Jian Yi talks Magic Theatre

Jian Yi
Magic Theatre – [scenes from the unconscious]

Thu 21 November — Fri 22 November 2019

CCA, Glasgow

Premiere of a new live-art work by an iconoclastic performance artist – an intimate schizo-psychotic audiovisual experience – excavating the depths of the unconscious psyche… and releasing the primal energies of repressed desire.

Legendary French theorist of the avant-garde movement, Antonin Artaud had called for a ‘Total Theatre’ experience – such is this new hypnotic performance work which reinvents his ideas for a ‘Theatre of Cruelty’ – transporting audiences on a synaesthetic, audio-visual creative production, journeying through the mind of the solo performer through schizo-psychotic dreamscapes, into the recesses of a shared collective psyche.

Combining intermedia digital culture and live art, this dreamlike contemporary performance by wildchild Jian Yi – expresses a deeply personal evocation of Queer/East Asian/Diaspora heartbreak… Featuring FX/Lighting installations by acclaimed Cryptic Associate Robbie Thomson, psychotropic new media visuals by Dan Shay, and a luminous/haunting reverb-soundscape by Radiophrenia’s Allan Whyte.

Jian Yi is a cross-disciplinary performance maker engaging audiences in emotionally raw experiences in the creation of a primal theatre of affect – drawing upon new media digital art culture and inspired by East Asian performance traditions of Butoh and Trance, this new work seeks to find the contemporary connections made available between technology, dancing body and schizo-mind.

You describe yourself as a performance artist: what does this mean in terms of what an audience might experience?


The interesting thing about performance art is that rather than focusing on script or choreography, it really concentrates on the present moment, and the experience for an audience as it unfolds. Although I have a background in both dance training and theatre, I don’t necessarily define myself purely through any one medium. I am interested in the space between theatre and dance – there is a quality to embodied practice that can reveal a more sensorial experience of the world, not limited to aesthetic, a set of movements, or words.

From the 'Pink' series - Jian X Yi 6

I have always been interested in performance art as a practice that interrogates the way we live; instead of letting itself be confined by the somewhat outdated notion of a genre or its conventions, it is very much about boundary pushing – of looking at our existence and subjective experience, and concentrating on the ‘live’ moment of live art and performance art as experience/event with an audience in the present moment of unfolding time.


The production is described as ‘an intimate schizo-psychotic audiovisual experience’. Again, how does that translate into a performance experience?


This performance is driven by an interest in the non-rational self – something which western society denies. By contesting definitions of sanity, or ‘normal’ behaviour, we find out who has the right to feel comfortable in society as it stands, and how people suffer not fitting into those social structures. Rather than diagnosing illness or abnormality, I want to look at the human condition precisely through this lens of internal conflict, this idea of being at odds with the world around us or with our internal conflicts around our self that everybody experiences at some points in their life. I am interested in alternate states of consciousness, seeing that these can be insightful and not just pathological.

The style of Butoh is very related to this, in the sense that its central characteristic is processing trauma, and expressing a psychological experience of disjunction. This reflects the historical moment in Japan at the time this form of art originated in the 60s – post-atom bomb. Butoh represents the cultural unconscious of a country that has been devastated by war, drawing on a history of repression, and the memory of suffering.

The schizo character in my performance represents an animalistic or more childlike form of self, the unconscious itself. In another sense, he is also a reflection of the figure of the outcast as it is construed by Western society. Through the performance, he is allowed to enter the theatre of his sub-conscious. This is a real immersive multimedia live performance, and this experience of synestheasia and being overwhelmed in sensations of sound, FX and visuals plays a vital role in creating a trancelike experience for audience. In constructing this experiential reverie I want to build a bridge between our waking life and the collective unconscious.


The use of Butoh and new media both helps us connect back to that part of ourselves. The digital and multimedia technologies referenced in the show, the internet and new media – has fundamentally altered the way we perceive reality and our sense of self and those questions are also explored in the work that seeks the possibilities or ‘lines of flight’ that these intersections of multimedia technologies and new self-constructed identity can create together.

Magic Theatre copy (2)

There is some talk of Artaud and the theatre of cruelty. Why is Artaud important to you, and do his theories retain their relevance today?


