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Production

Objects for Meditation

Company

William Yang

Reviewer

Ng Yi-Sheng

Date

09/02/2006

Time

8.00pm

Place

The Esplanade Recital Studio

Rating

****

The Tao of Wow

There are a million reasons why this piece shouldn't work. The premise sounds like a recipe for a snooze-a-palooza:

1) Place one Chinese-Australian man in his fifties wearing a mandarin collar solo in the centre of a stage.
2) Allow him to show off a tableau of ten knick-knacks from his home, his "objects for meditation", each evoking a different moment in his life, resounding deeply with quotations from the Tao Te Ching.
3) Screen his travel photographs and a few video-recordings, none of which are very dramatic, since we are of course engaged in the meditative process.
4) Continue in this vein, without entrances, exits, costume changes, or plot structure, for about 90 minutes, without intermission.
5) Curtain.

Are we excited yet?

So you can guess I was surprised to discover that Objects for Meditation kicks some serious ass. In spite of its static layout, in spite of its structurelessness, in spite of its soliloquy format, the show works. The writer/photographer/director/ performer William Yang holds it all together with his rare stage presence, wearing a faintly amused Zen smile and addressing the audience in his gentle, dry, Aussie accent.

What might have been a dreary monologue becomes an intimate exploration of the world of an idiosyncratic individual, often moving, often strange, often hilarious. Dressed in that dinky mandarin collar, Yang consistently exudes the persona of a sweet old Chinese uncle while nonetheless demolishing and deconstructing that very image. His admission of his homosexuality comes casually - as does his admittance of his non-monogamy: "The man in the picture is Scott, one of my boyfriends." And yes, he is very Taoist, with an altar in his home and a cheesy Chinese rock ornament on his table of souvenirs. But since he identifies as Australian more than Chinese, he admits he's gone against the Dalai Lama's advice that truth is best found within your own culture. "I am a decorative Taoist", he explains, to the audience's hearty merriment.

Yang further deconstructs his Chineseness by exploring how, on his travels as an artist to Britain, Canada, New Zealand, Singapore, rural Germany and aboriginal Australia, he is able to discover resonances with the people and within himself, making friends, making love, making connections. Among his objects for meditation, he presents a Native American dreamcatcher and a Maori volcano figurine, and treats us to slides of the Roman Baths and Haw Par Villa. He interweaves personal anecdote and history, and in balancing them manages to avoid the narcissism that might come of the first and the sweeping pomp that might come of the second. It is rather the voice of an earnest, compassionate thinker we hear as he notes the chilling similarities between colonial policies toward the native Welsh and the Australian Aborigines, so although we've grown pretty blasé about post-colonial angst, Yang arrests us with his sincerity, and we listen. Rather than claiming to represent world culture, Yang represents himself, so that he becomes a lens through which we can perceive the planet he has traveled.

I'm still taken aback when I consider the simplicity of the entire show. Certainly, he was accompanied by a versatile instrumentalist who played everything from the gourd flute to the saxophone to the didgeridoo, and two giant video screens displayed his photographs and videos to provoking effect. But even here there was no postmodern overloading of the senses or technological wizardry, the photographs were loaded more with the casual intimacy of a family photo album than with the glamour of an art studio. Like the ten objects on his table, these were mere tools to aid us on a journey inside a personality, rather than objects of remark in themselves.

As always, this critic has a few quibbles. First, the performance I saw was strangely full of stammers, as again and again Yang almost flubbed his lines. Friends tell me this did not occur the night before, nor on Yang's previous visit here to perform his show "Bloodlinks", so I'll put it down to circumstantial problems.

Second, Yang's closure, whereupon he re-exhibited his objects, two by two, and explained in the barest terms what they represented for him, was a violent and inconsistent break with the beautiful sense of unstructuredness that permeated the rest of the show. The atmosphere of enchantment is broken when he spells out that his yin-yang porcelain teapot and his Shakespeare tea towel are icons of his "bi-cultural roots". Honey, we've heard that song a million times. When you talked about them earlier, you made us realise they were only fragments of you, and the richest part resists categorisation.

Nonetheless, one could see that the audience was truly moved by the end, as his voice faded and the video played the deafening roar of a waterfall, the first moment of sensory overload the audience had received throughout the night. Just before the lights came on for applause, there was a magical moment of silence and darkness, as we sat before the bowed man before us on the stage, barely breathing.

My first review for this site was W!ld Rice's Second Link, not long ago. This morning I read that in this country, a night of poetry and literary performance doesn't qualify as a "play" for the Life! Theatre Awards. Well, screw categories. Objects for Meditation wavers between drama, lecture, documentary, multimedia installation and show-and-tell. It follows a formula that does not appear to be workable, and it succeeds. So here's to the experimenters. Thanks for surprising me.


"I was pretty surprised to discover that Objects for Meditation kicks some serious ass. In spite of its static layout, in spite of its structurelessness, in spite of its soliloquy format, the show works"

More Reviews by Ng Yi-Sheng

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.