Translating a divergent body

David Agudelo Restrepo (艾達巍 (Ai Da-wei) muses on whether it is possible to translate the experience of being disabled into a non-disabled body, the idea behind Daily of a Wheelchair (所視之處) by Taiwanese artist Chiang Pin-hsuan.

An individual can change his or her name, address, religion, beliefs and even appearance but they cannot change the body they inhabit. Although they can intervene in singular elements that create an identity, their Persona and Self, terms coined by Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung, persist and remain attached to the sum of all their parts. And this sum includes mind and body. Moreover, while you can change your hairstyle or get plastic surgery, you cannot change the body your Self (as in conscience) inhabits.

Such is the situation with disabilities, which usually arise from external factors out of individual control. People are either born with conditions or acquire them during their lifetime. In consequence, they must live with them.

But such experience is not easily translatable to people that do not inhabit bodies with such experiences and limitations. How can you make a Self inhabit another body, especially one with some sort of paraplegia or blindness? Indeed, even something as apparently trivial as height can be a hindrance. The world we live in is built around what is ‘normal’ (as in average) and anything deviating from that inevitably leads to at least a level of uncomfortableness.

Cheng Wei (in yellow) and audience member in Daily of a Wheelchair
Photo David Agudelo Restrepo

While you can’t truly translate such experience, you can try, and one way in which you can aim to undergo this translation of experiences is through the performing arts. Such was the aim of Daily of Wheelchair [sic] by Chiang Pin-hsuan (江品萱).

Directed by Pan Ze-An (潘則安) of the Department of Drama at Taipei National University of the Arts (國立臺北藝術大學) and performed in the Barry Room at Taipei Artist Village (台北國際藝術村) by Cheng Wei (鄭媙) and Kao Yung-Chieh (高詠婕), Daily of a Wheelchair was part of the exposition Free From (自由是__)1 by Chiang, MA student in New Media at the university, and Chang Yu-chen (張猷琛), independent hip-hop dancer and jewellery maker.

The work has its origins in the 2022 Cultural Diversity an Inclusivity Group Show (2022台北國際藝術村文化平權計畫聯展), which itself resulted from a residency at the Artist Village focused on inclusivity, diversity, and similar social issues.

Chiang’s starting point for Daily of Wheelchair was her own experiences of having to use crutches following a car accident that resulted in significant knee ligament damage. This led her to develop an understanding of day-to-day struggles of people with mobility limitations.

Cheng Wei (left and Kao Yung-Chieh in Daily of a Wheechair
Photo David Agudelo Restrepo

Of course, normally, there are multiple issues around non-disabled performers performing as if they had a disability. The important point here is that Chiang was trying to transfer the experience as much as she could, and the only way to do that is to put the non-disabled performer in the position of having a disability as far as is possible.

In doing so, she was guided by and drew on the experiences of a group of people with disabilities, who were at the performance to give their support. They also participated in the post-show talk, which proved quite emotional. It should also be noted that among Chiang’s sponsors was Karma Medical (Karma康揚輔具), a company that produces mobility aids for the physically challenged.

Daily of a Wheelchair took place in the main hall of the Barry Room, separated from its smaller exhibition space by a translucent screen, onto which coloured lights were shone during the performance. On the wall to the right, a projection showed a roughly three-second delayed feed from a camera attached to an empty wheelchair stationed by the same wall. The public were sat close up, on the ground beside the walls.

Cheng Wei (left and Kao Yung-Chieh in Daily of a Wheechair
Photo David Agudelo Restrepo

In the centre of this space, lying on the ground and illuminated by the lights of the projections, was Cheng, dressed in white save for a yellow sweater that would take on significance later. After standing and performing an abstraction of everyday activities such as tooth-brushing, doing the dishes or washing clothes, she suddenly fell to the ground, showing total inability to use her legs.

