What is art?

March 5, 2014

I subscribe to the idea that art, when you care to stop for a second glance or a second listen, should provoke at the very least a reaction, regardless of whether the piece itself is good art or bad art. Of course art is highly subjective, open to interpretations and personal preferences. At its core it should not be nothing. It may be admired, or be entertaining, or be inspiring, or calming, or thought provoking, or frustration, or anger, or that it invokes a memory, but whatever feeling arises, it should not be nothing.

But because art is so personal, it should also be subjected to the fallen-tree-in-the-forest definition. What if it provokes nothing in all people? Then it is not significant, and therefore should not be art.

If a famous painter decides to paint on white canvas a red dot, like a Japanese flag, is it art? Or importantly is it significant? Does it advance the exploration and the experience of art in humanity? Assenters may argue that it takes certain skill to paint with a free hand a perfect, consistent red dot, but I feel it merely demonstrates technical competence.

I see myself getting angry, seeing this red dot painted by this imaginary famous artist. And anger is a reaction, and therefore by my own logic it is art. It may puzzle some other people, seeing this red dot. Again this is a reaction.

But I think it is just one of the definitions of bad art. When art lacks aesthetic value or merit, or too abstract for most to be affected, then it cannot be effective, and fails in its core value.


From their facebook site:
see/saw is the name of a dance piece that was created by the contemporary Japanese dance company Nibroll after the Tsunami earthquake of 2011. It uses an actual see saw on stage as a metaphor to explore different themes and the whole range of powerful emotions evoked in the aftermath of the earthquake. The dancers combine body movements and the up and down motions of the see saw to create moving images that represent the themes of life and death, hope and despair, happiness and sadness, youth and maturity. The combination of the word “see” (to view) in the present tense and “saw” as a past tense also gives rise to different scenes. All this is performed against a spectacular backdrop visual. The music is minimal but no less captivating.

The dance has been performed to sold-out shows and critical acclaim in Japan. This is the first time that Nibroll is performing in Malaysia, and the first time that see/saw is being presented outside of Japan. What is even more exciting is that the company will be auditioning for local dancers to be part of the show.

We start from where you imagine as you go down,
The scene you saw as you went up whilst sitting on the other end,
When the seesaw eventually tips over.
Recall the days to come, describe the days gone by,
Why something was chosen, why something was not,
You ponder, born on one day, dead on another,
Imagine a scene seen at a faraway place that’s not here,
And when asked, “Did you see?” you say “I saw”.

Catch this “physical scenery” of sound, imagery and dancers become one at Performing Arts Centre of Penang (penangpac) at stage 2 on Saturday February 22 at 8:30 pm. The show then moves on to pentas 2 at The Kuala Lumpur Performing Arts Centre on Friday February 28 and Saturday March 1 at 8:30 pm and on Sunday March 2 at 3:00 pm

Last Sunday I sat through the pain that was Nibroll, a Japanese experimental dance troupe, through a performance called see/saw, which was inspired by and which commemorates the 2011 tsunami. Nibroll was partly sponsored by the Japan Foundation as well as the Japanese Embassy, and had already toured some cities. The 4 key creators(director/choreographer, projectionist, set designer and music director) travelled with the show, together with key actors/dancers. At each location, depending on the venue, the environment, the acoustics etc they would tweak on the formula, improvising on certain components of the piece. They’d hold local auditions for peripheral dancers, some of them amateurs.

I stayed in my seat till the end, holding on to a promise of a question & answer session with the creators. I wanted to get some justification as to why the piece was royally shit. The dances was grating and repetitive, and was too abstract to be contemplative, and the occasional yelps from the dancers highly annoying. The sound effects succeeded in inducing cold sweat and a splitting migraine. If it was all deliberate and meant to provoke and for the audience to run a gamut of raw emotion, I needed to know. Why did they play to sold out shows and critical acclaim in Japan? I was born 80km from the failed nuclear reactor, and I get first hand stories from my relatives who still live there. What did the Japanese public see that I can’t?

Does the perception of art help with retrospection?

After the show and tell, I feel now that it is mandatory to stay and listen, though nothing they said helped change my mind -the performance was still shit. Even with stuttering English, they were able to explain coherently the creative process and explained the reasons why they did what they did. As such, I understood their intent.

If the purpose of the performance is to be able to transfer the sheer agony and horror of those who experienced the tsunami and earthquake, and deliver it within 70 minutes, then this production succeeded beyond a shadow of a doubt.

But it is not good art.