little frustrations

I was not totally sure how this would work out, working with Master Liu &  his midgets. They are off course friendly but not so open to do things differently. Saying you want to do new things is one thing, being capable of doing so, is another. The idea of the chinese master is bit like that of a specialist in western culture, but probably different, it’s  bigger. And I don’t know that difference well enough, so I’m not sure if trying to get on the same page is even possible. One of those  things was that the master wanted a very large sum of money if he would work the puppets, but if he would instruct his midgets to do the moves, then it would be the friendly deal that was made before. Also other money issues made the second day less comfortable working. Not talking about money because its a delicate or dirty  subject, because it’s not chique, especially when you busy doing something high and cultural….Well, they don’t have that problem here! Working with the little people went well, they enjoyed it. Your making a film about a cent and than you get frustrated by this. (I’m sure this will not be the only moment in the process of the making). Cultural differences, language difficulties and technical problems. I don’t even get the feeling of them, trying to understand what I want. When I ask them; walk the puppet from left to right, slowly and elegant. They have no clue how that could look like.

Rolling up your T shirt, showing your belly on a hot day is typical Beijing fashion.

Master Liu with Rolled up T shirt ( Beijing hot day sexy style )

Longzaitian Troupe

 Two years ago, as I came to Beijing to research  chinese shadow puppetry, on a freezing cold & gray january day, after an hour long taxi trip, I arrived at  Xiuzhenren. Next to  the west university of Beijing. I had found this place online and thought it to be some kind of shadow art museum. After finally having found it, a ugly building on a dusty parking lot, it looked dark and abandoned. but to my big surprise ; open!

Behind a large desk was a funny looking kid smiling at me. I tried to communicate with her, but it was impossible. She talked to me in mandarin and gave me this  strange look through her thick glasses. So I just went inside; nothing will stop me in my quest for shadows. I  wandered around, looked at the dusty vitrines with shadow puppets and had the feeling I was the only visitor in years. I see lots of great stuff.  While I was admiring some shadow figures from the cultural revolution area; Mao standing on the back of a jeep, a tanks, some red guards ( I would later learn that this was the darkest area of this more the thousand years old art) suddenly another strange kid appeared. He pulled my jacket and then  dragged me,  while say in english ‘ Come, come!’ I followed him through a red door and  ended up in a deserted theatre with around 250 orange plastic chairs lined up in front of a huge panoramic shadow screen. He opened another door; A tiny room packed with kids playing chinese instruments. This is pretty weird, such a large dark building with only small kids.   He was still pulling my jacked and was now dragging me  backstage where I heard giggling and the sounds of a chinese violin. Once behind the screen I saw around 12 funny looking kids. Funny looking… I said to myself. Wait a minute…at that moment, a girl came up to me and said in english; ‘We are not kids’. I sat down and said. Yes, I just realize. They where all midgets.(longer version of this story in Dutch on my older blog).

So, now being back in town and looking for people to work with (most puppeteers don’t live in town. Shadow puppetry has always been a rural art. Not a city art.) I asked my friend Annie Rollins (researcher in this field) if she would happen to know some people for me to work with. She suggested we should go check out this official chinese institute. The people in shadow puppetry I have worked with so far , where always independent, meaning not state funded. So I hesitate a little bit. Shadow puppetry is not, to put it lightly, very progressive. My project is not traditional at all. It’s more about rediscovering a almost dead art form that has never been used in a contemporary way. This is for me one the the many interesting parts of this project; to be working with very old technic that has zero tradition in western culture. For me it’s all new, for them it’s all old. I want to collaborate and see what will happen. So Annie took me back  there only to find out that  things had changed quite a bit in the last two years. They have  3 troupes only in Beijing and other branches  all over china and each of them host around 80 “little people” who live & work there. It’s a bit like the state circus. They’re also dressed up a little bit like circus people. It’s its own community. For me its very difficult to guess their age, they pretty much all look very young to me. But that has no importance. I’m not interested in working with midgets, I’m interested in working with chinese shadow puppeteers. Mister Liu (normal size) is the puppetmaster and mister Ling (normal size) is the manager. I show them my puppets. Always the same reaction; Never seen something like this! But they like them and they see I have really studied their art. Using bits for my art. And off course they know the family that have carved them.

Today we had our first shooting day with 3 of the characters that will appear in Cloacinae


The little people, Annie Rollins, Me & Master Liu in the back

Longzaitian Troupe first dayThree puppeteers needed to manipulate one  figure

deadlightbulb man

naked man with deadlightbulbs

last february in Taipei

Short registration of performance in Taipei inspired on Cloacinae
With sewer inspection video’s and chinese shadow puppets designed by Serge Onnen and carved by Tian Xiang.
Mark van Tongeren (voice and electronics), Chiaoming Tung (guzhen), Serge Onnen (shadow) and Erika Sprey (shadow).
February 2014
Camera by José Fernandes