"As an artist, I'm an outsider in American society. As an experimental artist, I'm an outsider within the art world. As a person of color, I'm an outsider; as an immigrant, I'm an outsider; as a gay man, I'm an outsider. It's the position that fate has allotted me, but it's a valuable position to be in, because I think every society should have a mirror held to it by the outsider." -Ping Chong, 1999
For nearly three decades, Ping Chong has held a mirror up to his adopted culture. During that time, few American artists have captured so truthfully and accurately the rich contradictions and paradoxes of American society. Chong's mirror reveals what lies beneath the surface, beneath the images of tranquil homogeneity America presents to its citizens and to the world. The unbroken, unmarked simulation of American life with which our society comforts itself is splintered and refracted by Chong's theater, exposed as a mosaic of lives, a patchwork of rewoven histories.
Whether as a theater or performance maker, choreographer, videographer, or installation artist, Chong has consistently produced art that challenges audiences' preconceptions and rewards their serious engagement. His stage works, video pieces, and environmental installations have been enthusiastically received all over the globe by both spectators and critics, and his achievements have been acknowledged through multiple awards (including two Obie Awards), a Guggenheim fellowship, and six NEA fellowships. In Spring 2001, under the auspices of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arts Institute, Chong will be an Interdisciplinary Artist in Residence in the Department of Art. His residency, co-sponsored by the Departments of Afro-American Studies; Environment, Textiles and Design; and Theatre and Drama, and the Dance Program, will culminate with a public performance of his celebrated performance piece Undesirable Elements.
Born in Toronto but raised in New York's Chinatown, Chong's family only occasionally interacted with other races and classes. When Chong left home in the middle 1960s to study film and graphic design in midtown Manhattan, his culture shock was enormous. A Chinese-American adolescent uprooted from his isolated world and cast adrift in unfamiliar surroundings, he struggled to find a niche both within white America and within the tumultuous New York art world of the late `60s and early `70s. Nurtured by the scene's prevailing spirit of unabashed self-expression, Chong would eventually come to see himself as part of a heterogeneous world culture. Yet society at large seldom shared his magnanimous views. Consequently, Chong was often relegated to the role of the "other," the alien outsider, in many of the communities in which he dwelled.
Accordingly, the status of the "other" in America has been the signature theme of his career, a career which long predates the `90s preoccupation with "multiculturalism" and questions of diversity. Ironically, Ping Chong's investigation of this theme has yielded some of the most quintessentially American art of the last thirty years. His rejection of the compartmentalization of human experience spilled over into his artistic practice. Considering himself "not aggressive enough" to succeed in the white-dominated world of filmmaking, Chong resolved to instead devote his energies to a synthesis of the many art forms that piqued his interest. Indeed, many of his renowned performance pieces are famed for incorporating "cinematic" techniques of lighting and framing.
After graduating from the School of Visual Arts in 1969, Chong joined Meredith Monk's vanguard interdisciplinary performance company, The House, as a dancer and became a key collaborator. Blossoming as an artist under this climate of experimentation, Chong went on to form Ping Chong & Co. in 1975. "Meredith made me realize," Chong later recalled, "that performing arts could be anything-art was anything I could make it to be." Still operating today, Ping Chong & Co. acts as a professional base and artistic workshop for an interdisciplinary, multiracial group of performers.
The principles guiding the dozens of performances staged by Ping Chong since Lazarus (1972), his first independent theater work, have been eloquently summarized by Asianweek's Lia Chang, who wrote of Chong in 1997 as "known for the spare elegance of his multimedia productions and the almost anthropological way in which he pieces together often incongruous bits of cultural information." His signature style and themes evolved over the course of several award-winning shows, including Humboldt's Current (1977) and Nosferatu (1985). These and other works explored American and European social mores and myths with anthropological precision. And with the production of Kind Ness (1988), an absurdist tour-de-force featuring a gorilla in the role of a Rwandan foreign exchange student, Chong directly confronted the nature of American racism and its consequences for those who bear the mark of difference.
In the 1990s, sensing the time was right for a major work addressing specifically Asian themes, Chong produced a quartet of pieces--Deshima (1990), Chinoiserie (1995), After Sorrow (1997), and Pojagi (1999)-which scrutinized relations between Western nations and, respectively, Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea. Formally, the East/West quartet synthesized many of Chong's characteristic techniques. Relatively unconcerned with telling a story in linear fashion, Chong instead fragmented bits of historical narrative in order to foreground the parallels between Western attitudes in the past and in the present. (Much of the power of Chinoiserie results from the contrast between an eighteenth-century meeting between Chinese Emperor Qianlong and an emissary of Britain's George III and the racially motivated murder of a Chinese man in Detroit in the 1980s.) These anecdotes are conveyed through a multi-layered style of presentation, which makes use of split-stage action, recorded commentary, direct address, ritualized dance, and stunning projections.
