Ivan Cheng’s performances serve as enigmatic riddles, gesturing towards unthought portals of presence, embodiment, and subjectivity.
When thinking of Ivan Cheng’s performances, it might be beneficial to transform the leveled, Lacanian mirror to a warped, Droste-effect-type, funhouse mirror. Whether cosplaying as Beethoven while discussing Mariah Carey’s implicit legacies, sitting pretty oddly with plush animals, or shrilling into the abyss like an operatic pressure cooker, Cheng points towards tense contradictions of the splitting perceived self and subject as the schism relates to language, desire, ownership, and time. Often messy and sometimes yielding a cacophony of questionable (dis)harmony, but always poetic and whimsical, the Amsterdam-based artist, writer, and organizer of bologna.cc looks deadpan into the camera with pleading, infant-like eyes repetitively begging the question in varying tonalities: »Is this good enough for you?«—where the ›you‹ becomes a dissonant blur between a reflection of Cheng himself and › you‹, the audience. Though Cheng is weary to claim a social function or inherent usefulness, his work does offer a damning prophecy—we are all subject to the inevitable question of subjectivity. So, why not grow a distrust towards it? An interview by Jocelyn Yan and photographs by Nikola Lamburov.
Your performance CHANGING ROOM 3 (ouija dm) brilliantly evokes a multitude of intertwining discourses that ought to be brought to the fore of any discussion regarding art production. In the diatribe where the character gossips about Mariah Carey and Beethoven’s legacy, I immediately thought of Mark Fisher’s »Capitalist Realism«, whereby Fisher gestures towards a lost future. Do you anticipate an emancipation to this cyclical, slow time acceleration/cancellation we inhabit?
Thanks. I’m not sure how deserved that praise is, but I’ll accept it. Thanks for watching. I wound up thinking that I’m not sure that I or my work are currently so invested in locating its relation to temporality or social function. I’d suggest I’m more invested in disorientation and slippages between practice and expertise. I think of the present as the assignment of the fourth estate, and my work is not a news source, though similarly unreliable.
»Ouija DM«, a work that claims to be about fidelity, uses the camera lens as the planchette on the metaphorical ouija board (a paranormal object used to spell out messages during a séance) of the project, presented in a flow of subtitled video messages on a telegram channel. The section you mention corresponds to the ›GOODBYE‹ section of the work. I like that the tone makes you think of gossip or a diatribe – to me it’s more like an unresolved, 47 second riddle where the character - Death Mask (beethoven) – holds the small plush dog from the Berliner Volksbühne prop archive, used variously throughout the work as a proxy for other performing animal companions, including the descendants of Buster Keaton’s Saint Bernard, Junior, who plays the dog Beethoven in the Hollywood film.
In speaking the text, my vain, sloppy, anachronistic portrayal of an afterimage of the composer then blurs sampling with fragmentation or a selective eye. Maybe it’s that composition and decomposition sit comfortably together, or the Mariah reference clicks us back into a familiar space of approachability and recognition in an otherwise disorienting torrent from ›theatrical space‹. Something I try to chase in my work is a form of referencing without nostalgia.
»Ouija DM«, indeed, places me in a disorienting and anachronistic space, and my immediate reflex is to refer to the Mariah Carey reference with nostalgia. Perhaps this reflex can be rendered as a habitual fear instinct or »perceived fragmentation« as you read in the passage. Referencing without nostalgia seems to me a great intervention in controlling this reflex, or a means to an end to easy reproduction.
You make me reflect on the moments where my work isn’t saying the same thing as I personally believe. Sometimes it’s because I’ve been imprecise, or I’m attempting to use a character’ which gets confused with an authentic‹ voicing. Sometimes I’ve learned something more, and am just wrong. I’m struggling to read as ›present‹ in this chat already. I claim to be more invested in hauntologies and interpretive space, like finding a way to live with or amongst ›ghosts‹.
How could living and conversing with specters be productive in opening new meanings? What exactly are ›ghosts‹ to you?
