Tasked since 2013 with researching the cultural residues of Asian-African trade for the Johann Jacobs Museum in Zurich, Zheng Mahler allowed their subjectivities to become entwined with the Bull as he set up offices for a North Sudanese mining company in Hong Kong. Together they produced the exhibition 'A Season in Shell' at the Johann Jacobs Museum which documented the trade of abalone between Somalia and Hong Kong.
Zheng Mahler use Levi-Strauss’s encounter with the Chinese Opera and his description of the city in his essay ‘New York, post-et prefiguratif’ as a frame to link this experience with a constellation of geographies, cultures and theatrical traditions. Bridging the migrant experience of the city as an object of study and subjective condition, the work moves between art and anthropology and from Hong Kong to New York as ascendant and enthroned global ‘centers’.
The dialogue between the two actors is interpreted by two New York based performers, Kenyan-American actor Irungu Mutu working from a script produced collaboratively with Zheng Mahler and Chinese dance therapist Nuo An from Chinese Theatre Works, a Queens based Beijing Opera Company performing fragments from Kuang-Yu Fong’s ‘Day Jobs: Opera Dreams’ based on the experiences of Beijing opera performers working day jobs in downtown New York. The piece is accompanied by a minimalist electronic soundtrack composed by Australian musician John Bartley. The catalyst for the performance is deeply personal to the artists, the disappearance of the Bull from Hong Kong shortly after finishing their exhibition 'a Season in Shell'. It raised questions about the truth of his story as well as the artists own judgement and the ethics and efficacy of fieldwork as a form of performance and artistic research. The performance is in a way an elaborate folly constructed to bring back the Bull one last time to say goodbye and also a form of public psychotherapy, to 'work through' all the emotional baggage of interpersonal relationships and subjective experience which is usually cast aside in the positivistic ethnographic texts which anthropologist produce from fieldwork. It is also to give the subjective experience some form of collective meaning through the transubstantive process of art making that the performance finds its purpose.
The performance took place over the course of three nights from the 11 to the 13th of November 2015 in a empty shopfront on 350 Broadway, Manhattan converted into a temporary performance space for the piece.
NEWYORKPOSTETPREFIGURATIF (before and after new york) is a performance by Zheng Mahler based on their experiences working with ‘the Bull’, an East African asylum seeker and trader living in Hong Kong, which transforms their fieldwork into a site-specific performance in downtown Manhattan. For Performa 15, Zheng Mahler use the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss’s encounter with a Chinese Opera troupe under the Manhattan Bridge in 1940’s New York as an inter-textual reference to re-frame their own ethnographic encounter as a dialogue between an African migrant and Beijing Opera singer living in New York.