When to fold, when to reveal your hand

Shigeyuki Kihara, Talanoa: Walk the Talk V (2010), live performance and HD video featuring Australian Yau Kung Mun Martial Arts Association and Sydney Cook Islands Dance Group, courtesy the artist. Commissioned by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art and Campbelltown Arts Centre for Edge of Elsewhere. Credits: directed by Shigeyuki Kihara; edited by filmmaker Kirsty MacDonald.

Shigeyuki Kihara’s activities, not just those presented as artworks in the mediated space of galleries and museums, but across a spectrum of professional disciplines, social platforms and personal commitments, are attuned to some of the most persistent ethical dilemmas most of us face. Well, this is only a half-truth; most of us don’t face them at all, preferring instead to ignore them, sometimes talk about them, but rarely act upon them in any meaningful way or with genuine resolve to generate a consequential shift in perspective, if not in circumstance. This is not necessarily to be faulted—to do otherwise is to lead an exhausting life. Like the theoretical five stages of grief, or the tactics of the twelve-step culture of addiction, it’s natural to begin on the bottom rung of the ladder: first denial and the admission that we are helpless over our compulsions, conscious or otherwise, then a clambering to a more respectable and dignified position. Lest this kind of talk seem overwrought within the context of a discussion about contemporary art, it needn’t be. If we’re honest with ourselves we recognise that making daily ethical exceptions to self-imposed ideals, however trivial or inconsequential the subject, is the rule to the exception even if we’ve forgotten what the basis of those exceptions might be, or remember but just don’t care. Put simply, where intentions meet behaviour most of us are in perpetual revolution chasing our tails.

Shigeyuki Kihara is someone for whom this kind of herd instinct is a good deal more foreign than most. Kihara’s strength as an artist is emboldened by her position as an outlier for whom any binary positions on culture, politics and sexuality exist to be actively challenged and reconfigured by all means available to the artist. Not for her the small gains of the disengaged; Kihara is a direct hitter who plays the bigger game for bigger stakes, for herself and for others. In the public forum presented at Campbelltown Arts Centre following the launch of the first Edge of Elsewhere exhibition in January 2010, Kihara stated:

In the beginning I didn’t like the title [Edge of Elsewhere] because I associated the ‘edge’ with its binary which is the ‘centre’. As a Samoan person and a Pacific person, within global power structures and systems we are so often excluded from contributing towards contemporary dialogue in many areas like trade and policy … and at the same time we aspire to be self-sustainable nations yet depend on foreign aid. [1]

For all the feel-good fun in Kihara’s performance works, it strikes me that the irreducible foundation of her practice is the persistent question of ethical flag-planting: who has the right to claim a piece of ideological territory as their own? And its corollary: who recognises the boundaries? Looking at the triumvirate of commissioned projects Kihara has produced for Edge of Elsewhere one can identify three key ideas that inform possible answers, however provisional, to these questions: the idea of artist as catalyst for interpersonal engagement; cultural experience as necessarily mediated by trade economies; and the slippery suppositions of authenticity.

Beginning with her 2010 project Talanoa V: Walk the Talk, Kihara immediately signaled her role as a catalyst for two Sydney community groups, a Cook Islands dance group and the Chinese-Australian Ya Kung Mun Association, to come together for a one-off performance in Dixon Street in the heart of Sydney’s Chinatown. The Samoan concept of talanoa is based on creating a space for dialogue for mutual benefit and understanding of important social and cultural matters, and in this sense Kihara challenged the individuals within each group to navigate this proposition on their own terms. ‘Here is a platform, talk amongst yourselves,' the artist seemed to be saying, and an impromptu street audience was engaged to see what might occur. For some viewers the experience might have been a reductive compare and contrast exercise in multicultural superficialities: the Chinese had dragons and performed martial arts moves, the Cook Islanders wore lava-lavas and played drums. Moreover, the relationship between artist and performers, whatever connections might have developed throughout the course of producing the work, were essentially underpinned by a monetary transaction, though significantly the payment of a fee was not contingent on meeting any specific outcomes or targets set by the artist. This point is crucial in understanding that it’s the uncertainty of the performance process between two unrelated community groups and their audience that is paramount for Kihara and is in fact what determines the subject of the work. Sharing, for example, a learned dance or musical repertoire, itself once removed from what might be called ‘tradition’ by virtue of inevitable adaptation across oceans and generations, prompted questions of cultural authenticity which in turn were enacted through negotiations between multiple performers on a single stage. When it comes to overcoming the fallacies of political correctness and identity politics, the manner in which we might choose to embrace unscripted propositions from strangers is necessarily determined by the strength of commitment we show to ‘walk the talk.'

Shigeyuki Kihara, Bring Your Game (2011), live performance, workshops and HD video, courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art for Edge of Elsewhere. Credits: produced in collaboration with artists King Kapisi, Teremoana Rapley and DJ Blak President. Video by Paradise Media Productions.

