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Betty Yi-Chun Chen

The Scale of Things

I have known the works of Vee Leong and Kappa Tseng (Uncertain Studio) for many years. They work in very different context and with different medium: Vee Leong with text and devising, Kappa Tseng with objects and scenography. But both of their practices introduce another kind of reality into theatre. Both WHO KILLED THE ELEPHANT and THE COLLECTION OF TIME IN POLYMER AGE remind me of the “neo-surrealism” novelist Olga Tokarczuk proposes in her Nobel Lecture titled THE TENDER NARRATOR.

What Olga Tokarczuk means by “neo-surrealism” is a search for a new sort of reality in our growing mediatized, abstracted world which would allow us to “go beyond the limits of our ego and penetrate the glass screen through which we see the world”, offering new viewpoints that “go against the grain” in the face of simplification and broaden the capacity of our psyche.[1] These perspectives tell stories from a myriad of angles, human and non-human, and from different scales of time.

In THE COLLECTION OF TIME IN POLYMER AGE, the singer-storyteller tells the life of a plastic bowl in the first-person: it takes 180 million years for a dead organism to fossilize and become natural gas or oil, 22 days to ship it to a factory, 96 hours to turn it into a disposable bowl, which is used for 16 minutes at a banquet.

In WHO KILLED THE ELEPHANT, the story starts with the elephant in Burma killed by the colonial officer in George Orwell’s story, SHOOTING AN ELEPHANT, and ends in Tino, an elephant in a zoo in Hong Kong which died in the 1980s. He was buried in a landfill, a trash disposal site where luxurious residential areas were later built. Yet the elephant remembers:

An elephant never forgets. It remembers the building and dismantling of each house on the land, the formation and migration of tribes, sharp weapons of greedy hunters, the final scream of the refugee whose shirt tail got caught in the wire fence, carnival at the street corner; sharing, trust, simplicity. The elephant embodies the oldest existence. It stands.

Elephants are tender narrators who show us the world at a different scale. It’s not surprising that both works went through years of development, transforming with the environment they are in. Through their lenses, we see violence, system, paradoxes, but also mourning, remembrance and persistence.

 [1] For the complete speech, see: www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2018/tokarczuk/lecture/. Available in English, Swedish and Polish).