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
Three puppeteers needed to manipulate one figure
naked man with deadlightbulbs