The becoming-with aspect in Hyun A’s «NOHWA»
Essay by Sara Rossling in the publication Reflex of the Flower by Hyun A.
Excerpt from text
Sekidera Komachi is a famous Japanese Noh play from the 1400s by playwright Zeami Motokiyo. With detailed simplicity, it meditates on the bitter-sweet delight of being alive throughout childhood, maturity and old age – the pleasure and pain of life. Its subject is poetry and like a flower, it captures the transience of life.
While reading the manuscript of the play (translated into English) (1), I simultaneously delved into Hyun A's project «NOHWA», ongoing since 2017. In this comprehensive work, in which the artist uses poetic approaches to explore and question how notions of 'beauty', the 'Other' and identity construction have been represented throughout history, Noh theatre has an essential role. Perhaps, this is most distinct in Nohwa II (2019), a video of the artist’s Noh-like play in four acts, which reflects the above-mentioned questions.
Henceforth, I will use excerpts from the manuscript as an itinerary for this text through which I will explore three concepts in Hyun A's work: Chinoiserie, the European interpretation and imitation of Chinese culture influenced by Orientalism; Noh, a traditional Japanese performance art; and Semper Augustus, the exotic Dutch tulip from the 1600s (2). In different ways, they all comprise the qualities of a mélange due to the various phenomena present in the process of their becoming as well as a performativity that, in various ways, is connected to ‘beauty’ and the ‘Other’. Furthermore, inspired by the Baradian becoming-with aspect that points to the entanglement of every phenomenon, I look at Cho’s concepts from such a constitutive perspective. Through Karen Barad’s thinking on intra-activity (3), we see that, ontologically, nothing can pre-exist its interaction with other matter. Hence, in the process of becoming there is a becoming-with constituting every phenomenon – a dynamic process in which the material and the discursive are mutually implicated (4).
Now – back to the play Sekidera Komachi – the play’s reduced setting stages a quiet place called Sekidera during the festival of Tanabata, which traditionally celebrates the meeting of two separated lovers represented by two stars. An abbot and a child acolyte (characters in the play) are about to accompany each other to the festival when they meet with an elderly woman (the main character). While discussing poetry with the older woman, the abbot discovers that she is the great poet Ono no Komachi, also widely famed for her beauty.
The play begins:
[ The stage assistants bring forward a simple construction representing a hut with a thatched roof. It is covered with a cloth. The Old Woman is inside.
As the music begins, the Child, the Abbot, and two Priests enter and face each other onstage. The Abbot and the Priests carry rosaries.]
[ The Abbot faces front.]
I am the chief priest of Sekidera in Omi. Today, the seventh day of the Seventh month, we come to celebrate the Festival of Stars here in the temple garden. People say that the old woman who has built her hut at the foot of the mountain knows all the secrets of the art of poetry. So, on this festive day dedicated to poetry, I am going to take the young people to hear her stories.
In a similar way as the Abbot bringing the young children to learn from Komachi on the stage, Japanese children are brought to the older generation of Noh masters to learn from their skills. This play depicts Komachi living in great poverty at the end of her life when her beauty has faded. On the evening of Tanabata, when the Abbot, astonished and delighted, realises her identity, he invites her to come with them to the festival, but she declines. Then, the child dances a part of the classical dance gagaku for her. Inspired, Komachi starts to dance herself and continues to do so until dawn. In the dawning light, she ponders the volatility of life and her irrational shame at what she has become, and all of this unfolds against the background of the Tanabata festival that celebrates two young lovers.
In Nohwa II, Hyun A’s poetic practice of re-writing, translating, textualising and exploring ‘points of rupture’ alters the traditional Noh format into something else. From the ancient Japanese stories in Noh mediated by the actors’ controlled bodies, the artist creates a body of poetry that offers a stage for discussing “infected entities”and colonial remains in European everyday aesthetics such as exotic flowers and "China'' porcelain, through its thematic elements and mélange of in-between statuses (5). And by connecting such coded objects to characters (subjects) in her work, through the performative, there is a potential to re-negotiate these phenomena.