It was painful to watch as she crawled to a pair of crutches that were lying to one side of the space before struggling and repeatedly failing to stand up. Although choreographed, the falls seem real. They hurt and communicated well someone grappling with a body no longer functioning as it used to.

Having then managed to climb into a nearby wheelchair, Cheng moved around those watching, asking “Do you want to help me?” The same question was projected on the white screen. Some said they didn’t, but once someone said yes, Cheng was joined by Kao, who helped the audience member to get into the wheelchair shown on the projection from the delayed camera feed, before the threesome danced together to an upbeat childish song.

Cheng Wei (left) and Kao Yung-Chieh in Daily of a Wheechair
Photo David Agudelo Restrepo

After the audience member had returned to their place by the wall, Cheng and Kao danced together in a circular dance that used their differences in situation and thus movement to project a dialogue of bodies. The choreography showed excellent interaction, with both dancers performing fully as individuals and not despite any restriction placed on them. They danced with the wheelchair and not in spite of it. Movements were soft, circular, and emphasised the swiftness that the wheels provided. As they moved, the light projected on to the white screen and through the actors went from purple, to blue, then white, and finally red, generating a variety of shadows that gave a tender aura to the performance.

Cheng’s last gesture was to give Kao the yellow sweater. This was done slowly and with a sense of ritual that was part of the choreography. This moment seemed particularly meaningful, symbolising Kao as full collaborator, and an equality in the roles of both, who had now shared and worn the same highly visible piece of cloth. I also felt the gesture underlined the performance’s aim, namely to translate the experience of different bodies through the dance; through art.

The show closed with joyful music and with the dancers mirroring each other, face to face, and spinning around. The final moment saw Cheng embrace Kao in her arms, tender seconds that showed the final union of the couple into one entity.

Daily of a Wheelchair by Chiang Pin-hsuan
Photo David Agudelo Restrepo

So, did Daily of a Wheelchair achieve its aims? The performance was brief but certainly poignant. It used movement as a description of inhabiting a body. It also used contact between dancers and the public to show the relationship between receiving and giving care and the underlying necessity of collaboration that arouses when a body is hindered by physical limitations.

The first half, where Cheng danced alone with crutches and then was confined to a wheelchair, showed the limiting, isolating and complex reality of a body trapped in itself. It showed a performance that fringes at the limits of a body hindered by its circumstances. The second half showed how collaborative efforts can overcome such limitations and how the power of horizontal human interaction can assist in the process of adapting to, and surpassing, obstacles created that challenge a body afflicted by disability.

But perhaps I was not the average viewer. What impacted me the most was probably that I saw my own life reflected in the work. To cut a long story short, both my mother and late brother had disabilities. My mother still has mobility problems and I remember her using walking aids since I was six or seven years old. However much one wants to avoid touching on such personal issues in considering a work, to avoid not giving a ‘skewed’ view, perhaps it is not possible. Going back to Jung, they are part of Persona and Self.

Kao Yung-Chieh and Cheng Wei (right) in Daily of a Wheelchair by Chiang Pin-hsuan
Photo courtesy Chiang Pin-hsuan

What about Cheng Wei? The idea was for her to try and discover the ‘uncomfortableness’ of the experience, to try and ‘feel’ what being physically disabled might be like. But is that really fully possible? While the movement of an able-bodied dancer can be physically restricted (by a wheelchair, as here), in their mind, they will always know that the experience is not real; that it can be, and will be, ended. But it is the best we can do.

It is not an easy task to translate such a personal and individual experience into choreography, let alone into a performance in which the audience can interiorise and understand the feelings of a Self inhabiting a body weighed by limitations. I do consider that Daily of Wheelchair was a really interesting and illuminating effort, however. The performance was done with such a care that it can surely begin to move its attendees into trying to expand their knowledge and comprehension of what it means to have a body marked by realities that cannot be evaded. Realities that imprint themselves into the daily experience and shape the identity. Realities that need to be expressed in order to show the divergent bodies many of us inhabit. In order to show that divergent bodies can dance too.