Artaud interests me because of his criticism of Western theatre, its logocentrism and its failed rationality. Instead of basing performance around text and meaning, he tried to break theatre down into sensations, reassembling it as something altogether different. His point of reference was Balinese theatre, which traditionally involves no words, just gestural actions, incoherent cries etc. This helps express an emotional storyline rather than a rational one, bringing theatre back to sensation, and the live experience of existence itself.

Another reason why I am drawn to Artaud is his historical position as one of the founding figures of an avant-garde movement. In his own way, he was trying to change society – from the point of view of perception and the subjective experience. He expresses a revolt against what for me is the biggest Western fallacy – that of the rational self. This relates to other ideas articulated by Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze among others – who speak of the subjectification of the self as the prison – an enlightenment based concept of the subjective ‘self’, used primarily for the social instruments of control, and the monstrous instinct to ‘civilize’. Artaud’s avant garde is trying to wake us up to the reality of our deeper psychic existence and passional animality.


Artaud is relevant to the state of the theatre and dance today because these conventional forms are in my view very much locked in a renunciation of the present moment. Through script or choreography, we base ourselves either in the past, or in the future – never in the now. By bringing back the avant-garde spirit of presenting affective, moving delirium, we can unleash that power of the unconscious self within us: things that society marks as impossible, taboo, unacceptable. But that are real and there. Much like Butoh, the theatre of cruelty enables us to process suffering and see what’s really going on. 

I have a lot of interest in how feminist, queer, and other marginalised groups for example express their subjective experiences of the world. Rather than simply making political art with the message ‘those people have been hard done by, they should get a bigger slice of the pie’, I am interested in hearing how those groups respond to pertinent existential questions from a unique position. This also applies to my own experience as a queer PoC. I believe that an experience of trauma, non-belonging (to mainstream society) and suffering can endow artists with depths of sensitivity and feeling that places them in particularly strong position to address some of those questions.

Coming back to Artaud, he is a somewhat of a symbolic character for me as he helps bring together various ideas about the figure of the artist. Historically, it’s always been people considered ‘crazy’ or unusual in exploring non-rational modes of looking at the world that were also great artists – something that society often denies, including denying art itself as meaningful or relevant. This is something I draw from in my own work – going away from our rational selves, and back to the part of ourselves that has this other sensitivity.


How well does the digital culture integrate with the demands of theatre?


The way this question is phrased almost calls for unpacking what the demands of the theatre are! I suppose I am interested in contesting the more conventional theatre format through integrating multimedia within the fabric of the performance: projection mapping on the set design, creating a surround experience through immersive sound… I will be working with Robbie Thomson who is known for experiential multimedia installations and implementing use of FX/lighting very much making it an experience upon entering the room, which is a spatialised form of the character’s crazy dream. The role of the visuals is to draw us into this internal world of the performer, who is interacting with different parts of the space, which in turn represent different parts of his/our (collective) unconscious psyche.

The performance engages with the possibilities of the digital in the sense that, much like different mind states or subjectivities, different digital tools can help us look more laterally at various questions. I am interested in finding alignments between technology, the dancing body and the schizo mind – they’re almost like the three characters within the performance. Except rather than segregating things into categories, I am putting everything together.


And how far do East Asian elements manifest in the performance?


My dance background engages strongly with East and South East Asian dance cultures, namely Trance and Butoh (which I’ve spoken a bit about before). I have developed my training and worked with artists like Yumi Umiumare and Tony Yap in Australia, and other practitioners internationally such as Agung Gunawan, a renowned Javanese performance creator who’s company Breathing Forest Dance Theatre is just incredible and one of the best groups working in this genre of performance – who have helped me develop an embodied understanding of these practices.


I am interested in how some of these international theatre and dance cultures vary, focusing for example in this Eastern mysticism tradition on exploring the theory of the unconscious directly – which is something that Western theatre and dance really aren’t doing in the main! The excessive concern with conventional script and choreography, only leads to work that ultimately stays on the surface. In other cultures we can see, the humanist elements of exploring the unconscious mind, shamanism, healing, and storytelling are much more embedded. This is something I find very constructive for taking inspiration in my own work presently.

Conceived/Directed/Performed by: Jian Yi
Visual Media by: Dan Shay
Sound by: Allan Whyte
Stage Design by: Ruben San Roman
Lighting/FX by: Robbie Thomson
Supported in development by Anatomy Arts and Creative Scotland.

Content warning: May contain nudity, some coarse language, strobe lighting effects and haze.


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