Sitting in the far end of the gallery, I imbibe a role that has been performed, for God knows how long, in the remote villages of Java and Hà Nội. I am the helper gently folding cloth and garments as I patiently wait for her to emerge when she's ready. In her own time.
How I got here is a story in itself. I first met WeiZen1 at the Festival of Death and Dying in Melbourne2. Fast forward to a few months after the festival. WeiZen was deep in development and devising of “t h e s u b t l e b e i n g s”3. She was ambivalent on whether to have the role of ritual helper in the ritual/performances. She knew from her deep and extensive ethnographic study that the ritual helper was an indispensable part of the animistic, ancestral and shamanic traditions she witnessed. She, however, couldn't find someone she could confidently trust her body with. She told me that one afternoon after a long day of working on “t h e s u b t l e b e i n g s”, she was hanging out at a Chinese eatery after a much needed meal. The issue of the ritual helper was weighing heavy on her mind. Then she saw me strolling in a care–free manner lugging my university backpack. Then it dawned on her: “Of course, Oliver would be perfect for this.” A few days later, she rang me: “Oliver, I have a crazy idea…” To cut a long story short, I said “yes”. And the rest as they say is history.
So there I was. The ritual helper. Patiently waiting. Simply being. I could feel the people as they came in. I saw the curiosity in their eyes as they navigate through the “hairy” structures and sculptures. I observed the decisions they made. Stay and watch the ethnographic videos projected on the wall or walk on forward? Stay on the ground floor or climb the stairs to check out what's on the first level? Cross the threshold to inspect the little altar of fruit and figurines or sit at the edge and wait?
These observations made while in waiting reminded me that an installation of objects arranged in situ is not only about the objects, it's also—if not more—about the surrounding space. The spaces where the witness moves through to decipher the layers of stories waiting to be heard. Objects and spaces that invite, force, cajole or nudge the witness to make a decision at each point in time and space.
The first ritual/performance in “t h e s u b t l e b e i n g s”, to me, was a depiction of a pre–personal epoch. A long stretch of time when our existence was at the complete behest of the spirits, ancestors and gods. We were but dumb terminals helplessly tethered to a spiritual mainframe. Spirits easily took over our bodies at will—stay for a moment—then abruptly leave.
The second ritual/performance at the upstairs area, to me, was more of a journey in the personal epoch. A time when we discovered the gift of language. The wherewithal to express ourselves. The Logos of experience. To see and know ourselves as beings in our own terms. The pain & pleasure of separation. A desktop computer with our own computing power of reason yet disconnected from animal, ancestral, and spiritual realms.
The third and last ritual/performance, to me, was a promise of the trans–personal. A space. A time. A being where one has fully realised one's own separate existence while at the same time remaining rooted and connected to the animal, the ancestral and the spiritual. A self-powered device connected to the internet of everything.
There is a subtle subtlety to this being of the ritual helper. One has to be there. Fully present. Solid and grounded. Yet one is almost invisible. One needs to be the ground on which fertile chaos can be confidently contained so that she can reveal her full expression of being the fiery conduit between spaces, time, and being.
There was this rich polarity between WeiZen and I. I felt it palpably in my body each time we were in the space. No ritual/performance was the same. Each night had subtle differences. I had to keep my ears glued to the ground of intent listening. Watching closely. Patiently. Feeling and being. As WeiZen and I did our best to remain true to what I can only imagine our ancestors have been doing, enacting—for us their future—auspiciously recovered from the very thick fog of the distant past.