I conceive of a ghost largely as a tool for demarcating a constant absence that is inherent in any presence. The artistic and written works of Brian Fuata helps me think through a type of ghost. I’m cautious to set expectations that anything be too ›useful‹ - maybe that’s a form of living with; understanding a simultaneous constancy and unreliability in consistency. And then, conversation is something that’s always contextual, so onwards we go. I consider myself generally fearful. I dread horror; I recoil at the thought of being afraid, and constantly trick myself into feeling safer. So I try to speak of ghosts as companions to almost promise myself over - attempting a kind of living without fear of the ›other‹.
Many of your performances play with repetition and tonality of reading. Do you view your practice in »bad reading« as a rebellious and imperative departure from the ghostly resonances of our cultural echo chamber? How did your rendition of »bad reading« come about?
Lately I was thinking about the consequences of deeming something/one superior or inferior – both are similarly dehumanising. I picked it up from a podcast about race in the US. It’s led to my checking on my performance of taste, which usually includes confident dismissal or intuitive disengagement. I quite like dead music, intertwined with the belief that knowing lineage matters. My way into learning was more through friends and peers than through formal education – I didn’t go to art school, just the conservatoire. While there, I was young and frustrated with a contemporary classical audience’s blur of composition and interpretation. Watching new work premiered around me was a live unfurling of how selective historicising involves a kind of disembodiment, if not disemboweling, of context. I felt hyper aware of who wasn’t in the audience. Perhaps this loops back to my faith in fandom. Perhaps it’s that I still want to find a perfect technique and be loved for it. I was obsessed with claiming the space of a baby for a while. I’m writing a lot lately; I’ve just finished a second novella (while my performing body goes a little fallow in lockdown). The novella uses the device of the immortal and eroticised vampire to deal with performance and publics.
»Bad reading« came about after obsessing over Travis Jeppesen when »The Suiciders« came out with its ›bad writing‹, and reading things like Bhanu Kapil, the Language and New Narrative schools, Lisa Robertson, Pierre Guyotat, etc. When I teach writing, I catch myself in a vertiginous arrogance of familiarity - like I know what it is to read and think and speak, like there’s something natural and embodied about that. That’s crazy. No one asks me to teach reading, but sometimes interpretation, I guess. I like this.
There’s an infantile charm to »bad reading« that makes me return to phrases, especially in your performance »Biscuit Betrayal« when you sing »Public bodies? Private boobie!« in almost a devilish, childish sing-song. Do you improvise these moments whilst performing?
I write texts for performance with their rhythm in mind. Some are then relayed through headphones, with direction to imitate the rhythm and pitch patterns as tightly as possible - Eugene Choi, who performs in Biscuit Betrayal, is fantastic at that. Other times, I’ll delude myself that I can be an actor and memorise texts in some attempt at authenticity with incantation. Improvisation is something I treat with a different kind of reverence.
What strikes me about your performances, and more broadly your curatorial practice, is the role of collaboration.
I’m regularly involved with the work of different artists, whether as a performer/interpreter, or in a more structural way, so this way of working is quite simply what I know. A microcosmic interiority, it’s what I’ve done for almost half of my life. With my own work, I invite people to join, outlining the conditions I’m capable of offering, and giving them a certain level of agency within the structure that I establish.
My performances – what most of the audience sees – I treat as just one surface of the work, with the rest of it playing out in correspondences, texts, audio, workshops, gossip, and the camera. It’s the performance of transitions that help you understand what’s going on in the thing – a form of presenting a ›limit‹. I love to propose and announce structure. I love titles and names…
Speaking of structures, what kind of space do you wish to create with bologna.cc?
I approach what I do with bologna.cc modestly as an initiator and organiser. It has consistently been hosted in my studio. I began running a space in my apartment in 2016, obsessed with discerning alterations in address between public and private modes of working. In late 2017, I was offered a studio space and the programme has continued negotiating its status in the city and my life since then. It’s great to have periods where I get to be very close to the creation of people who interest me, learning about how they’re working. I try to operate independently from funding structures. Perhaps I hope it offers a flexible space and a sincere, lively conversation for those who choose to engage. It replicates some conditions of the Sydney artist run spaces that I learned about contemporary art from and is intertwined with a belief that the validity of a programme is not based solely on its exposure. I’m not really doing anything new. I’ve been trying recently to critically write around the figure of the ›pioneer‹, conflating the colonial associations with value systems of newness within cultural production.
Don’t miss Ivan Cheng’s show in Vienna: Parataxis - … (April 24 – May 12 2021).