Nessa Cui: When Future Meets the Past

Pro Helvetia Shanghai, Darstellende Künste, Musik, Visuelle Künste

Hinweis: Dieser Beitrag ist nur auf Englisch verfügbar.

Six artists (three Chinese/ three Swiss, paired up as duos) with individual creative specialities and socio-cultural backgrounds conducted research, surveys and interviews on ritual dances of ethnic groups in Guizhou in August 2023. Curated by Nessa Cui and Rio Wolta, their final projects were showcased at three cultural spaces in Shanghai. This article is a reflection upon this exchange written by Nessa Cui.

As borders and all other forms of boundaries around the world become increasingly ambiguous and obsolete, and human relationships are becoming entangled, it is urgent that we re-evaluate the concept of localness from a new perspective. This necessitates a reconsideration of the relationships between the local and the global, as well as between the self and others. In When Future Meets the Past, we invite creatives from various fields to explore new ways to think about our present condition through an exploration of the past, particularly the practices that link us with nature. This is done through field research and a series of performance exhibitions and events. 

When Future Meets the Past

The idea of When the Future Meets the Past first came to me when I witnessed the exodus of urban dwellers returning to their hometowns during the pandemic. It inspired me to look beyond the contemporary art context, which I had long familiarized myself with, and move towards the rural. This required me to shifting my focus to a more diverse, cross-cultural, and interdisciplinary group of creatives. A significant part of them consists of local craftspeople, folk performance groups — the inheritors of intangible cultural heritage of their homes who are still performing these traditions. My engagement with them does not only pertain to their artistic practice; rather, I also learned from their relationships with nature, and their cosmology which aims to create a shared community through rituals and festivals. The way in which this attitude toward nature and cosmology could be conveyed to people in modern life through artists’ practices is one of the goals of When the Future Meets the Past.

Photo by Dossier
Photo by Dossier

As a cultural production label dedicated to linking different creative practices and disciplines, between the visual, audio, body, and stage, DOSSIER brought together six artists with distinct creative specialities and socio-cultural backgrounds to conduct research, surveys and interviews on the traditional dances of the different ethnic groups in Guizhou in August 2023. The project is generously supported by Pro Helvetia Shanghai and ARTRA of Shanghai International Arts Festival. Capturing the vigorous local cultural scene and its unique natural ecology, the project concluded with contemporary avant-garde live presentations, in which the artists were divided into duos to interpret and reflect on topics such as identity, cultural interpretation, ethnicity, ecological politics, consumer culture, as well as their implications on our contemporary condition. A panorama of diversity was brought to life in vibrant animation, bringing art in harmony and communication with humanity and nature.

Photo by Dossier
Photo by Dossier
Photo by Dossier

Nature, all parent, ancient, and divine, O Much-mechanic mother, art is thine; Heav’nly, abundant, venerable queen, in ev’ry part of thy dominions seen. Untam’d, all-taming, ever splendid light, all ruling, honor’d, and supremly bright.1

The above are excerpts from the opening of “To Nature [Phusis]” in The Hymns of Orpheus. Ever since human beings sought to personify and deify nature, we have never ceased our attempt to uncover its secrets. Living in a contemporary society that fetishizes consumption and digital technological development, we embarked on our research journey with a question in mind: can we imagine a reality where we uncover the mysteries of the world through artistic techniques inspired by the teachings about nature in mythologies and rituals? The six of us explored ritualistic dances such as the Dong Chorus, Fanpai wooden drum dance, Miao ancient singings, Anshun Dixi operas, and Cuo Taiji dance. Among them, we discovered the ode to women and nature in the Dong Chorus and Miao ancient singings, the “embodying” of social behaviors in Fanpai wooden drum dance, the exorcism of ailments and its performance style using face tattoo in Anshun Dixi operas and Cuo Taiji dance — the two theater formats representative of Nuo folk religion in the Guizhou area. All of these dances strive to relive memories of the ancestors, strengthen collective awareness, and foster identity building, while making an effort to unveil the mysteries of nature.

The project is curated by Nessa Cui and Rio Wolta, showcasing the artists’ multidimensional expressions at three cultural spaces in Shanghai.

The Chasing Shadow project by Wang Ziyue and OY at the Shanghai Sinan Mansion draws inspiration from Fanpai dance of the Miao people. Through the use of different mediums, such as video, dance, game, and music, the performance work visualises the importance of rituals in the formation of one’s spiritual life. The project encourages the audience to exercise their agencies in day-to-day activities and focus on spiritual care outside of material life. Artist Hu Wei and Géraldine Chollet presented a live stage performace, Her Presence Speaks Lightness Into This Dusty Kingdom, at the Cloud Hall of the World Expo Museum; the performance emphasises the affiliative relationships, communal collaboration and mutual dependence between humans, objects, nature and spirituality. Through a series of works using organic materials, videos and dances, their project creates a public space where body and spirit could converge — a safe space that allows the audience to engage in thinking, perception, imagination and contemplation. The final performance takes place in the historic Mazu temple, Tianhou Palace; it is a series of on-site field spaces by Chen Wei and Rio Wolta. The aim of the work is to integrate the architectural and audio structures, restoring various environments and cultures to the fleeting nature of time through the guidance of sound.

Wang Ziyue and OY, Chasing Shadow, photo by Dossier
Wang Ziyue and OY, Chasing Shadow, photo by Dossier
Hu Wei and Géraldine Chollet, Her presence speaks lightness into this dusty kingdom, photo by Dossier
Hu Wei and Géraldine Chollet, Her presence speaks lightness into this dusty kingdom, photo by Dossier
Chen Wei and Rio Wolta, In No Time, photo by Dossier
Chen Wei and Rio Wolta, In No Time, photo by Miao Jiang
Chen Wei and Rio Wolta, In No Time, photo by Miao Jiang

In retrospection of this project, whether it was the mutual inspiration between artists, or their observation and coherence of differing ecologies and cultural phenomena derived from their own experience, it has enabled us to attain a profound understanding of the crucial necessity of rituals and art in communication and connection within the world, especially in a society focused on material production. It is the rituals and art that sustain our way of living and allow us to return to the simplicity of the present moment.

  1. The Hymns of Orpheus, trans. Thomas Taylor (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999), accessed: https://www.theoi.com/Text/OrphicHymns1.html#9.

Biography

Nessa Cui is an independent producer and curator from China. With 15 years of experience in the art industry, she has served as an artistic director at de Sarthe (Beijing) and Gallary Sanjyo Gion (Japan). In 2020, she founded Dossier/札记, an art curatorial and content organization that focuses on cross-cultural, interdisciplinary, and intermedia collaborations. The organization emphasises the fusion of diverse cultures and ecological considerations while reconstructing a sustainable production system. By promoting and disseminating the perspectives and ideas of creators from various fields, it aims to generate public dialogue and new cultural experiences.

Rio Wolta, contemporary musician and visualist from Zurich, Switzerland. He was born in 1988, survived his teens in the Swiss Alps and studied history at the University of Zurich. He is known for mixing various art forms, including film, theater, dance and fine arts. In recent years he has worked not just as a composer and singer but also as a visual artist, combining image and sound. Rio Wolta toured through China in 2017 and 2018 and was a resident at Red Gate Gallery Beijing in 2017.