By Rudy Madanir
JAKARTA (JP); When the master of ceremonies welcomed Chinese artist Ma Liu Ming to perform before a packed crowd at Teater Utan Kayu (TUK), the organizer of the Jakarta International Performance Arts Festival (JIPAF) distributed small pieces of paper to the audience. It was noisy for awhile as many people were shocked that the paper turned out to be quite a "challenging" invitation. "You are invited to have your photo taken, clothed or nude, with Fen Ma Liu Ming," it read in English. As soon as the lights dimmed, the totally naked artist appeared with his hermaphrodite look of a beautiful face much like a woman's, and long hair cascading down his male body. Calmly, he proceeded to check a prepared camera ready for 36 shots, then he sat comfortably on a couch covered with black fabric.
Soon after he closed his eyes, people rushed to have a turn at this rare photo opportunity Men and women, old and young -- in groups or as individuals --took turns choosing different poses and attitudes.
A gray-haired elderly woman took a seat next to the artist, giving him a motherly hug and smiling widely. The scene was full of laughter. A group of women and men of different ages posed elegantly with the nude artist as if they were talking a picture for a family album.
Others were also posing in interesting ways, including a man who was proudly showing his genitals, a man who put a condom onto the artist's genitals and a man with his face covered pointing his two fingers to the artist's head as if he was trying to shoot him.
To explore people's reactions toward the performance is the aim of his work, said Ma Liu Ming, who has done the same performance in 14 different countries, each with its own culture and problems. "Not knowing what's going to happen next makes the exploration interesting for all people involved in the performance and the performance itself," he said. About the meaning of his art, he said that it presents an abnormal condition to viewers and reveals harmony and contradiction in an effort to describe an actual social reality.
Ironically, the artist has never done the performance publicly in his homeland of China, where he faces a constant question from society of whether he is a man or a woman just because of his long hair. This notably becomes the inspiration of his performance.
Not only Chinese artists, but also several others from among the 25 local and foreign artists, used . their naked bodies to express art in the festival that lasted from March 2 until March 4 (,2000).
In return, Jakarta's audiences showed their enthusiasm night after night by packing the theater which has a capacity for lOO people. Many who did not get a seat inside massed in front of a TV monitor outside. Considering some unfamiliar themes and often "radical" expressions of some of the artists, the small Teater of Utan Kayu (TUK) became a perfect place to test the responses of Jakarta's audiences.
JIPAF coordinator Arahmaiani said the nudity used in some performances made the organizer choose TUK as the festival venue over alternative places with larger capacities, such as Taman Ismail Marznki cultural center.
She claimed the festival was quite successful judging from the size of the crowds and their enthusiastic responses.
For performance art, response is not enough by showing a long applause, as is the common practice in performing art. More importantly, it is the artist's interaction with the audience or involving people in the performance which gives a better understanding about the theme or message a performance artist is trying to convey.
Many artists, besides Ma Liu Ming, involved the audience effectively in their performance, ranging from as simple as waving paper flags in Iwan Wijono's Liberalism, Celebration and Speech to kissing the Japanese female artist Mamiko Kawabata in her performance titled Kiss Me Please.
Another Japanese artist, Akiko Izumi, in her Life in the Cage, successfully persuaded five men to crawl everywhere with her.
However, not all efforts to involve people got a positive response from the audience.
Singaporean artist Jason Lim, in his work titled Foreign Talent, put white powder all over his almost naked body. While dancing, he was not only trying to pour powder on the audience, but also trying to touch and kiss some people.
In response, he got a karate kick to his buttocks from a Japanese woman, while some others avoided him by leaving the room. The few people who remained were saved by the organizer, who hugged the artist to stop his performance.
Nobody has hard feelings after the "performance" as the theme and expression is free in performance art. Consequently, the art produced by some performances can be so individual to be appreciated that some people might have difficulties understanding performance art.
A short speech explaining what a performance is all about could help people to understand better, or even to cry together with the artist. That was the case of Happy Japan, performed by Shin-ichi Arai.
He explained to the audience that his performance was in protest of the Japanese government, which launched propaganda in the form of a comic book denying accusations of propagating sex slavery during the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia. The book has sold a half million copies so far.
Appearing without clothes and only covering his genitals with a small towel sporting the name of a famous Japanese stationery, he squatted as if he was defecating on a square piece of white fabric on the floor.
While singing the Japanese national anthem Kimigayo, he pressed a plastic tube containing red cream from just below his buttocks, as if he was excreting red human waste.
Using his bare buttocks on the red "waste", he painted a full circle in the middle of the white square. It turned out to be a copy of the Japanese national flag, which he later hung on the wall.
He then tore out each page of the comic book, giving some of the pages to the audience and keeping some to put in his mouth to chew on. Then he shouted "happy Japan" .
As he continued tearing the comic's pages, more and more people received them and tried to read what was written. At the same time, the accumulation of paper in his mouth blocked his emotional speech, making his voice hoarse before it disappeared entirely inside his throat.
The performance ended when his mouth could only produce a deep mumble, unable to utter a single word, while tears ran down his angry face.
Undoubtedly no one watching the performance could misunderstand the artist's suffering. However, not all the messages or themes of every performance are as vivid and clear as Happy Japan. Many are still difficult to absorb by Jakarta's audiences. It is probably caused by language and cultural. barriers, or perhaps the concept are too individual to be understood by a large audience.
At least Jakarta theatergoers have 'been given a broader outlook by this inaugural festival. Let's wait for the next one two years from now.