'Mimesis' was a Greek Idea.
Body Images in Performing Arts in the Age of Globalization
(Actual Research Project, Hertha Firnberg-Position, funded by FWF)

Newspaper article about this project in  uni:view magazine, January 2014


In the process of globalization, space and distance lose their significance, symbols are circulated worldwide, and international networks are created. Thanks to new possibilities in communication and transport, the limits of the consciously perceived world are surpassed and extended. Based on the thesis that these characteristics of globalization have a certain influence on the arts, it shall be the aim of this project to examine and analyze the effects within this process on the performing arts - and consequently on the emerging body images. Within three steps: (1) The Circulation of Symbols and Meanings, (2) The Terminology: From 'Theatre' to 'Performance' , (3) The Political Dimensions: Body Talks, I intend to discuss the following research questions: How did/does the process of globalization influence body images in performing arts? Is it appropriate to convey the term 'theatre'  - which is of Greek proveniance, is founded on the concept of 'mimesis', and has developed in a close relation to Greek/European philosophical traditions - in a transcultural context? Does ist make sense to replace it, in a globalized context, with the  (relatively young) term 'performance'? Can we argue that methods of transculturality have become a dominant aesthetic practice in a globalized world, which lead to new forms of perception and consequently provoke a new aesthetics? And finally: To what extent do body images, as presented in performances of Hawai'ian Butho dancer Lori Ohtani and Chinese performer Wen Hui, reflect a worldwide circulation of cultural  symbols and elements, visualize the loss of meaning of space and time and  do reveal - or talk about  - political issues?
These questions will be deconstructed and analyzed theoretically, and discussed on the basis of selected performances by Lori Ohtani and Wen Hui. Considering evalutaions of interrelations between aesthetical and political compontents, the objective is to provide an integrated profile of the effects of transculturality and globalization on body images in the performing arts. Eventually, I will develop a deliberate methodology for assessing the global and transcultural impacts on performing arts, taking into account both methods of different scientific disciplines (e. g. sociology, philosophy, theatre/dance theory, anthropology), and of different cultural (Chinese, European) provenience. These tools shall facilitate a multi-perspectivic approach in the analysis of global, transcultural performance phenomena.

Lori Ohtani dancing in a concrete forest that once existed. Photo by Franco Salmoiraghi.
(Source: http://www.tangentz.net/Tangentz/Home.html)

Körper inszenieren
nach Sozialistischem Realismus und Peking Oper.

Mei Lanfang in der Sowjetunion
(PhD Thesis, Faculty of Philological and Cultural Studies, University of Vienna, 2010)

Newspaper article about this project in uni:view magazine


The atmosphere of political and social change after the victorious October revolution of 1917 soon inspired the arts: in early Soviet Union, the renunciation of old patterns and the assimilation of new forms found its expression in the avant-garde movement. Vanguard experiments had been developed analogous to the technical and medial progress that resulted both in new apperceptions of time and space and in an evolution of new body images and body concepts. Avant-garde theatre artists left the terrain of naturalism; dramatic text and spoken word lost importance and the actor's corporeal expression on stage became their focus.
In the time before 1935, this atmosphere gradually changes; already at the beginning of the first five-year-plan in 1929, a political shift provoked by Stalin ('the steel one') on the top of the communist party was clearly noticeable. The process of putting the heydays of Russian avant-garde art to an end was finally and formally concluded by Andrei Zhdanov in summer 1934. Zhdanov declared Socialist Realism as the henceforth sole art form permitted in the Soviet Union. These radical changes clearly manifested themselves in one unique way, namely the official image of the human body. Taut 'sports-bodies' of excellent shape, publicly exhibited in parades and on huge posters, replaced the liberated body of the avant-garde.
Amidst this time, Peking Opera actor Mei Lanfang appeared on stages in Moscow and Leningrad. Considering the then political and cultural circumstances from today's perspective, the guest performances of Mei Lanfang in 1935 were a brief intersection of the ruling doctrine. Under the impression of an 'other' form of theatre, some of the most well-known European directors and artists of the time – amongst them Bertolt Brecht, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Gordon Craig, Alexander Tairov, Vsevolod Meyerhold and Sergei Tretjakov – discussed and re-thought one more time their aims and ideas. Within Peking Opera, a traditional Chinese art form composed of several elements including dance, mimic, gesture, acrobatics, song and declamation, corporeal expression is a central aspect. Although the body images of ancient Chinese theatre seem to be diametrically opposed to those of the Stalinist system, the actor's corporeal expression and his movements built the focus of the discussions subsequent to the Peking Opera performances in Russia. Mei Lanfang’s acting techniques as well as the body concepts of Peking Opera were unknown and unfamiliar to the audience. Nevertheless, Tretjakov, Brecht, Tairov, Meyerhold and Eisenstein searched for over-lapses between own and foreign theatrical techniques.
It is the main thesis of my work that an encounter of different performance cultures can provoke new artistic modes of expression. Within four chapters, my project therefore undertakes a reconstruction of the event of 1935. Part of that are a juxtaposition of different approaches to theatre and performance, and an analysis of the intercultural encounter’s consequences that are perceptible in today’s performing arts in both China and Europe.

Sergei Eisenstein, Mei Lanfang, Sergei Tretjakov, Zhang Pengchun and Vsevolod Meyerhold (from left) in Moscow 1935 (Source:  The Master of Beijing Opera - Mei Lanfang,  Beijing: Beijing Publishing House 1996, p.  203.)