Bruce Allardice, Ping Chong's longtime associate and managing director of Ping Chong & Co., remarked in 1996 to John Dillon of American Theatre that the East/West quartet signaled an important change in the content of Chong's work: a shift "from allegory to history," a movement from implicit or metaphorical critique to a more direct engagement with the effects of Western colonizing. In a period defined by conservative backlash against the "excesses" of the 1960s and 1970s, such a shift was natural for Chong. "I believe that one of the possible functions of an artist is to correct distorted history, and to serve as the conscience of a society," Chong has stated. "I wanted to address history not from the point of view of the status quo, but of what actually happened that was not recorded by the official history books." Through dramatizing the Dutch contact with Japan in the nineteenth century in Deshima and the American intervention in Vietnam in After Sorrow, Chong forces the spectator to come to terms with historical wrongs still denied by their perpetrators.
Chong's other major `90s exploration of ethnic difference, Undesirable Elements (also known as Secret History), is similarly rooted in the experiences of historical subjects marginalized by the West. What sets Undesirable Elements apart from the East/West quartet--and from just about any theatrical performance one can think of--is the active participation of those very subjects in its creation and execution. First produced in conjunction with a New York gallery installation in 1992, each version of Undesirable Elements draws its "actors" from the community at large. Few of these performers--or, in Justin Hayford's words, "eyewitnesses to the `human diaspora' of the 20th century"--have any sort of background in acting; rather, all share the experience of living in a culture different from the one into which they were born.
The original concept developed from Chong's desire to interrogate the meaning of democracy in America: "It's a way of educating all of us, because we are all equally insular." The participants, six to eight in number, sit in a semi-circle before projected images, including outlines of countries, and tell the stories of their lives--stories of their experiences as "Undesirable Elements." "The stories are so rich, so fascinating," collaborator Michael Rohd has remarked, "they beat what playwrights try to write."
The performers are selected from a pool of applicants on the basis of interviews with Chong, who then weaves the participants' interviews, histories, and personal anecdotes into "a tapestry of the American story." Arranged in chronological order and narrated by the people who lived them, these stories reflect realities of modern life too frequently hidden from view. Combined, they constitute a true "people's history" of the last 100 years, a fascinating report on both the real-life experiences of those swept up in the current carved out by the century's watershed events--World War II, the fall of Communism, the Vietnam Conflict, American and South African apartheid, to name only a few--and their current-day efforts at staying true to themselves while negotiating multiple worldviews.
Supplemented by poems and folk songs delivered in the performers' native languages, each of the stories is singular and unique. Yet, the presentation ultimately works to flatten out the differences between the speakers and emphasize the commonality of human experience. The critics' enthusiasm for Undesirable Elements is aptly summarized by the observations of Mari Herreras-Zinman:
Chong's scheduled Spring activities present University of Wisconsin-Madison students with a rare and invaluable opportunity to cross disciplinary and cultural boundaries, and to study with one of the few living American artists actually redefining American art.
In the first ten weeks of Spring Semester 2001, Ping Chong will teach a course at UW-Madison entitled Vampires, Doppelgangers and Aliens--Resident and Otherwise (listed as Art 669: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Arts, and cross-listed in Afro-American Studies; Dance; Environment, Textiles and Design; and Theatre and Drama). This course will unite twelve to fifteen students from different artistic disciplines and of disparate personal histories. Building on the central themes examined in Undesirable Elements, these students will explore the concept of "otherness" through the creation of interdisciplinary artistic projects.
The culmination of Chong's ten-week residency, the Madison premiere of Undesirable Elements is the latest version in a successful run of performances tailored for residents of New York City, Cleveland, Minneapolis, Seattle, Rotterdam, and Tokyo. The Madison performance of Undesirable Elements, involving University students, staff, and community members as participants, will be presented to the public on Thursday, March 22 and Friday, March 23, 2001, in the Margaret H'Doubler Performance Space, Lathrop Hall, 1050 University Avenue. For information, call the Arts Institute at 608.263.4086 or see www.arts.wisc.edu.