Similarly to how the Noh manuscript is performed on stage, Cho focuses on the words in relation to what they do as well as on the discourses and the meanings folded into them. Perhaps the title, “Nohwa”, is the most illustrative example as a wordplay joining the performing art Noh and ‘wa’, which is rooted in the French word Chinoiserie. Since “Nohwa” brings together classical art with faux culture, it is both emblematic of an exotic mixture and the two sides of the same coin. The suffix “noi” in Chinoiserie, the artist explains, means ´like´ – that is, like Chinese (culture), seen from the European gaze (6). Thus, to me “Nohwa” can be read as a play that touches on dichotomies as in the idea of culture/nature; at the same time, the artist shows that the ´faux´ is entangled with the ´classic´ and that, in a constitutive and relational way, they are part of each other’s becoming. To Barad, there is an ever-changing relationality in the material-discursive boundary-making practices that produce "objects" and "subjects" and other differences (7). This also points to the potential of becoming with – through the way we look at what is together with. In the context of the play Sekidera Komachi, I find it noticeable that through the male gaze Komachi is becoming with the historic tales about Komachi in Japanese culture and with the idea of beauty bound to women that often stands in conflict with the idea of being deeply skilled and knowledgeable.
[ The Abbot faces front, takes a few steps, then returns to his former position, indicating he has made a journey.]
Here is the hut now. Let us call on the old woman.
Days go by without a single bowl of food;
Whom can I ask for one?
At night, my tattered rags fail to cover me,
But there is no way to patch the rents.
Each passing rain
Ages the crimson of the flowers;
The willows are tricked by the wind,
And their green gradually droops.
Man has no second chance at youth;
He grows old. The aged song thrush
Warbles again when spring has come,
But time does not revert to the past.
Oh, how I yearn for the days that are gone!
What would I do to recapture the past!
[ She weeps. The Abbot and the Child rise and go to kneel before her.]
In Sekidera Komachi, Ono no Komachi painfully contemplates her past – her ageing and lost beauty by imagining a fading flower. In Noh, the flower is a recurring symbol, and Zeami emphasised the importance of understanding its full scope. To him, the flower was the metaphor he drew on to evoke a sense of the unique qualities expressed in Noh, such as the actor’s interwoven body, which is predicated on the understanding that the body is dynamically and mutably integrated with space (8). In other words, the actor on stage becomes the character (together) with the spirit connected to the ancient mask the actor is wearing and the materiality of the mask, as well as with the discourse on Noh transformation.
Noh, and performance at large, enables the actor to use the body as a material for or medium of expression. In Hyun A Cho's work, Semper Augustus – the legendary tulip with beautiful colour-breaking patterns caused by exposure to a virus that led to a financial bubble during tulip mania – is a character on stage in Nohwa II (2019). This character embodies the 'Other' – both the ghost connected to the mask and the tulip Semper Augustus. The flower was created to become a unique variation designed to resemble a 'foreign' flora and to generate fascination and a high value on the economic market. In that sense, exoticism, the 'Other', colonialism, the financial market and the virus had all taken part in constituting this 1600s phenomenon. By underlining the infected embodiment In Nohwa II (2019) as a still urgent, valid and critical matter to deal with, Cho seems to be asking, ‘How can we respond to such phenomena and acknowledge our responsibility towards others? (9) The main character, a young woman, says, "I'm destined to live in a colony of beauty". Her words remind us how the gaze on the 'Other' is also interwoven with the concepts of 'beauty' and the ‘exotic’ through orientalism. This inclination still materializes today, when we put our own needs and desires into what we see, in a governing way, and when it comes to matters about which we have little knowledge or interest in knowing.
(1) Sekidera Komachi Twenty Plays of the No Theatre, Ed., Brazell, Karen, Columbia University Press, New York.
(2) See Introduction in Cho, Hyun A, Nohwa I, Samuso 2018.
(3) In comparison to ‘interaction,’ which necessitates pre-established bodies that then participate in action with each other, ‘intra-action’ understands agency as not an inherent property to be exercised by an individual or human, but as a dynamism of forces. See Barad, Karen, Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning, Duke University Press, Durham, 2007, p. 141.
(4) Barad, 2007, p. 151.
(5) See Hyun A’s work description of Nohwa II, 2019.
(6) See Introduction in Cho, Hyun A, Nohwa I, Samuso 2018
(7) Barad, 2007, p. 234.
(8) Amano, Yuka, "Flower" as Performing Body in Nō Theatre in Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 28, No. 2, University of Hawaii Press, Honolulu, 2011, pp. 529-548.
(9) See Hyun A’s work description of Nohwa II, 2019.