Performances at the Asian Arts Initiative “Home: Far and Near”
In the early 1990s, Kathy Chang — also known as Kathy Change — was a common sight on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Clad in a skimpy bikini or, on occasion, completely nude, she would dance, twirling banners or colorful streamers while spouting diatribes on the evils of capitalism and the impoverishment of American society. Her activism attracted attention but, one suspects, had little influence on most of the passersby. On October 22, 1996, at around 11:15 AM Chang walked over to a large sculpture of a peace sign and committed suicide through self-immolation.
Chang’s life, work, and death have spurred a number of memorials and artistic works, the most recent of which is “Chang(e),” a multimedia performance piece by artist Soomi Kim. “Chang(e)” was performed as part of the second of two nights of “Home: Far and Near,” a mini-festival of Asian American performance pieces at the Asian Arts Initiative in Philadelphia on December 7, 2012.
In “Formosa,” Tsai explores different perspectives on Asian women by inhabiting a series of characters: a mid-1600s Spanish sailor, an Asian American hip-hop diva, an eight-year-old adopted Chinese girl, and a 1960s Taiwanese Barbie doll factory worker.
In “Pull: Tales of Obsession,” Kato-Kiriyama evinces the story of a young woman’s relationship with her mother following the death of her father. Built around monologues, recorded interviews, and interactions with her performing partner Kabasares, who performs an aerial act on a trapeze throughout the work.
The previous night of “Home: Far and Near” included works by Gein Wong, Anula Shetty, and Sun Mee Chomet.
The centerpiece of Friday evening’s performance was Soomi Kim’s “Chang(e).” The work unfolds in three scenes. In the first, Kim bursts onto the stage as a masked version of Chang, shouting slogans through a megaphone and haranguing the audience for their apathy and blindness to the state of the world.
Wearing the mask (which Chang didn’t employ in her activist street theater), Kim adds a mythological element to Chang’s protestations. As Kim explained, the mask evokes an image of Cassandra, who was destined to see the future but have no one believe her prophecies. In light of the recent economic meltdown, Chang’s admonitions about collapse of capitalism seem eerily prescient.
The cacophony of the opening scene gives way to a more reflective mood in the second part of the piece as Kim removes the mask and executes a series of dance movements. Kim performs in front of a life-sized projected video image of herself as Chang, once again masked, performing a visual echo of her live dance moves. In the video, Kim is performing on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania near the location where Chang danced and eventually sacrificed her life. By manipulating the speed of the video — filmed by Gein Wong — we see the daily life of the campus moving past at high speed, oblivious to Kim’s haunting movements.
For the third sequence of “Chang(e)” Kim is joined on stage by Brendan McGeever, who plays a younger version of himself as he and Kim recreate an interview McGeever conducted with Chang in 1995 for a campus radio station. In the interchange with McGeever, we see multiple facets of Chang’s personality: conversational and charming, concerned and troubled, spiritual and visionary, and ultimately misunderstood and tragic. The work concludes with a symbolic recreation of Chang’s final act.
It’s difficult to know what to make of Chang herself. In the early 1990s she was easily dismissed as a throwback to the long-gone era of hippies and the leftist counterculture. In light of the recent economic crises and the rise of the Occupy movement, she can be viewed as a prescient oracle of the perils of unfettered capitalism. Whatever one’s view of her ideology, it’s difficult to come to terms with her decision to commit suicide as an act of public protest.
Fortunately, Kim — while clearly admiring Chang — has created a multifaceted performance piece that presents the contrasts and contradictions of Chang’s troubled life and art.