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from Sonic Life of Giant Tortoise by Toshiki Okada, performed at JACK, Brooklyn, photo Carol Rosegg
She described the feeling. It would start somewhere near her solar plexus and then move up slowly, all the way up into her tear ducts. Or, maybe it would be easier to describe the feeling like being really, really hungry. So hungry, that you have this deep hole, or actually a hollow feeling, in your center. But for which there is no fix. Yet somehow, this feeling would actually feel good, because the feeling itself would mean that you had “really lived.” And you would then have this “bittersweet” feeling for the rest of your life.
She was Susannah Flood, momentarily acting the nameless part of a Japanese man in Toshiki Okada’s play, Sonic Life of the Giant Tortoise at the JACK theater in Brooklyn. Over 65 minutes, this “character” moved across all five actors on stage, both male and female. At this moment, he was describing what he imagined it would be like if his girlfriend had died, though in “reality,” she hadn’t. He seemed desperate to have some relief from the banality of his daily life, and by imagining that she was “no longer here,” he created a context for having “wistful” feelings that were otherwise impossible.
photo Carol Rosegg
Several weeks ago we wrote about what might come after we humans have accepted that from here on, we are inhabiting an unprecedented planetary reality filled with unpredictable events of change, especially as a result of global warming. And, we asked, what might come now, given the fact that the algorithm of this unfolding material change was set into motion long ago and irrevocably, and that there’s no longer anything to “solve,” “teach,” or “communicate” about this reality. Upon arriving at our own acceptance of these “facts,” we described experiencing a “weighty sensation.” We also went on to explain that this acceptance is, for us, preferred to pretending that things were otherwise, because there was the potential to pay attention to this uncomfortable sensation, this “hollow center” you might say, and make something from there, rather than ignoring it:
we’d like to imagine a growing number of creative people attuning to different registers of the current material realities of daily life and offering images/sensations/words from their deeply felt experiences of those realities—from places and times where this bare reality strikes deep. AND then, instead of turning away from these highly inconvenient and disturbing sensations and thoughts, what if they took the time and did the incredibly hard work to make something from within such sensations and thoughts, without expecting any outcome (especially any company) in return? – from FOP May 2014
As we experienced Toshiki Okada’s production, we felt as though we were witnessing an uncanny (re)enactment of the realization we had only a few weeks prior. There’s no getting back things that were dear to us once they are gone, but in their absence, highly nuanced constellations of feelings surface that can be surprisingly instructive. The psychological space of these feelings is vast, but unfamiliar and largely unexplored in Western culture. According to Okada’s production company, the word 切なさ/setsunasa was translated from Japanese into the words “bittersweet” and “wistful” for the English version of the play. This word is untranslatable into English, but the kanji used, “切/kiru” is used in the verb “to cut.” When used as an adverb, as it is in the play, it is more akin to “loss” and “loneliness.” And it also suggests an “atmosphere” around the feelings. It is not as strong as “literal sadness” and could be used to describe a constellation of feelings felt by a person during the autumn season. The word’s etymology includes both a sense of sadness, as if the “heart was torn,” and an even older link to “thinking something precious.” For us, Okada’s work is exhilarating, as it uses the difficulties of translation to invite global audiences to cultivate more nuanced vocabularies and psychological capacities for being with, and describing, what is in the midst of passing out of being.
Okada is well-known for delving into the uncomfortable psychological spaces of Japanese society. And post-March 2011 his work and process changed significantly. Though Sonic Life was written pre-earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdowns, the work deeply resonates with the ongoing realities currently unfolding in Japan — and far beyond. That’s the incredible power of this production. Most of us, contemporary humans that is, experience some version of daily life as being out of sync, and perhaps banal, in comparison to what we know in our core (or hollow center) about what is actually unfolding in the world, just beyond our comprehension — (global warming, rising seas, droughts, superstorms, or Fukushima). An actor on stage whispers speaks to this under his breath, to no one in particular: “you people aren’t living at all.”
Yet, the play is far from being accusatory. Through faltering, dead pan statements delivered in stops and starts without a traditional plot, hauntingly unanswerable provocations are left to hang in the air. The medium, or mode of address, is the message. Are we actually relieved to lose someone/thing because it breaks us from the numbing flow we’ve been buffered within for too long? Is it human nature to have our material affordances and life itself become more meaningful and dear only after they are irrevocably lost?
The character(s) in Sonic Life want to be “capable workers,” but they are mostly bored out of their minds, working, commuting and consuming for no real purpose. They’ve been lucky enough to escape most of the cruelty and pitfalls in life so far, only to be left with an almost desperate sense that they haven’t really lived, and that they “want to live more fully” and even to say out loud, “I’ve lived my life to the fullest.”
As one character puts it: “What I’m doing right now, actually, despite what it looks like, is having a dream.”
Yet, this dream is our reality and there is no mistaking it. The actors of the performance make disarming eye-contact with audience members. The division between stage and audience blurs as direct references are made to the “outside” that is unfolding in real-time (subway rumblings, traffic, sound of the a/c inside the theater).
photo Carol Rosegg
The play closes with a circuitous unfolding of words, offered not as conclusion or truth, but as open thoughts that are, again, directed to no one in particular. “The life we are living is a far cry from what humankind ought to be living.” This is quickly followed by a seemingly protective, reassuring counter statement/question: “Maybe we’re not cut out to live how humankind ought to live?” Maybe we just can’t bear it. It’s a lot of pressure. It’s simply beyond our imaginations and capacities as a species to hold the thought that the everyday is connected to something bigger, and act in accord with that thought. And, maybe if everyone is unable to do this, as seems to be true, then our individual “failures” to live as we ought to are neither failures nor tragedies. And, even if we are able to live as we ought to live, the current situation on the planet suggests that everyone has failed, not just me or you. Perhaps this could be reassuring. Either way, we come to a realization that we have limits. As one of the characters points out, we can’t fly like birds AND there’s no need for us to fly like birds — therefore this “limit” of not flying is okay.
Yet, in the Anthropocene, we’ve invented technologies, economies, and cultures that extend beyond both our own species’ and our own planet’s limits. We have designed ways to fly, that involve huge carbon footprints. Perhaps humans ought to live without flying like birds. But we don’t.
*sincere thanks to Nana Koetting at chelfitsch for her assistance in translation.
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