Serge Onnen conducts his first performance from behind the curtain at Zajia Lab on April 7. Photo: James Tiscione/GT
It was a cold evening in March when I found myself standing on a curb next to Serge Onnen, looking at the aftermath of a fatal car accident.
We'd met briefly before, but this was a strange enough icebreaker to spark a conversation where the visual artist and musician explained that he had come to Beijing to perform experimental shadow theater with found objects.
So if you're one of the people that has spotted a tall Dutchman scouring the hutong around Nanluoguxiang for plastic bottles, what you've probably seen is the artist preparing for his next show.
"When I go out there the locals look at me like, who is this white guy picking up garbage?" said Onnen in his studio over tea. "Doesn't he have a job?"
Since January Onnen has been the artist-in-residence at the Institute for Provocation, an internationally-affiliated workspace deep in the hutong of Dongcheng district.
Sketches for his shadow puppets hang from the studio walls, quite unlike the traditional Chinese fare; men with water bottles for limbs and discs covered in outstretched arms are all a testament to how Onnen, perhaps unintentionally, is shedding new light on the ancient world of shadow puppetry (known as piyingxi in China).
His performance series, Value for Nothing, took off at hutong arthouse Zajia Lab in April, where his stockpile of everyday objects took the starring role on a white paper screen stretched taut across the stage.
"There are things that all people find fascinating; water, flames and shadows," said the 47-year-old Onnen. "Above all, people always want to know the source of the shadow. It's in our nature."
Onnen's shadows aim to play on natural human curiosity, but like all traditional shadow performances, his shows are deceptively simple.
Using handheld light sources, the artist conjures an infinite number of images from behind the screen; crystal cylinders tower over various figures, while galaxies of criss-crosses captivate the audience, all shadow cast from objects that until recently were someone else's garbage.
Also a musician, Onnen recruited fellow countryman Mark van Tongeren to create a soundscape from electronic bleeps, samples and other ethereal-toned instruments to give his shadows an extra dimension.
When traditional shadow puppets fashioned out of painted donkey skin take the stage, a certain Chinese influence begins to shine through, and Onnen admits that the traditional puppets partly inspired his voyage to China.
Crafted by the family-run Han Feizi Drama Club in Beijing to Onnen's specifications, one model sticks peculiarly in his audience's memory, a pinwheel of hands clutching at burning money.
"Burning cash in the west represents anarchy and rebellion against the state, but in China, it's an offering to the dead," said Onnen. "It reminds us that symbols are subjective."
However, despite the Chinese made puppets, Onnen explains that his shows are less about a particular culture and more about provoking audiences to re-evaluate symbols and their meanings.
"It's not like I was chasing Chinese culture," he explained, as shadow theater traditions can be found in India, Turkey, and lateron, in Western Europe. "But this was a very personal journey that started long ago."
Serge Onnen. Photo: Courtesy of Serge Onnen
The son of a Parisian music critic who had interviewed composers from Claude Debussy to Bela Bartok, Onnen was a self-taught illustrator that claims drawing as his first love. This later led to stop-frame animation loops and forays in shadow theater with the Dutch art collective Oorbeek about 6-years-ago. "The simplest yet most effective form of animation is shadow," said Onnen, also an art instructor at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam.
"What is the point of creating art if you can make it look exactly the same as reality?" he asked of its allure. "Perfection is boring."
Onnen explains his interest in East Asian shadow theater began in Amsterdam's large Indonesian community, which also has a strong shadow puppet tradition. He eventually turned to China.
"I was fascinated in the differences of how shadows are perceived negatively in the west, from Fritz Lang's Nosferatu to Andy Warhol's Electric Chair, yet rather neutrally in the east," added Onnen. "In fact, I discovered what they call shadow theater in China are really not shadows at all, but transparencies with color and detail. It's more like animation, which is a cool fit for me."
While Onnen may not have been seeking Chinese culture, Chinese culture might be seeking him, as despite the country's two-thousand year history of piyingxi, experimental forms of the art are surprisingly nonexistent.
"It was one thing I expected to find, but all I found were traditional plays that hadn't changed in centuries," he added.
Although there is much-touted official support for the art, most existing companies cater to foreign tourists, something Onnen couldn't miss. He concluded that like many traditional arts, they maintain the past without giving thought to evolving the art for the modern age.
"It's not developing, it's contracting," said Onnen. "Despite its origins, folk art sooner or later becomes conservative to a fault."
He explained that the last phase of "new" shadow theater came with morality plays during Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), afterwards, many of the traditional plays were forbidden and many of the puppets were destroyed.
"That is considered one of the darker chapters in the history of shadow puppetry," he added.
Onnen's latest project will abandon the traditional rectangular screen in favor of a large paper globe, providing a 360-degree surface on which to project shadows from within. He hopes his ball of shadows will offer the audience further insights into how they perceive reality.
"This way, it reminds you how your viewing angle only provides a limited view of an entire scene," added Onnen. "It forces you to move around and take in different angles to see what is really going on."
Catch Onnen's shadow performance with renowned guqin player Wu Na at the Paper Tiger Theater Festival on May 26 and 27 in Tuoyuan Art District, and also with multi-instrumentalist Li Daiguo (Douglas Li) at Three Shadow Gallery in Caochangdi Art Zone in late June.