Inverted, ‘talking the walk’ was perhaps at the heart of Bring Your Game, a one-day hip hop summit curated by Kihara and presented at Campbelltown Arts Centre in January 2011. Featuring Samoan hip-hop star King Kapisi accompanied by musicians, DJs and MCs including Teremoana Rapley, 6 Pound, DJ Blak President, Izzy and SIE1, Bring Your Game was attended by mostly twenty-something Pacific people from south-west Sydney. Kihara offered two informal forums, ‘Is hip hop culture still relevant today?’ and ‘How to stay in the game: think like an artist, work like a hustler', followed by master classes in beat boxing, rhyming, MCing and DJing led by Kapisi and Rapley. A collaborative performance by participants and guest artists then took place at the exhibition launch for Edge of Elsewhere. For more than a generation hip hop has acted as a substrate from which mostly urban youth cultures worldwide have sought creative sustenance, each in turn adapting and reinventing not simply musical components in beats and rhymes, but moral influence. Indeed, the question of authenticity is paramount to hip hop as a form of self-expression, one that has hovered, like a cloud always charged ready to strike, over its spectacular ascent from a minority subculture born in the neighbourhoods of New York’s Bronx to international mainstream. Hip hop’s sharp, gut instincts for saying what you mean and meaning what you say cuts through the dross of the manipulative relativism of much public language to express a fundamental ethical inquiry: how to keep it real?

That hip hop artists and audiences continue to trade barbed accusations of ‘selling out’ is a sign not of the argument’s relevance but our general weakness in overcoming its reductive premise. Nothing quite makes this already complex situation more problematic than when money is involved, which is almost always. In Culture for Sale, Kihara’s third and final project for Edge of Elsewhere premiered in January 2012, the artist employed four Samoan performers (Mary Pakileate Tomasi Greatz, Georgina Siaosi, Tito Schmidt-Stowers and Helen Talipeau) to create a video installation and live performance. The work was conceptually informed by Kihara’s research into Germany’s history of völkerschau, or human zoos, that throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth-centuries paraded indigenous people of colonised lands as exotic players in theatrical productions and in degrading displays with animals. In Kihara’s work, her performers—bodies in the flesh and on screen—were activated to perform a short traditional dance routine when viewers made a monetary payment in a bowl or coin slot. Like the colonial project itself, the audience of a work such as this is from the outset complicit in the foundation of its moral structure and self-image, whilst also trapped within the hypocrisy of keeping two sets of books when accounting for ethical behaviour and moral (much less aesthetic) judgement [2]. In Culture for Sale Kihara employed the seductive promise of entertainment and reward, prompting us to decide if, in the famous words of Bertolt Brecht, we would choose ‘grub first, then ethics’ [3]. And like Brecht's brutal dictum, so many of us reveal our hands through the everyday decisions we make or ignore. Can it be true that far from being mutually exclusive, both grub and ethics are not only desirable but obtainable?

Shigeyuki Kihara, Culture for Sale (2012), live performance and video installation featuring performers Mary Pakileate Tomasi Greatz, Georgina Siaosi, Tito Schmidt-Stowers and Helen Talipeau, courtesy the artist. Commissioned by Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art for Edge of Elsewhere. Credits: video directed by Shigeyuki Kihara; edited by filmmaker Kirsty MacDonald. 

[1] Shigeyuki Kihara in panel discussion during the Asia/Pacific Cultural Futures Forum held to accompany the launch of Edge of Elsewhere, Campbelltown Arts Centre, 16 January 2010. Audio recording courtesy Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
[2] In his analysis of the German colonial project in Samoa, sociologist George Steinmetz posits that ‘many of the colonial government’s interventions attempted to stabilse an imagined corpus of Samoan custom and to protect Samoans against induction into a culture-levelling version of capitalist modernity’. See Steinmetz, The Devil’s Handwriting: Precoloniality and the German Colonial State in Qingdao, Samoa and Southwest Africa, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 2007, p. 13.
[3] This quote, one of Bertolt Brecht’s most cited, is the common English translation from the German from The Threepenny Opera, 1928.

Edge of Elsewhere (2010-2012) was produced by Campbelltown Arts Centre in partnership with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art for Sydney Festival and supported by the Australia Council for the Arts Visual Arts Board and Community Partnerships and the NSW Government through Arts NSW.

Published in Edge of Elsewhere 2011-2012 [exhibition catalogue], Thomas J. Berghuis, Michael Dagostino, Lisa Havilah and Aaron Seeto (co-curators), Michael Dagostino (ed.), Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, 2014, hardcover, 164 pp.

With thanks to Shigeyuki Kihara, Campbelltown Arts Centre and 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

© Pedro de Almeida 2012.