what alternate realities can ghost and machine manifest?
Immersing yourself in the space of Unbearable Darkness is to sink into an unknown world of the surreal and the exquisitely grotesque. Created by Berlin-based Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai, Unbearable Darkness is where the spiritual, cultural and technological collide to conjure a unique, multi-modal experience that is part performance, part film and part paranormal dance. The work centres on Tatsumi Hijikata土方巽 (1928 – 1968), a Japanese choreographer, dancer and iconic co-founder of butoh舞踏. Termed by Hijikata “ankoku butō” 暗黒舞踏 (‘dance of darkness’), butoh emerged during the 1950s and 1960s in post-war Japan and became known for its stylistic diversity, convergence of traditional Japanese and avant-garde movement, (one) and aesthetic defiance of western conceptions of perfection and beauty. (two) Hijikata’s butoh pulsated with sex, eroticism, death, and disease. Standing out from the more minimal, melancholic butoh choreography at the time, Hijikata’s style caught Ka Fai’s attention. (three) Hunched postures, crippled limbs, skeletal performers, rolling eyes, contorted facial expressions and near-nude bodies personified Hijikata’s preoccupation with the aesthetic of ‘Other’ bodies. (four) In Unbearable Darkness Ka Fai reincarnates Hijikata’s presence into a part-ghost, part-cyborg form that speculates on the future of the body and dance.
The work begins with a documentary-style retelling of Ka Fai’s first encounter with the spirit of Hijikata. Kneeling at the foot of the deceased choreographer’s tombstone, Ka Fai pays his respects before seeking out a shaman in Osorezan, Japan, to mediate an encounter with Hijikata’s spirit. Known as the entrance to Buddhist hell, Osorezan’s ragged, rocky landscape is a fitting site for the beginning of a supernatural encounter with the spirit of a man who throughout his lifetime invoked the underworld through dance.
Moving beyond this introductory sequence, the performance melts into something more abstracted and surreal. An electronic soundtrack floods the room as performers, dance engineer Pijin Neji and Rie Usui as shaman, are bathed in a backdrop of vector wireframe landscapes on the three-channel screen curving behind the stage. Reminiscent of 80s pixel graphics, the wireframe scene here signals the creation of an alternate world. Ka Fai lays bare his process of digital construction, making visible the moldable, digital DNA hidden beneath the skin of Hijikata’s avatar. In the darkened room illuminated only by these glowing lines, the audience slips into the tunnel of a digital matrix that emerges somewhere absurd and alien.
Curiously, Ka Fai describes the work as a ‘human and ghost collaboration project’ in which he and Hijikata’s spirit are dual creators. (six) Entering the performance space, the audience could easily overlook the front-row seat reserved for the deceased choreographer, replete with a carefully laid out outfit and an ‘Artist’ lanyard. Hijikata’s presence permeates the entirety of the space, appearing on screen, on stage and amongst the audience.
After being resuscitated by spiritual forces, Hijikata is translated through code into an embodiment of his former self. As the dancer rises from the ground, he traverses the stage while the wireframe scenery zooms in towards the audience and moves across the screen. Motion capture sensors strapped along his torso and limbs, he stands centre-stage as pulsating lights scan his body from above. To one side of the stage sits Usui’s shamanic presence. Arms outstretched and gesturing rhythmically, she seems to conduct the dance unfolding. It feels as though both the audience and performers are teetering on an edge, about to be launched into the unknown. In this moment technology and the paranormal awaken Hijikata’s presence.
For Unbearable Darkness, Ka Fai attempted to digitally transplant muscle memory into his own body and teach himself to move like Hijikata. After translating Hijikata’s dance movements into electrical currents, these were sent into his body to contract and shock his muscles. (five) Like the ghost in a machine, Hijikata was invited to occupy the artist’s body. Despite abandoning this technique due to the dangerously high electrical currents required to move one leg alone, these bodily manipulations influenced Ka Fai to recreate Hijikata’s dance using motion sensor technologies that similarly reflect upon autonomy, automation and the future body. These captivating experiments act like alternative languages through which the artist can communicate with Hijikata and recreate his presence. Ka Fai prompts us to ask how we can teach ourselves to interact with other people, machines and our memories in new ways.
