Alessandra Cianetti: Mengting, you presented your piece ‘Before the Wall’ at the Sheffield Migration Matters Festival this year. A piece that references the Kafkian bureaucracy process that, at different degrees, surrounds and imprisons the lives of many migrants. Can you tell us a bit more about this version of the work?
Mengting Zhuo: This version of ‘Before the Wall’ is a piece that lasts about 50 minutes, performed by me and Helen Watkins. I started making this piece in summer 2016 and presented a short version at my degree show. In spring 2017 I received a commission from the Migration Matters Festival and got the chance to bring it to more audience and share it with other practitioners who make works about immigration and refugee issues.
The piece is a lot influenced by Kafka’s work, especially his short story Before the Law, which is also contained in The Trial and is a parable about a man from the country and a gatekeeper. The man wants to go in to approach the law, but is always told ‘not at the moment’. It is a simple and perplexing story – What actually stops the man? What does the man need from the law? Doesn’t the gatekeeper also spend his whole life in front of the law?
Such perplexing absurdity is the quality I want to create in my piece, and I started with the image of an invisible wall separating people. I think the visual design has helped this piece to get attention and receive the commission, as well as the fact that it is more a universal story and I try to avoid self-victimising.
Border is a concept. Border is an infrastructure. Border is a glass. Border is a system made of real people: the border points need to be staffed, the staff members need to be hired and paid, someone needs to coordinate a rota, and probably someone is checking if they are meeting a quota? The bureaucratic system imprisons more than the ones who are in front of the window. I think sometimes we are a bit overflooded by different narratives about immigrants and refugees, and we don’t always think deeply about how the system behind operates. And that is what I want to address in my piece.
AC: ‘Before the Wall’ wasoriginally named ‘Indefinite. Leave’. You describe this work as a semi-autobiographical live art performance and in our conversation you mentioned that the piece changes at each presentation following your own personal journey into your rights as a migrant in the UK. I’d love to know more about the development of the piece so far and where you see it going.
MZ: The main idea and vision of this piece is rather consistent, but ongoing revisions have been made because my attitude towards immigration and my identity is changing.
When I started making it in 2016, I was in an anxious state. My student visa was going to expire, making the rest of my year full of uncertainty. I was also angry because things are made so difficult simply because I have a ‘difficult’ citizenship. If you had seen the piece then, you could feel my anger.
In June 2017 when I presented the performance in Sheffield, I had been waiting for five months for the result for my residency permit application, which was very frustrating still but I was kind of used to the waiting. I was able to express my emotion more subtly.
At this moment, my application has been granted and now I ‘enjoy’ the right to live and work in this country for a considerable amount of time. I should probably thank Home Office for their kind decision for which I could stay together with my partner and continue making art here. I become the lucky one and I feel happy about life. It is interesting to wonder whether this makes my work less ‘valid’?
Also, the development of the piece reflects the change of my mindset regarding my own practice. I observed a tendency to separate ‘theatre’ from ‘art’; some practitioners would insist what they make is ‘performance art’ instead of ‘theatre’, whereas it is rarer for the other way round. This argument between ‘performance (art)’ and ‘theatre’ may be traced back to Michael Fried’s ‘Art and Objecthood’ in which he opposites ‘theatricality’ against authenticity.
I used to feel confounded about my artist identity, especially when I had to decide which box to tick for my work. Do I have to do something in order to make it qualify for something? However, now I’m more confident to do things for my vision regardless of whether people may think it is art or not. I’m planning to stage ‘Before the Wall’ early next year in London. It will be different again, as I’ve asked another performer to play my part while I step out. Yes, it is likely to be quite ‘theatrical’.
AC: In your work you have addressed language as a porous border to play with. In ‘Thesaurus’ you explore ways of storytelling without a subject, but through chance and words. How do you combine performance and words to create a space where you give up, as you mention in your text, your own subjectivity?
MZ: In a metaphorical sense, language is a border. It constructs our world, and in the same way restricts it. The truth may not lie in the language itself, but in the act of speaking nonsense with a language.
I work with language and meaning a lot, and not only in terms of making art. I’m a translator. I’m a foreigner in a sea of language which is not my mother tongue. These experiences make me look at language from a skeptical perspective, as I know it is never natural.
In order to make the meaning of words dissolve we have to rely on words – that is the strategy for ‘Thesaurus’. In this project I used printed text in every performance, but in the meantime I am using different methods to cut off the connection between the text and the performative action that I am executing. I blindfold myself so as to turn myself into a ‘human dispenser’ of text. I mix the sequence of the cards so that I give up the control of a narrative. I design some ‘cue cards’ to demonstrate the gimmick behind a performance.
I see this project my response to the logocentrism, the idea that the world is logical and grand narratives can be found. However, the world doesn’t work like that, and I often feel it is a futile attempt to explain myself. So, in this piece, I give up explaining and give up my free will to some extent.
I don’t think I can give up my subjective completely, though. Obviously I choose the text and decide the context, and my existence would inevitably be interpreted in some ways. But that is the fun about trying to accomplishing an impossible task.
Mengting Zhuo is a Chinese performance maker based in London. She received her MA in Performance Making from Goldsmiths, University of London and her BA in English Literature. She is also a freelance writer and translator. She is constantly interested in the contingency of meaning, the process of translation and communication, and manipulation of technological tricks. As a director and a performer, she has made work for theatres, galleries and other spaces, including streets, a bar, and a residential flat. Her work has been performed/exhibited in international contexts including Migration Matters Festival (Sheffield), China Shanghai International Arts Festival (Shanghai), Beijing ONE Festival (Beijing), Celeste Prize final exhibition (London). A Celeste Prize finalist 2016. A Celeste Prize finalist 2016.