Monday, October 05, 2009

(D) It's Just Me Coughing...Literally

It Is Just Me Coughing
Directed, Visualized and Performed by: Zan Yamashita
Visual Operator: Fumi Yokobori
13 August 2009Annexe Gallery, Central Market

When Zan Yamashita first set foot on stage, I almost expected Scooby-doo to follow suit. Dressed in a washed-out-of-shape t-shirt and comfortable sweat pants, he certainly looked the Japanese version of the lanky lead Shaggy with shaggy hair and rough goatee to boot. However, there were no monsters or ghosts giving chase – just Yamashita justifying his mere existence with the simple act of coughing, a reflex triggered by a consciousness towards mortality.

In 2002, Yamashita created a trilogy that explores the relationship between language and body. The first piece, “It is Written There” was presented at the Itami Ai Hall (Hyogo). In this piece, the audience were constantly invited to turn the page of the book given at the entrance, as the stage host called the page number backwards, and to enjoy switching their gaze between the action on stage and the literature on the page. Two years later, Yamashita created “Invisible Man,” with the expression of dance through words, which was presented at the Tokyo International Art Festival; and in the same year, he received the Kyoto Art Center Theatre Awards for “It Is Just Me Coughing,” the last piece of the trilogy.

In his final piece, Yamashita invites us to enjoy a linear journey of Ozaki Hōsai’s haiku, translated from Japanese to English, ushered by the change of screen projection with every punch of the ‘next’ button. We shift our gaze from the text typed out on the digital media, a minimalist projection, to the stage where Yamashita realizes text into movement. Over time, we learn to anticipate his movements by just reading the text first, because he would do exactly what the text read, over and over again.


In the programme, Yamashita says that the projection will change each time he has taken 10 breaths. It is not the detailed account that we should be interested in, but more so, the fact that we take breathing for granted.

Text cannot be read continuously without pauses for breath. Likewise, the body cannot move incessantly without inhaling and exhaling air. And, a genuine cough is involuntary, very much like breathing.

However, I found myself reacting to such literal expression with suspicion. Throughout the performance I kept expecting a break from the format, a surprise entry of something that would keep me guessing. I have been so conditioned to expect nothing more than ‘self-interpretation’ when it comes to contemporary works that I found it difficult, with my self-afflicted prejudice, to ‘just embrace’ the work as it is, when the meaning is generously served in both written and movement languages.

Yes, I’ve become a part of the cynical society that has adopted the convoluted notion that, if it is too good to be true, it probably isn’t. And so, I was left in a state of constant impatience, anticipating how the piece would end.

While the work follows a direction that dictates the audiences’ imagination, clearly, I myself refused to be dictated. I was not a lonely cynic though. The disbelieving audience, during the post performance discussion, found it difficult to accept that the haiku was chosen simply because it was the shortest; and that he was just breathing, and not exhaling and inhaling in tandem with the score.

At the end of the trilogy, Yamashita finds that the relationship between language and body is a literal one. Why bother with such grand complexity when we can just appreciate simplicity? The lesson that we learn is that, if we stumble upon something that is too good to be true, it is, literally.