The piece takes another turn and begins chronicling Hijikata’s choreographic transformations through time. His style and inspirations are brought to life through a variety of avatars that dance across the screen behind Neji, echoing his movements. The journey begins in 1949 with a 21-year-old Hijikata dancing in the style of German Expressionism. As we shift to 1959 the choreography loosens up noticeably. Both avatar and dancer’s arms bend jarringly, their clawed hands clutching and scratching at the air above. The tone changes yet again with Hijikata’s subversive 1968 performance Rebellion of the Body. Neji’s arm swings as his hunched body sways and the performance progresses into something increasingly experimental and distorted. Imagery on screen echoes this liberation of the body as Hijikata, with long wild hair and gyrating hips, appears nearly nude bar an erect golden strap on. It feels as though the audience is sucked deeper into Hijikata’s psyche. Before long, the single phallus multiplies into many and Hijikata appears god-like as hundreds of gilded phalluses spiral comically in a vortex around his bust.
A momentary interlude. A red ombre washes the screen. Text appears describing butoh as a sort of hell that encompasses the body in darkness – a dance of contamination and mutation. Screen and stage quickly descend into a contorted, exquisite mess that brings these descriptors to life. Figures glitch, spasm and sputter in a manner inspired by Francis Bacon, while a molten scenescape in the background bubbles and ferments. In this scene of technological apocalypse, Unbearable Darkness reaches a mesmerising crescendo despite the chaos. Tensions between stage and screen, avatar and dancer, dancer and shaman, digital and spiritual, body and soul, real and imagined saturate the performance. At times these distinctions pull apart and at others, as here, they seem to collapse and converge into hypnotic moments of the unexpected.
A final digital embodiment of Hijikata inspired by a dream of Choy Ka Fai imagines the choreographer in 2020. He enters a snowy reverie before his digital body begins pixelating and disintegrating from the screen as smoke plumes from either side of the performance space. Hijikata shapeshifts into particles, washing over the audience to be breathed in and exhaled. Here he manifests one of the bodily transmutations – from human to smoke – he sought to explore through butoh. (seven) As Ka Fai describes, ‘Nothing is more beautiful than what disappears in front of our eyes.’ (eight) Although now invisible, the weight of Hijikata’s presence is felt by the audience as he envelopes and pervades the space. By altering and extending human life beyond its bodily limitations, Ka Fai encourages us to imagine beyond binaries that may limit our experience of the world and connections with one another.
Floating from life to death and back again, Unbearable Darkness traverses the humour, agony and ecstasy of human experience. The fluid being brought to life injects an additional spiritual dimension to the post-human cyborg, or ‘cybernetic organism,’(nine) to propose a new techno spiritual world. What can the spirits of past beings teach us about our present and how can they help us imagine our future? Ka Fai and Hijikata ask what we can learn from looking beyond the confines of the body into unknown, alternate realms where the body is transformed as much by imagination and paranormal forces as by mechanical and technological intervention.
1. Jonathan Bradford Breiten, "The Butoh Body Performed: Aesthetic and Embodiment in Butoh Dance," Asian Languages & Civilizations Graduate Theses & Dissertations, 14 (Spring 2016): 1, 3-4, https://scholar.colorado.edu/asia_gradetds/14
2. “Butoh,” contemporary-dance.org, accessed October 25, 2019, https://www.contemporary-dance.org/butoh.html
3. Choy Ka Fai, email to Spirit of Tatsumi Hijikata, January 21, 2018.
4. Lucy Weir, “Abject Modernism: The Male Body in the Work of Tatsumi Hijikata, Günter Brus and Rudolf Schwarzkogler,” Tate Papers, no. 23 (Spring 2015), https://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/23/abject-modernism-the-male-body-in-the-work-of-tatsumi-hijikata-gunter-brus-and-rudolf-schwarzkogler
5. Choy Ka Fai, “Choy Ka Fai: Body, Memory, Speculations,” interview by Mario Margani, Digicult, accessed October 25, 2019, http://digicult.it/news/choy-ka-fai-body-memory-speculations/
6. Choy Ka Fai, email to Spirit of Tatsumi Hijikata, January 21, 2018.
7. “Butoh,” contemporary-dance.org, accessed October 25, 2019, https://www.contemporary-dance.org/butoh.html
8. Choy Ka Fai, email to Spirit of Tatsumi Hijikata, January 21, 2018.
9. Donna Haraway, “A manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, technology and socialist feminism in the 1980s,” Australian Feminist Studies 2, no. 4 (September 16, 2010): 1, https://doi.org/10.1080/08164649.1987.9961538
With thanks to Oliver Rose for digitising the drawings.
Johanna Bear is an independent curator, writer and Front of House Coordinator and Assistant Curator at Artspace. She has previous experience at the Arts Law Centre of Australia, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, Artspace Aotearoa and Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and holds a Bachelor of Arts and Bachelor of Laws.
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