and ritual may help us reconcile with tragedy, recovery and change?
Rituals – defined as a series of symbolic acts focused towards fulfilling a particular intention – acknowledge transformations throughout our lives, by helping us to accept change and to grow, by marking achievements and helping us grieve losses, and by deepening our connections to ourselves and to our communities.
In situations where we don’t have collectively established rituals of mourning, for example, such as in the case of miscarriages where there often isn’t a body to bury/cremate, or in the case of military burials where families lack access to the remains of their loved ones, or even in the case of divorce, our grief is compounded and closure impeded. Rites might be borrowed or adapted – from Mizuko kuyō, a Japanese memorial service for stillborn babies that parents can participate in just once, annually or monthly – depending on their need. Art might be created, as by German artists such as Katharina Heise and Käthe Kollwitz to re-imagine funerary customs and cultures of mourning during WWI, in order to voice families’ grief of separation from their fallen, and to concretise the abstract phenomenon of death on the battlefield. And the wedding party might be repurposed to mark the end of a marriage.
According to psychologist Abigail Brenner, the classic rite of passage is a universal structuring device that exists within every known culture. Major life events are marked by the three-fold process of separation, transition, and incorporation – wherein we separate from the familiar, transition through unknown territory, and return, transformed by the process. Since the pandemic took hold of the world and robbed us of funerals, weddings, graduations, vacations, and more, we’ve devised some new collective rituals ranging from the earnest to the absurd: weekly cheering for healthcare workers, communal music-making from balconies, and dressing up in ballgowns to put the bins out – to name just a few.
Anthropologist Emilé Durkheim who studies the surprising power of community ceremonies, found that the higher the level of group rites, the stronger the group. When a community of any size (two people or thousands) repeatedly enacts symbolic rituals or little homespun ceremonies, the individuals in the group experience a higher level of emotional strength, hope, and resilience. Harvard Business School researchers working with people grieving losses large and small similarly concluded that enacting rituals helps us regain our sense of control, gives us new hope, and brings about swifter recuperation. Most surprisingly, however, they found that enacting rituals helps everyonerecover, even those of us who perform them reluctantly.
PASAR is made possible with the support of Diverse Actions, with thanks to the Live Art Development Agency and Arts Council England. The Diverse Actions Leadership Bursary is a Live Art Development Agency (LADA) programme as part of Live Art UK’s Diverse Actions initiative to champion culturally diverse ambition, excellence, and talent in Live Art. Diverse Actions is supported by an Arts Council England Ambition for Excellence grant.