San Francisco

Winston Tong

Eureka Theatre And San Francisco Art Institute

“Solos,” an anthology of ten performance works by Winston Tong, draws from an array of sources: the artist uses the works of Rimbaud, Satie, Gershwin, Nijinsky and Chopin, to name a few. He brings to these pieces his own talents as mime, puppeteer and multimedia artist. Nevertheless, in the final production craft and reference merge into a form that is more structurally varied than conventional theatre and more illusionistic (and deliberately entertaining) than the usual performance art offerings.

Tong juxtaposes the unanticipated so that his works take on the appearance and feeling of ritual. In A Rimbaud the artist’s dispassionate recitation of Illuminations is followed by the lighting of seven candles in a footlight configuration, and a death scene enacted with four puppets. A Rimbaud shows Tong at his most mysterious; the ceremonial and atmospheric effects do not lend themselves either to extended meaning or interpretation.

However, some of his pieces are easier to explain. A Bomb, termed a work-in-progress, employs two projection units, a score that includes both chanting and circa 1940s jazz, and an excerpt from Bruce Conner’s film of the same name. With few props, the most important being a Japanese parasol with an earth motif and the artist’s own Oriental features, this performance becomes a kind of bicultural commentary on the atomic bomb. Or as Tong states it: “E=mc2 is the very symbol of love.” Through music and visual material Tong parallels the Western and more distant view of the atomic bomb with the direct experience of the Japanese. This is most clear when he overlays Bruce Conner’s beautiful but politically detached film with newspaper headlines announcing death tolls.

In Bound Feet Tong enacts the Chinese custom, placing his own feet in miniature red silk slippers while an audiotape dialogue between a Chinese mother and daughter plays. After binding his feet, Tong uses his puppets to depict a love scene between a woman who wears the red slippers and her lover.

Tong’s audiences have made his performances into a kind of cult attraction. Part of this is due to the current vogue of his sources (such as Rimbaud and Nijinsky), which have also inspired Patti Smith and the punk culture. In addition to these considerations, Tong’s technical skills are impressive. He conveys a kind of duality that is Western/Eastern and androgynous as well. He can present himself as a character who has obvious cultural roots, or he can manifest an anarchistic rebelliousness, as evidenced by his rendering of Wild Boys.

Ultimately Tong’s attraction rests with the eccentric scenarios that place personal ritual on view. While his work cannot really be termed mystical, it reaches in that direction, and in its diverse reference points it gives a ritualizing significance to both past and present cultural forms. Tong’s successes perhaps offer more insight into his followers’ desires than into the artist’s personal concerns. His impact suggests a yearning for a magical art—art in which factual information is transposed into the sensual and experiential. Art that in fact offers its viewers a brilliant mode of escape.

Hal Fischer