Tianzhuo Chen assembles a sprawling cast of musicians and performers to participate in a 12-hour performance ritual, his most ambitious work to date.
In many ways, Trance is the culmination of all of Tianzhuo Chen’s work thus far, drawing together the varied and multitudinous aspects of the artist’s wide-ranging practice. Stretching across 12 continuous hours and featuring a sprawling cast, Trance brings together a collection of self-taught and professional performers that spend every minute in character, eating, resting and even going to the bathroom amidst the sculptures, sand and raw clay of Chen’s stage. A musical ensemble that includes Dis Fig, Ican Harem of Gabber Modus Operandi, whose stunning track ‘Trance Adiluhunxx’ scores the above short film, ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U, Felix-Florian Todtloff and City act as guides for the gathered audience, who over time are invited to participate in the performance ritual, merging with those on stage in a rapturous climactic celebration.
Inspired both by Antonin Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty and traditional Tibetan Buddhist ceremonies, Trance is a sustained and focused investigation into physicality and the corporeal limits of the body, as well a space for those who participate in the performance to approach literal trance states, instances of intense psychic liberation that allow for a return to a primitive connection with the material world. During the course of the performance the movements of those on stage are captured and played back to the audience in slow-motion, enabling highly detailed studies of physical movement. The extreme duration of the performance is also accentuated by the lysergic set dressing, as the fresh flowers, vegetation and wet clay that make up the stage at the start of the performance eventually wilt, rot and crack over time, a process of entropy that mirrors the somatic and mental transformations experienced by participants in the piece.
Trance was premiered back in 2019 at Beijing’s M. Woods Gallery, taking place over three iterations on three consecutive days. The narrative of each performance unfolds in two-hour cycles and is split over six chapters, each drawing on a wild variety of texts and artworks dealing with various conceptions of death and apocalypse. Starting with a meditation on a series of Japanese paintings from the 14th century depicting the nine phases of death according to the Mahayana sutras, the performance moves through phases inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1967 novel Death Kit, William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, a hip-hop adaptation of lines taken from Delog: Journey to Realms Beyond Death, a key Buddhist text from Delog Dawa Drolma, as well as a sequence of movement responding to the paranoid letters sent by Antonin Artaud during his mysterious trip to Ireland in 1937, when he set off to chase terrible revelations about the end of the world which he believed to be fast approaching.
These final two texts provide crucial insight into the scale of Chen’s ambition for Trance, positioning it as a performance ritual with the power not only to reveal hidden truths about the human body, but also one that points toward the end of the physical world, perhaps, even, beyond it. In the above short film Ican Harem walks barefoot with gnarled cane, a stand in for the knotted walking stick carried by Artaud during his trip to Ireland that the writer variously claimed belonged to Saint Patrick, Lucifer and Jesus Christ. Artaud’s ritualistic understanding of theatre as a violent practice by which to annihilate false realities and to encounter the chaotic baseness of human existence runs deep in Chen’s work, yet in Trance the artist subverts this construction. Employing primal movement, ecstatic sound and otherworldly imagery, Chen revels in fleshy baseness, but in so doing reveals the sublime in the disorder of human existence.
On Chen’s stage performers assume the characters of gods and demons, of literary figures and nightclub regulars, moving and sweating together in a single space both sacred and profane. It is an environment constructed in an image not unlike the realms encountered by Delog Dawa Drolma in her trip through limbo, known as the bardo in Tibetan Buddhism, up towards the heavens and down into hell. A delog is defined by Chagdud Tulku, Dawa Drolma’s son, as “one who has crossed the threshold of death and returned to tell about it,” denoting someone who, through observance to prayer and ritual, is able to enter a death-like state in order to travel through the realms of the afterlife. According to Tulku, his mother lay cold and still for five days before reanimating to tell of her experiences communing with late relatives and emanations of Buddhist deities, including Padmasambhava, Avalokiteshvara and the white wisdom goddess Tara.
During her travels Delog Dawa Dolma encounters both perfect cosmic deities of awesome power, housed in palaces constructed from precious stones and brilliant light, as well as terrible demons and gods of death, surrounded by canopies of human and snake skin, adrift in lakes of molten metal. She also encounters a variety of human souls, both those in ascendence to the heavenly realms and those drowning in lakes of blood for the discretions of their past lives. By inviting us to participate in Trance, Tianzhuo Chen casts us in the role of delog, constructing an aesthetic realm by populating a fantastic landscape with characters that represent the forces of good and evil, the erotic and the grotesque. We are granted the freedom to explore this world, a process that brings together the transcendence of the human body and the excavation of the immanence of the earth.
In The New Revelations of Being, a manifesto reportedly based on a tarot reading, Artaud states: “I no longer want to be someone subjugated to Illusion. Dead to the world; to that which constitutes the world for everyone else – fallen at last, fallen, propelled upwards in this void that I had been refusing, now I have a body which undergoes the world, and disgorges reality.” This is the body that Chen takes as his subject over the 12 hours of Trance, corporeal forms hanging in the balance between life and death, wracked with the chaos and disorder of the universe, approaching, through physical exertion and endurance, deeply hidden truths about the nature of existence. Writing to Surrealist pioneer André Breton, Artaud conjures an image of the world that has surprising similarities with the visions of Delog Dawa Drolma: “There are still Gods, even though God no longer exists. And ranged above gods there is the unconscious, criminal law of Nature, and the gods and Us – that is, We the Gods – are collectively victims of that law.”
Tianzhuo Chen finds the philosophical stage for his performance ritual in the depths of Artaud’s insanity, a version of the world where gods not only walk among humans but are interchangeable with them. In the world of Trance, a religious vision and a rave-induced hallucination are one and the same, existing in the same psychedelic landscape. The cyber-gamelan of Gabber Modus Operandi and the scorched-earth noise of Dis Fig are elevated to sacred sounds in the space of this ceremony, providing the soundtrack for the emergence of the divine and the transubstantiation of the flesh. Atop cracked clay and rotting flowers, a new kind of physicality is born.
Director – Tianzhuo Chen
Dramaturgy – Petra Poelzl
Choreography – Ylva Falk
Performance & Music – Bidjé de Rosa, Ican Harem, Khng Khan, Lavinia Vago, Lisette Ros, Ndoho Ange, Omid Tabari, Siko Setyanto, Ylva Falk, City, Dis Fig, Felix-Florian Todtloff, ¥ØU$UK€ ¥UK1MAT$U
Production Management – Partner In Crime
Costume – Windowsen, Yusuke Washimi
Light – Akihiko Tanida
Sound – Sho Moriyama
Studio Management & Assistance – Ren Xingxing, Xiao Xiaxi
Watch next: Tianzhuo Chen & 33EMYBW Present – The Dust