ST/LL opens to the sound of people coughing. Perhaps in the opening, there is a sense of tribute to the famous John Cage piece 4’33.
The silence served as a reminder of the space of the theatre as a space where strangers gather to appreciate artistic work, and indeed our collective silences and fidgets make the opening track of the work. We were given time to have our senses attuned to being in the same room. But yet the visuality of the show, the truncated dreamlike sequences, suggested that nobody perceives the same thing, and so we are all isolated from each other in our individual bodily experiences.
I am told that some people were truly transported by this performance installation piece, and I can see why. Each scene was timed precisely – the performers move as if suspended in a different gravitational zone, placing chairs, cutting up and eating invisible food at a long, long table. The chairs on stage look like the iconic ghost chairs by Philippe Starck. There is an apple mysteriously on stage. A camera, suspended like a puppet, appears and scans the table slowly, the images projected in delay on the large screen behind. I feel incredibly middle-class, seated in my fancy theatre seat, watching two women sit and eat invisible food delicately, while two other performers, the waitstaff, clear the tables, push trolleys around – occupying a wonderfully different sense of time in their bodies. Their bodies carried a sense of freedom and mobility, while I could not help but be struck by how little the necks of the eating women moved. It all seemed painfully contrived. (Later on, the actual stage crew remove some tables from the stage. I enjoy the little shot of humour; art imitating life imitating art.) Meanwhile, the moving camera shows us a completely different scene of the stage, with sensuous close-ups of metal dinnerware, wine glasses, a single mysterious apple.
Does it belong to Newton? Adam and Eve? Does Shiro Takatani want me to care?
His message to the audience in his program notes says “please enjoy freely and as you wish”; a wonderful reminder that what I think the work says and does is mine. The show is described as intended to remain etched in our minds, long after the curtains fall – the striking imagery and symbolism of the work repeating over time and space within the stage of our minds, the experience continuing in repetitions through each body that attended the performance.
The work premiered in France in 2015 at Le Volcan – Scène Nationale du Havre, and has been performed in Brussels, Taipei and Otsu in Japan before landing in Singapore.
Many of the images and moments from the show exist on the internet; much has also been written about the enigmatic qualities of the work. My question remains, why are we seated in the theatre together? Perhaps there is something about creating a meditative dreamstate through which the work wishes to enter my subconscious. When I turn my head to see if Ryuichi Sakamoto’s incredible sound score comes with a visual reference point, I am grateful for the reminder that my body moves, has different organs doing different things. Each cut from scene to scene seems meant to frustrate any sense of continuity or cause; like a dream. But surely they do weave together, since these artists have, in fact, woven them together so deliberately – and what I read is a sense of an ossified class-based reality, set against different timescales. Sometimes, we enter a world of masks, folk song and dance, sometimes, we enter the philosophising of a woman who lights up a matchstick on stage. Video projections of close-ups to objects falling, breaking, warping, splices through a scene of a woman speaking between cute girlish sounds and deep guttural ones. Later, a woman runs in circles and then does movement familiar in contemporary ballet alone on stage. So beautifully alone. Another projection. The beach.
End scene: the human performers stand, not quite facing each other.
This aloof, never-the-twain-shall-meet way of being never in the same lane, never connecting, makes me slightly crazy with frustration. I have no chill, and this show and its elevated sense of time reminds me why. As a somewhat “woke” millennial who believes the climate crisis is real, who thinks powerful people are letting the next generation of humans down, who is considering the meaning and gravity of possibly bringing new life onto this earth, I found the lack of urgency in the show incredibly hard to sit through. Yes, we are all but stardust, yes, our perspectives are limited and illusory, yes, this was a beautiful piece of performance installation, but no, even in my very limited time on earth, I do not believe for a moment that my existence or yours is pure coincidence, aesthetic, without purpose or obligation to each other. Of course, my beliefs might change, and our times might not be as apocalyptic as I perceive them to be. Or, if the scientists prove to be right and political leaders continue to fail humanity, perhaps this show will help me appreciate the beauty in doomsday destruction. Lucky me.
Again, from the director’s message: “the science we believe in today may be very different in the future, hundreds of years from now.” My anxiety stems from the fear that there will be no “we” to “believe” in anything, “hundreds of years from now”. I sincerely wish I could meditate my way out of that, or that this little grain-of-sand writing will serve as a reminder that as lush as the work ST/LL is, as much as it has pushed the ways we look at technology in art, or art in technology, the realities of 2015 and 2019 are already 2 very, very different worlds. And now my question remains, what can a theatre-going public do about it?