Taiwan Contemporary Culture Lab, Taipei
April 13, 2023
In The White Waters, an installation that combines moving video images and live performance, visual artist Su Hui-yu (蘇匯宇) revisits and pays tribute to late Taiwanese theatre practitioner Tian Chi-yuan’s (田啟元) 1993 production of the same title, itself a contemporary reinterpretation of ‘The Flooding of Jinshan Temple’ episode in the classic Ming dynasty novel, The Legend of the White Snake (白蛇傳). It makes for a superb, engrossing forty minutes or so when the two formats truly come together as one.
There are many versions of the original story, and indeed many dance versions, but it essentially tells of a romance between a man named Xu Xian and a snake spirit, in human form thanks to magic powers, named Bai Suzhen. A terrapin, Fa Hai, in the form of a Buddhist monk who, still angry with Bai over something that happened years earlier, tries to break up the relationship. It gets complicated!
Tian, the first publicly documented college student with AIDS, was one of the founders of Critical Point Theater Phenomenon. Given that, and that his seminal The White Waters was made shortly after Taiwan’s emergence from decades of martial law, a time of unprecedented freedom for society and the arts specifically, maybe it’s no surprise that his take on the tale explores themes of homosexuality, love, and political identity.
Following Tian, Su’s White Waters references but does not retell the story of the White Snake. It rather focuses on imagery. There are more than a few nods to flood, violence, sex, gender and death. There is erotic sensuality. There are thoughts about desire, morality and life itself.
Su plays with gender. Dancer Liu I-ling (劉奕伶) interprets the live Fa Hai. The audience is free to wander freely around the space and three large, mobile, LED screens as they follow her as she interprets the coexistence and conflict between Fa Hai and the White Snake. Ankle height smoke that occasionally rolls across the floor like gently rippling water adds to the atmosphere. Colour is used to great effect to distinguish between the work’s segments.
On screen are Popcorn, an active participant in Taipei’s drag community, and local Instagram sensation Jong Yi-ling (鍾苡綾) as Fa Hai and White Snake, the two characters confronting each other through the work. Initially, it’s impossible not to see them as human and demon, even though both are clearly human in form. That’s especially so when the camera closes in on their eyes and skin, particularly on Popcorn’s additional eyes and curious cross-like markings the neck
But that distinction soon vanishes as The White Waters becomes a tale of today, a picture of the struggles with gender and intimacy, although the former in particular is beautifully subtly done and far from overplayed.
There are times when she appears tiny against the huge images of the video Fa Hai and White Snake. Perhaps there’s a correlation there between the modern, image-filled world and the place of the ‘real’ individual within it. But, just like our digital, social media-filled existence, there are equally moments, notably when she gets right up close to the images, actually climbs on the trucks that carry the screens, that she seems to become part of them, a sort of bridge between the two, live and virtual becoming one.
Sometimes Liu illustrates what’s on screen, sometimes she seems to more respond to it, sometimes she seems to initiate it. The moving of the screens, and the shifting relationship between their physical presence and the images on them, and Liu, constantly create different dialogues, new tensions, and .fresh outlooks on the desire between the two characters.
Throughout, the movement is generally slow, which only serves to amplify the mood and interaction. It also helps emphasise the faster, equally dramatic moments but in a different way, when they come. The whole also benefits from another super score by Blaire Ko (柯智豪).
Afterwards, Su told me that he hopes to bring the work to London in 2024. As we talked, it was interesting to see how well the still playing video screens worked as a piece of art in their own right.
The White Waters: a new, innovative take on an old tale, but one with a decidedly modern edge.