Thomas Goddard

I was invited by renowned Chinese artist and curator Zhou Bin to perform at Up-On Live Art Festival in Chengdu, on the basis of a recommendation following my performance at Chapter's Experimentica Festival. The festival included a number of significant international artists such as Monika Guenther and Ruedi Schill, Roi Vaara and Andrea Salzmann. Importantly, and noted by American writer and PhD of Chinese philosophy and performance art Sophie Kidd, I was the first UK artist to perform at the festival and was subsequently invited to perform at the Regeneration-Expansion exhibition at Changjiang Museum of Contemporary Art, Chongqing.

The first performance, Brando Live, took place in Chengdu. Situated in a relatively new cultural and entertainment district, the area had an international feel whilst the basement, and main gallery space for the festival, was sparse, giving lots of options for interesting spaces to locate the performance. Brando Live was a response to cultural difference and misunderstandings. Conceived as a new performance piece, it took influence from a larger body of research and my recent exhibition, Be More Brando, shown at MOSTYN, Llandudno (July 2015). Creating a sense of continuity between projects in terms of narrative and subject is an important and natural progression for me.

Pulling apart cultural misunderstandings of fame and lingering on Brando’s enforced stereotype, the performance played on the access all areas approach to celebrity life, forcing the audience to face up to the vision they have inadvertently created. The starting point for the character's look came from Brando’s performance in The Island Of Dr Moreau (1996) in which he insisted on playing the role in "mime-white" pancake makeup to play up the paranoiac environmental concerns of the lead character. The colour, of course, holds significance in various cultures. In China it symbolises both death and purity, and has been used widely within the performance circuit itself, such as by Geta Brătescu in Towards White (1975) and by fellow Up-On artist, Roi Vaara in White Man (1983). These contextual connections both directly and indirectly helped shape the performance here and define its boundaries.

The key visual and physical constraints were provided by an inflatable fat suit initially indicating an overweight, slobbering character. Brando becomes a representation of the West, of white people, of Western gluttony. The inflated-ness of the fat suit suggests ego as well as representing the world. Is Brando gluttony itself? His fame or his notoriety? He struggles under the weight of celebrity. Historically, in the East, fatness is embraced as a sign of health, wealth and happiness until recently when it was recognised by the World Health Organisation that China has a growing problem. This is a dramatic change from the famine caused by Mao’s Great Leap Forward but obesity’s association with prosperity is a direct result of this.

But there was much more to Brando than a wealth driven, gluttonous celebrity, and so through the fat suit a misunderstood beauty also appears. Hinting to the study of Japanese style Butoh, which incidentally adds a double layer of cultural misunderstanding as it is always performed by skinny dancers, I played with the use of soft, nimble feet and balletic poise to offer a contrast to my swollen state. Within the performance Brando becomes intent on aggressively and rhythmically inverting our gaze as his autobiographical self-love and self-hatred transform into self-acceptance. His blubbery exterior bounces in conflict with his graceful motion, at once almost dancing and teetering on the brink of collapsing – perhaps this forces us both to reject fatness and to embrace it. The idea that fat can be positive goes against everything the Western world trains us to believe, particularly in relation to women. Hence Brando’s sexual neutrality.

The performance began behind a polished stainless steel barrier with a velvet rope restricting the audience from crossing. Some disappointed, some angry, they were forced to watch from a distance as the large white blimp-like character seemingly danced, sat, inflated and deflated separated from the throng. Moving towards the audience, the barrier opened prompting me to jump through it and the crowd, taking them with me in a flutter. I moved slowly into and through the larger spaces interacting with my Be More Brando (2015) film, which brings together people doing impersonations of Brando in his various roles. The performance itself becomes an attempt to reverse the process of being impersonated as instead, Brando connects with the audience in order to become human again.

A forum was organised at Panart Arts Centre, on the final day of performances in Chengdu to discuss performance art. Situated at the centre of the table, I was asked to discuss themes such as boundaries and form of the era of Panart; the art of watching the mechanism and body perception; the relationship between the internet and performance art; how to promote South Western performance art; the establishment of performance art funds and the teaching of performance art. This was followed by an open discussion. In attendance from the festival were a number of key curators, writers and theorists from China.

The opportunity to perform in the festival was invigorating for my work, challenging me to approach areas of performance which were for me as yet unexplored. Performing in China for the first time has helped me develop a strong network of international artists, curators and academics to connect with now and in the future, whilst simultaneously increasing my confidence in the field.

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