Tearing away the Clutter: Demolishing the “China Museum”


The Turandot Son-et-lumiere show of 1998: a first assault on Scribal Authority?

The sort of culturally disaccumulative impulse so very baldly expressed by Cai Guoqiang (which is at the same time a kind of gate-opening: deep-dig preparation is not only unnecessary but positively impedent for the “Western” Other gazing upon Chinese art) is also quite evident in the film and ballet experiments of Zhang Yimou from as early as Red Sorghum.

The midpoint “interlude” in that last-enumerated film, the self-described “Ode to the Wine God”, sets the tone of disaccumulation by submerging ritual into folk-technological process, and/or inverting it by presenting the song as a rewrite of a snake oil medicine show: no actual “Wine God” exists in folk or literate culture, so no exegesis is needed, nor even possible.

(for which see https://asianimperialisms.com/2012/01/21/invented-ritual-for-completion-of-brewing-cycle-red-sorghum-1988/)

There is no mistaking, however, the repugnance for the palimpsest of encyclopedic learning in the 1998 staging of a (largely) foreign-enacted Turandot in the Temple of Heaven within the Palace grounds. The clip pre-appended above shows how and where Zhang makes the point, not so much by trapping us in fruitless decryption (Xu Bing) or by putting the whole soul-mincing project of museuming to the torch, but by parodying the scholar-elite narcissist enthusiasm for totalizing, nothing omitted collection (James Boon, 1999, Verging on Extra-Vagance, p. 128, calls this the “omnium gatherum” complex) a habit which perforce desensitizes the agent to the often horrifying reality of what is being collected. (Lu Xun redux).

The Dance of the Executioner, Turandot in Beijing, 1998

The clip I have made is from the 1998 summer rehearsal of the opera in Beijing, where Zhang Yimou takes over full command (in the Florence trial run of 1997 he had lacked this power).

Whether or not one is attracted by Zhang’s obsession with stage, stage-set, and stage-effect as prime machines of opera performance, there is no backing away from the horror kindled by the “dance of the executioner” preparing as if with endless time on (her!) hands for the completion of her job of slicing off the head of the Prince of Persia for failing to decrypt (!!) the Princess’ riddle. Poe has his red-clad bringer-of-death work up a similar terror by trapping a ballroom assembly into into death-embracing ecstasy, but that enactment leaves no indictment of the culture as a whole. Here, however, the deadly imp (red-clad in the actual performance) weaves her way across a library shelf of unfolded 折子(accordion-bound) volumes, almost all illustrated treatises on one or another bladed weapon. (The variety seems unimaginable). No matter which she will chose, she is still and will always be a creature of the library, enjoying (just as the scholar-collector does) the sheer pleasure of always-more-to-be-found accumulation, confirmed (by vermilion “chop”) as Property. (A habit peaking in Imperial collectanea). It is Culture (the culture of letters) itself that is the source of the evil: for in the end what this all reduces to is the making of the riddle into a fad. Another vindication of Cai Guoqiang….

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