Closing in on the selfie and modern-day narcissism: Lee Chen-wei’s kNOwn FACE

National Experimental Theater, Taipei
March 8, 2019

David Mead

The selfie. Fuelled by social media, it’s part of a trend towards narcissism in modern society, or at least parts of modern society. People present themselves in close up. They seek attention. They pout, they preen, they stand in outlandish and faintly ridiculous poses with no sense of shame. Why? Is it the real them, or is it all fake? Do even they know? It’s precisely this culture that solo dancer Lee Chen-wei (李貞葳) and dramaturg Zoltán Vakulya reflects in their new work, kNOwn FACE (不要臉).

It all happens in a boxy space with a few benches scattered around, although as Lee shifts around the space, sitting is not really an option if you want to see. A huge circle on one wall. Rather appropriately, it looks like an enormous eye as fluid designs come and go. And then Lee is there.

She has her hair in a ponytail, but at the front, so hiding her face. It is hugely disconcerting. You keep looking for a face on her head, but it’s all wrong. It’s not where it should be. It really does look like it’s the wrong way around.

Lee Chen-wei in kNOwn FACEPhoto Li Jia-ye
Lee Chen-wei in kNOwn FACE
Photo Li Jia-ye

Putting oneself and one’s life on social media and hiding feels like a dichotomy, but is it really? Is there an element of hiding behind the technology, presenting something that in reality is less than real? While the rest of the body is clearly important, this opening section brings home just how much we use facial features to communicate in dance as elsewhere. The movement here, largely ungamely shifting on the floor, is not grabbing though, and time passes very slowly.

But kNOwn FACE throws the spotlight on the audience too. As Lee articulates her body and starts to move around the room, the audience crowd in. They follow her closely, very closely. Are those who constantly look, like and follow, those who gawp and effectively encourage, as much a part of the problem as those who put themselves out there to be gawped at? Indeed, at one point, Lee shines the camera on us, emphasising the question even more.

We do get to see Lee’s face. Layers of clothing are also slowly discarded too. An everyday shirt, trousers and old trainers give way to a fluorescent yellow top and a pair of super-garish, shiny purple, blue and yellow tights. ‘#YOLO’ shouts yet another, skimpier top.

A self-held camera (what else could it be?) provides close ups of skin and hair, all projected on that big circle on the wall. The best projections come via another camera in one of the other walls, though, which gives close-ups of Lee’s face, even super close-ups of her pouting lips and tongue. “I love you,” she says to herself. “I love me,” she echoes. Likenesses of the self come in other ways too, most impressively via reflections from a mirrored strip of flooring.

If this sounds like an installation rather than a regular dance performance, that’s because that’s essentially what it is. The technology is central to everything, which, given the subject matter is probably fair enough. Indeed, there are times when you could take the live performer out of much of the 55 minutes or so, and still have a very effective art work.

kNOwn FACE does has some super moments and Lee is a fabulous performer, the owner of a body that seemingly can do anything asked of it, but there are other times when audience watching becomes more interesting than Lee-watching too, no more so than when she encourages a member of the audience to use one of her trainers as a camera. It may have raised the odd titter but it’s dreadfully overplayed. The attempted lip-syncing is a bit toe-curling too, but then perhaps, as a reflection of what some people do, that is entirely appropriate.

For its excellent staging and the largely effective way that kNOwn FACE shines a light on its subject, that’s really all it does. It does reflect modern-day narcissism and does make one muse on the culture it’s casting its own beady eye on, but it never really digs into that culture. It never attempts to answer all those opening questions or indeed deal with any of the potential consequences. It left me wanting more, but perhaps that’s all for another day.

Dramaturg for kNOwn FACE, Zoltán Vakulya, appears with Albert Quesada in the UK premiere of OneTwoThreeOneTwo, a look at the different aspects of flamenco, at the Lilian Baylis Studio at Sadler’s Wells on April 4 & 5, 2019. Visit for details.