Extension Reading

Foreword | Local Reflections on World Cultures

Bernice Chan/ General Manager, International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong)

Many are curious about why this year’s “World Cultures Festival” does not feature any particular region as its theme. Such expectations and curiosity show that the Festival has, after a decade-long effort, established a clear positioning and a sophisticated audience of the performing arts. Departing from the singular focus of the previous editions, this year's Festival pays tribute to distinctive works of arts with rich cultural characteristics from around the world. It brings the spotlight to dance and music programmes, fostering deeper exchanges and synergy between the art forms. This interest in and embracing of different cultures is well reflected in the work of West Kowloon Cultural District Authority's Head of Artistic Development (Theatre) Low Keehong. In this Critics' Guide, Low shares his experience with the Hong Kong readers from a macro view, while other critics from different cities offer their thoughts on individual programmes.

International Association of Theatre Critics (Hong Kong) is thrilled to be working with the Leisure and Cultural Services Department’s Festivals Office once again, organising a series of events on appreciation and criticism. This bilingual Critics’ Guide is available free of charge at performing arts venues, and also together with some copies of the Hong Kong Economic Journal. This year we have again organised the six-part "The World Cultures Salon Series”, inviting 13 renowned local artists and culture professionals to guide the audience on the crossborder journey in the arts, while reflecting on the relationship between the world and local culture. “Words on Fest” is an open call for submissions for budding art critics who seek to share their insights through writing. In addition there will be four “Preperformance Appreciation Talks” by critics, so ensure you arrive at the theatre early to learn more about the work you’re going to see and the culture it embodies.

About Looking and Ways of Seeing

Low Kee-hong / Currently Head of Artistic Development (Theatre) at the West Kowloon Cultural District Authority.

This is a principle I hold most dear and it has helped shape the way I see the world around me. Barring ethical considerations and danger to others and self, I am always willing to try anything at least once, because I believe it can only make the world around seem so much richer, increasingly complex and more interesting. More importantly, the experience will probably sharpen one’s sense of self.

As a young theatre practitioner in the 1990s, one of my deepest memories of encountering a range of performance cultures totally unfamiliar to me was during the performance laboratory Flying Circus Project by TheatreWorks/Ong Keng Sen (Singapore). I was fortunate enough to participate in five cycles of this laboratory between 1996 and 2004, which allowed intimate encounters with traditional and contemporary artists from Southeast Asia, East Asia, Africa, Europe and the Middle East; Thai Khon dance, Vietnamese Cheo Opera, Balinese mask dance Topeng Keras, the Shamanistic rituals of the Naxi Exorcism Ceremonies, the conceptual framework of contemporary dance maker Jerome Bel from France, the aesthetics of visual and performance artist Otobong Nkanga from Nigeria, and the performance lectures of the Atlas Group from Lebanon just to name a few. These encounters were not only enriching my own practices at that time, but more importantly, they were fundamental to my curatorial work later in my career as a festival director.

Meeting these artists and cultures fueled my curiosity about the strange, the unknown, the unspoken and the unseen. It opened my eyes, my mind and my heart to the diversity humanity is capable of. The sense of wonderment was positively ecstatic, though at the same time I was acutely aware of the dangers of fetishizing “the other”. Hence, another principle I hold dear is self-reflexivity. My training in sociology and anthropology probably sharpened my sense of self-reflexivity, an awareness of the pitfalls to pure consumption without question.

English art critic and writer John Berger’s seminal text Ways of Seeing exhorts us to question the pretense of neutrality when looking at images. In short, all images — and I would extend this to “live” images constructed before us in performance — are imbued with ideological functions. Berger’s proposition was how to read images politically. When looking at cultures not of your own — and for me, even your own — it is important to be aware of both the lens through which you are doing the viewing and the frame in which the presentation is located. Concurrently, we also have to deal with the politics of (re)presentation, especially performances of cultural troupes and artists fully endorsed by state machinery or other mechanisms that operate to propagate only a certain way of reading the performance. Of course, sometimes within the context of presentation festivals it may be hard to navigate this minefield. But it does begin with a certain awareness, of asking for contexts, and being critical as an audience member.

Wouldn’t all this be too much hard work that will take much away from the enjoyment of the viewing? On the contrary, I would argue that this illumination adds so much more to the experience because it deepens the appreciation beyond pure consumption and creates meaning for us. The specificity and contexts begin to open up these windows of access, which perhaps will start to feel less foreign, less exotic. That in the diversity, is actually a mirror to better understand ourselves. This for me, is both the beauty and power of art. It is at once an expression of human civilization and a testament to our evolution and transformation.

So I leave you with this challenge. Begin with a ritual or cultural festival taking place near where you live, something that you usually don’t think much of. You may be surprised by what you encounter. Then venture further afield. Hong Kong is an amazing city and home to many cultures and performances. Pick one of the islands, perhaps. Then when you are ready, invest in a ticket for a performance from a culture or art form that you wouldn’t normally think about attending. Go with an open heart and a critical mind, and be ready to encounter something that perhaps will make you uncomfortable at first, but I guarantee that at some point it will begin to feel familiar, and you may end up not exactly where you started but a little to the left or right. That’s when you know that art has done something to you, that your world has shifted. I’m counting on you to make this shift happen. So, see you at the next performance!