by Katherine Somody
To view the work of Samoan-Japanese artist Shigeyuki Kihara on display at the Satellite Gallery, one must first navigate past a heavy black velvet curtain, like that which is raised to mark the start of a show on a grand stage. This is a theatrical space, a space of performance, it seems to tell us. Indeed, behind the curtain we find Kihara dancing excerpts of the classical Samoan taualuga in three video pieces that interrogate ways of seeing and complicate expectations of performer and audience. The trio of videos is part of Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific, an exhibition curated by Carol E. Mayer, that challenges stereotypical conceptions of the region (think Gauguin’s seductive Polynesian princesses) by assembling a geographically diverse selection of subversive, nuanced work by 13 artists from the Pacific Islands. Questions of memory and representation emerge from a grouping that reimagines identity in the 21st Century as not fixed and distinct, but as a mutable collision of cultural heritage.
Taualuga: The Last Dance (2006) is the earliest of Kihara’s three videos in the exhibition, serving as the foundation for the other two. In the 6minute piece, we see the artist performing in an empty room of what appears to be an old colonial house, framed by an ornamental wall molding that serves as a proscenium arch, under which the dance takes place. Dramatic stage lighting casts an elongated, diagonal shadow from the artist’s body up to the corner of the frame, creating a tableau reminiscent of the haunting chiaroscuro lighting and strong diagonals of a theatrical film noir. Kihara wears her hair pulled back tightly in a bun and a high-necked, long-sleeved black Victorian mourning gown, inspired by the photograph Samoan Half Caste (1886) by Thomas Andrew. Only the skin of her face and hands is visible. We see what appears to be the top of a head at the bottom of the frame, indicating her audience, watching her. The music starts, voices chant, and she begins to dance. Her exposed hands carry the movement of the piece, hypnotic waves counting out a rhythm that spills across the adjacent two videos and out into the room.
Kihara follows the long Samoan tradition of using dance to register and communicate histories and political events. In Taualuga, the artist has said, she dances to commune with her ancestors, and to pay tribute to the Samoan people for their resilience against colonization. At the same time, she uses traditional dance to interrogate the historically exoticized medium itself (think vacation destinations promoted through hula skirts and headdresses). The heavy Victorian gown restricts what would normally be the energetic movements of the taualuga. The result is a physical manifestation of the colonial legacy that continues to bind itself to the Samoan body, producing a complex cultural identity far from that featured in a tourist brochure. In the dress, she dances demurely, her eyes flicking occasionally to the camera, then looking away as she moves. The artist is well-aware that she is performing for others, and this dance becomes a platform to self-consciously investigate how she might be seen as a contemporary Samoan and fa’afafine, a third-gendered person, neither of which fit easily into traditional dominant modes of thinking. At a certain point in the video, the chanting stops, and with her hands folded across her stomach, the lights fade to black. When they come back up seconds later, accompanied by the swell of forlorn flute music, we find Kihara standing in the far corner, her back to us. Has she been punished? Is she ashamed? We are left to ponder what it means to be watched, to be perceived as such and our own implication as viewers.
In Siva in Motion (2012) and Galu Afi: Waves of Fire (2012), Kihara dons the Victorian gown once more. She has said that in these works, she dances to mourn the victims of the recent tsunami that hit Samoa. This time, six years after Taualuga, the artist no longer recedes into the corner, but confronts us head on: Kihara exudes strength, moving matter-of-factly with an unwavering gaze. The theatricality of her earlier work is replaced with a powerful intimacy. Her body is softly lit from the sides, silhouetted in an otherwise dark space. There is a sense of interiority to her movements, as if this time, she is dancing more for herself than for us. In the most captivating video, Galu Afi: Waves of Fire, the artist is depicted in close-up from just below her eyes to her hips, a framing that directs our focus to the hypnotic rhythms of her hands. They glide through the air as if wafting purifying smoke, slowly and deliberately, from the fires evoked in the piece’s title. The video overlays and doubles back on itself, so movements of this classical dance become blurred, slowed, repeated. They trail from and inscribe themselves onto her body, like the lingering spectres of a tradition and a people that refuse to be forgotten.
The repeated overlay of images also draws associations to the well-known photographic studies of humans in motion by Eadweard Muybridge. In the 19th Century, these were early attempts to freeze time in order to analyze movement and make sense of a world moving increasingly fast. With a similar impulse, one finds themselves latching onto each halted and repeated gesture of Kihara’s dance, in an effort to parse out meaning from the subtle and precise movements. Her gestures read like a kind of sign language, where the smallest flicker of a finger seems to carry a very specific meaning. However, not being able to read the Samoan signs Kihara performs, the majority of viewers default to mapping their own frame of reference their own language onto her hands, in an attempt to make meaning from the incomprehensible loss evoked in the dance. This produces yet another layer of complex cultural fusion, this time between viewer and performer.
At one point roughly halfway through the 5minute video, she claps her palms silently together, as if in prayer, and slowly folds down each pair of fingers, one at a time, until her hands are fully clasped: first the pinkies, then the ring fingers, then the middle fingers (now it’s a gun), the index fingers (now it’s a community), the thumbs (now it’s a heart). We interpret each variation. For me, the simplicity and profundity of this gesture called to mind Gabriel Orozco’s My Hands are My Heart (1991), in which the artist squeezes his hands together around a soft lump of clay in front of his chest, to form the symbolic organ. Then just as methodically, Kihara’s fingers unclasp in reverse order: thumbs, index fingers, middle, ring, pinkies, until she holds her open palms toward us, like a magician performing a slight-of-hand who has just revealed that what we thought was contained within her palms is, in fact, not there at all.
Paradise Lost? Contemporary Works from the Pacific is curated by Carol E. Mayer (Curator, Africa/Pacific), and is on view at the UBC Museum of Anthropology (July 24 September 29, 2013) and Satellite Gallery (July 24 August 31, 2013). It is organized to coincide with the Pacific Arts Association Symposium at MOA.