Sunday, September 16, 2012
Death, Mariachis and the Loop: John Jota Leaños' "Imperial Silence," Some Commentary
Impossible to fully describe given its wide topical range, aesthetic complexity, and that, importantly, it works as a spatial practice with the tonalities of the singers, physicality of the dancers, and the weird juxtaposition of bodied and disembodied voices and images that is performative and not merely textual, "Imperial Silence" illuminates the productive possibilities in encountering death as an aesthetic and cultural resources that should be collectively negotiated, not managed and held at bay, and again asks the question, what does it mean for us to negotiate memory, history, and violence aesthetically? It provides a provisional answer in the performance itself: director Jota Leaños stated at the opening of the matinee, that the production engages death in ways that are often written out in the U.S., and he explained to the audience"Some things might not taste as good as they look...so take what you like...experimental theater is about...serious play."
The notion of "serious play" in conjunction with death, both as theme and empirical inevitability importantly has its roots in what might be seen as an understanding of mortality and community that is actively worked out rather than repressed in Mexican culture. In León, Guanajuato, when seeing the celebrated aerosol mural piece "Las Katrinas" outside the Nicholas graveyard, Wes told me, We see death here, in Mexico, and we can talk about it, a sentiment later underscored by Nikkis.
The Day of the Dead is an occasion for death to become a public art: worked out, practiced, communicated with, where mortality is understood not the end of but a crucial element of humanity. It is apropos, then, that Jota Leaños uses death, in a sense all of the players in the opera are "Las Katrinas," as a quilting point through which multiple kinds of violence can be negotiated, republicized, and introduced into public memory.
The opera is chaotic, but so its violence, publicity, and morality. The final rave scene is an exhuberant, carnivalesque, opaque performance of hyperstimulation, embodiment, and excessive enjoyment in the face of and potentially because of death.
Octavio Paz notes: "Everything in the modern world functions as if death did not exit...But death enters into everything we undertake, and it is no longer a transition but a great gaping mouth that nothing can satisfy. the century of health, hygeine and contraceptives, miracle drugs and synthetic foods, is also the century of the concentration camp and the police state, Hiroshima and the murder story...The word death is not pronounced in New York, in Paris, in London, because it burns the lips. The Mexican, in contrast, is familiar with death, jokes about it, caresses it, sleeps with it, celebrates it; it is one of his favorite toys and his most steadfast love....The cult of life, if it is truly profound and total, is also the cult of death, because the two are inseparable. A civilization that denies death ends by denying life...It is useless to exclude death form our images, our words, our ideas, because death will obliterate all of us, beginning with those who ignore it or pretend to ignore it." (Labyrinth of Solitude p. 57-60).
"Imperial Silence," then is a form of "serious play" for the audience; an occasion to meditate on and work intensely with the supposition: what would it mean for death to be integrated into life, and for us to personify, dance with, and account for death. And what does it mean for the above to take place in a collective register?
This serious play, to play on words, does not intend for the above exercise to be fully comfortable: at every juncture the United States, and Whites, are implicated in ongoing schemes of erasure, domination, and violence of many kinds. The female dancer, after allowing the audience to watch her and her partner elegantly move, and strike the floor with their feet, challenges such viewing privilege by giving the finger. However, even the representation of violence is beautiful. It is unfair, perhaps, to fault the venue for diluting some of the political heft of the piece because of its location, in the lovely theater at the Museum of Contemporary Art. But it seems to me that the location is central: announcing prior to the beginning of the Ópera Jota Leaños stated that the performance was not "for a tourist gaze" but for those of us who are cultural outsiders, who get to enjoy it, might it be?
Very smart scholars such as Phaedra Pezzulo have written extensively about the relationship between tourism and death, and how it can still be a politically redeeming endeavor. Here, though, I want to put the accent, and perhaps the question mark alongside the question of enjoyment, and whether, in Jota Leaños' framing, we can distinguish among different kinds of enjoyment in ways that might yield more productively attuned forms of citizenship. Specifically, how might place be implicated more critically in the performance itself? Michigan Avenue is the consumptive-tourism hotspot in Chicago, and importantly, it is a place where visitors can have an anxiety free experience of urbanity- something that presents itself as metropolitan, but precisely without many discomforting scenes of poverty, violence, mental illness, infrastructural decay, emptiness, and racial tension. It allows high-end retail stores to stand in synecdochically for Chicago as a whole, a Chicago that is home to thousands of Mexican immigrants, the site of immigration protests, local businesses, vibrant art scenes, gang activity, church activity, stoop dwelling, informal economies, and so forth. Chicago is a place where death is zoned geographically, and shootings in "safe" areas are highlighted as a surprise and ongoing street violence in "shady" areas is relegated to the normal. So it is with profound gratitude, and interest that I got to see this performance of joy, death, and re-memorialization in a strange theater, within an urban non-place, to use Marc Augé's terminology.
The Ópera concludes: "!Silencia! !Silencio! ?Se puede? !Sí se puede! Has llegado a la frontera de la muerte, La tragedia é nacita! Lloren, no rian, La Vida nos une..." The inverse to the opening which solicits the listener to laugh, not cry, because death unites us.