In 1641 Japan, the Daiymo, lieutenant to the Shogun, ordered Dutch traders to be quarantined on an artificial island off the coast of Nagasaki. The Daiymo called his island Deshima.
In 1990, the Mickery Theatre of the Netherlands commissioned Ping Chong to create a theatre piece commemorating the centennial of the death of Vincent van Gogh. Chong called his piece Deshima.
How did the experimental theatremaker, whose work abounds in rich and unexpected juxtapositions, make the leap from a 19th-century Dutch post-impressionist to the historic culture clash of East and West?
When the van Gogh centennial committee offered Chong the Mickery commission, they expected a poetic, highly visual multimedia tribute to the artist. And indeed, Chong describes Deshima as a “poetic documentary,” a “prismatic exploration,” if not exactly a tribute. Work on the piece was already underway in 1987 when the Yasuda Fire and Marine Insurance Company bought van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” for a record $30.9 million.
Van Gogh in exile
This transaction stirred widespread speculation about the problematic relationship between Japan and the West, between art as aesthetic object and art as commodity–and propelled Chong on his leap to Deshima. Fascinated by the Japanese economic colonization of the West, Chong began to see van Gogh as the inheritor of the exile at Deshima, a symbol of the “other,” a stranger and outcast controlled by economic forces beyond his command.
This month at New York’s La Mama ETC (with the assistance of the Rockefeller Foundation and a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts), Ping Chong and Company will revisit Deshima, creating a new version of what it calls a “meditation on the effects of politics, trade, religion, art and racism on the formation of the modern world.” Chong’s allusive landscape will explore the nature of imperialism, the paradigms of culture and the inevitable clash resulting from intercultural interaction–themes that are particularly pertinent to audiences in the increasingly diverse America of the 1990s.
Deshima takes on these issues from a variety of angles: It surveys the complex and tragic history of East-West relations, including the colonization of the East by the Dutch East India Company, the “conversion” of the Japanese by Portuguese Jesuits (and the subsequent martyrdom in the early 18th century of both missionaries and converts at the hands of the Japanese), the interaction of Dutch merchants and Japanese soldiers in Indonesia and Java, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the development and deployment of the atomic bomb, the reemergence of Japan as an economic force and, finally, the commodification of van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”
In his characteristic blend of text, sound, light and movement, Chong fractures time and space to discover this “plot,” making use of English, Japanese, Dutch, French, Javanese and Indonesian languages. With the exception of the Narrator (played here and in the original Utrecht production by African American Michael Matthews), all the actors are of Asian descent. Chong makes pointed use of this cross-cultural casting to highlight the irony and insidiousness of the racism inherent in East-West interaction: Non-whites play such Anglo roles as the Dutch Ambassador, the missionary Jesuits and the colonial governors, and van Gogh himself is played by a woman, a child and a black man simultaneously.
Some aspects of the original European staging will be missing from the La Mama production. In Utrecht, by a happy confluence of money and space, Deshima was staged with the audience in motion on a hydraulic boxcar. They began amidst rice-paper shoji screens and ended engulfed by van Gogh’s turbulent final painting, “Crows in the Cornfield.” Rarely is a theatre audience so literally and vividly immersed in foreign worlds. The metaphor of travel is apropos. As Chong notes, “Describing my work, I have always used the metaphor of traveling to a foreign country, where you might have unexpected experiences or see something you don’t understand. But like visiting a foreign country, the more you see it, the more familiar it gets.”
Self-portrait on a keychain
Not everyone appreciated the encounter with the unexpected. The 1990 Deshima was received with admiration by international audiences but with anger by many Dutch critics. The reason seemed patently political. While many Western powers, like Britain and the U.S., are quite used to being criticized for imperialism, the Dutch are not. Amsterdam has always been considered a haven for creative expatriates, whom the Dutch government has generously supported and encouraged. Yet during the van Gogh centenary, the Netherlands proved to be as mercenary about exploiting its “native son” as the Spanish and Italians have been about Columbus. Wandering through Amsterdam that year, one was surrounded by endlessly duplicated images of van Gogh’s self-portrait on cheap keychains, coffee mugs and bottles of wine. Once again, art as commodity.
Deshima exposes this capitalistic exploitation of a visionary artist tragically neglected in his own day. In a typical Chong-style time warp, a sort of contemporary “street person” van Gogh (dressed as the “Sower after Millet”) pitifully hawks color postcards of his great works as a logo reading “In the Name of the Profit” is projected behind him. After displaying his wares, van Gogh decides, “It’s time to go.” He shambles into the next set, a stunning lifesize vision of “Crows in the Cornfield.” Stagehands attentively surround the destitute painter with models of the painting’s portentous birds as an intrusive steam train chugs across the far horizon and a cadre of Japanese schoolgirls marches purposefully through the shimmering field.