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Friday, August 17, 2018, 12:43
On a road less traveled
By Chitralekha Basu
Friday, August 17, 2018, 12:43 By Chitralekha Basu

Editor’s Note: Enoch Cheng is as interdisciplinary as it can get. His range covers filmmaking, writing fiction, choreography and designing immersive art experiences. The artist who has curated and created a bunch of fresh works this year shared highlights of his artistic journey with China Daily.

Enoch Cheng, multi-disciplinary artist. (PARKER ZHENG / CHINA DAILY)

Q: You were a student of English literature, and later of creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. When and how did you decide to become a multi-disciplinary artist?

A : When I was studying art history and English literature in the University of Hong Kong, we were already being encouraged to think critically, without having to put borders between disciplines. Later, a short film (Queen’s Encounter, 2011) I made served as an entry point to think across different media. Also, living in Hong Kong, one encounters so many things at the same time, and it serves no purpose if one forgets the larger fabric of things. 

Studying for an MA in creative writing in a conventional English literature department, I had about a year to focus on a specific medium. I was looking for a skill I could acquire from learning to simply work with words and transfer it to other media. 

I spent a semester trying to write a third of a novel. That’s when I realized every form of artistic expression was contingent on space and time. A change of the tense and point of view could change everything the way framing could change an image.

Q: There’s a strong element of storytelling in your projects, understandably. The Garden exhibition at chi art space which you curated germinated from one of your stories. In Bon Voyage, audiences get to hear a series of stories as they are led on a journey through Hong Kong Arts Centre… 

A : I am happy to be a part of the legacy of storytelling but what I’m more interested in is the power of fiction. For example, in Bon Voyage, there was a narration referencing the SARS (severe acute respiratory syndrome) epidemic of 2003. But then rather than SARS, Bon Voyage is more concerned with how we interpret our identity on a journey like this in relation to the SARS crisis. We can probably do it better by using our imagination than actually having witnessed the real-life events.

Q: Journeys are at the core of your film installation Homesick (produced by Goethe-Institut Hong Kong and on at Hong Kong Arts Centre until Sept 30) as well as Bon Voyage

A : Having traveled a lot in the last five years, I am trying to understand what’s happening to me as a global citizen. In the lecture-performance Rock the Boat presented at the exhibition opening of Homesick, I begin with a story in which I imagine sailing in a boat toward an unknown land. The personal element is just a starting point from which I cast my net to access a range of experiences. That’s the power of a narrative in which I can borrow other people’s point of view. So I can be a fish, a doctor or a pregnant woman, like in Bon Voyage

Q: In Bon Voyage, the audiences are exposed to a range of activities — from physical exercise to anecdote sharing and finally watching a dance performance. Is the idea here to pack in multiple sensory experiences, the sort one accumulates while traveling? 

A : I’m a frantic, hyperactive person. My friends sometimes tell me, “Enoch, can you just focus on one thing?” I don’t know how to do that, because life is hardly ever about just one thing. Every single day we play so many different roles. 

All one’s five senses need to work to make a journey a stimulating one. One of the most abstract tools I used in Bon Voyage was the element of smell (audience members were handed pieces of paper bearing two distinct fragrances at the beginning and end of the show), without offering any explanations. Smell can be quite a powerful tool, bringing back memories. Maybe when you reach home after the show and find the piece of paper still lying in your pocket, you will remember part of the journey, or maybe just wonder what it was about. The sense of wonder is what I have tried to capture as the audiences explore the Hong Kong Arts Centre building. Sometimes it’s a comfortable journey, sometimes a bit too hot, but bearably so. There might be a bit of boredom in between because you’re waiting for the next set of activities to begin, but even as you wait you’re also observing other people, or eavesdropping on their conversations, even making friends with strangers.  

Q: You directed professional dancers in Bon Voyage although you’re not one yourself. How did that come about?

A : At one point I had developed a condition in which I couldn’t move my neck. I was given a set of exercises to help improve things and that made me more aware of what the body could achieve by making very precise moves. 

Last year I went to train in Vienna, primarily to learn how to articulate expressions physically. I took a beginner class about anatomy and physics, basically to learn how not to hurt myself while trying to learn dancing. And then after a few days of training I wondered why no one had taught me how to walk properly all these years. 

I also realized there was no perfect movement or posture and that everybody could move. I tried to bring a bit of that idea to Bon Voyage, where I ask the audience to stand in a circle and try to stretch their pelvis and bend their bodies and see how they feel about it. 

Q: You seem quite taken by Cantonese opera, having used elements from it in several projects. What is it about this very traditional performance form that works for you? 

A : Oh a lot actually, from the specific performative form to the lyrics. 

In the lecture-performance Rock the Boat, I have used some specific Cantonese opera movements which can be abstract and figurative at the same time — like the horse represented in the dance finale in Bon Voyage, you don’t see anyone impersonating the animal but feel its presence. In Cantonese opera, one can transcend so many barriers of disbelief through embodiment, and it’s not done through miming. It requires imagination and empathy to see the idea being put across through the performance.

By taking just one step, Cantonese opera performers are able to shuffle identities and create a sense of inhabiting a different space. My ambition is to be able to use this tool to create more spaces than the obvious. 

Q: Is that the reason why you did not draw the audience’s attention to the magnificent architecture of the HKAC building during Bon Voyage, except perhaps indirectly and fleetingly? 

A : I am more interested in the interaction between human beings and architecture. I am also interested in the choreography of pathways and how people move. The construction of a city is not only about the architecture, it’s also about how people move in it and their sense of space. 

In Hong Kong, the density of architecture determines how we move. It also affects the way we behave. We are shy about opening up, conscious of intruding into other people’s spaces. That’s perhaps why we’re obsessed with our phones. Living in a city, we tend to keep parts of our experience outside our consciousness. That becomes our habit, of not being aware and not caring about the outside and also about ourselves.   

Q: But on the opening night of Bon Voyage, all audience members seemed totally enthusiastic about listening to other people’s stories as indeed sharing their own. It all happened so spontaneously, without any prodding…

A : As an artist I build the structure of a space where audiences can swim around. To hang around by the pool is also fine.

Interviewed by Chitralekha Basu

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