Symposium explores East Asian art

In a world that grows more connected each day, traditional national and academic boundaries are becoming more inter-disciplinary, speakers at the symposium on East Asian scholarship in the arts said.

This weekend, a three-day symposium called “East Asia in Motion: Literature, Cinema, and Dance,” featured presentations to show how the borders of nations and the borders of disciplines such as literature, cinema, choreography and politics have become intertwined. Through a focus on movement, the symposium revealed the way artistic creations foster interactions in a global community. Artists at the events included avant-garde filmmaker Kanai Katsu, who showed his work in North America for the first time, and renowned choreographer and dancer Shen Wei, who recently choreographed a dance for the Opening Ceremony of the 2008 Olympics.

On Friday, the Whitney Humanities Center showed two of Katsu’s films, “The Deserted Archipelago” and “Goodbye,” followed by a roundtable discussion. The talk focused on Kanai’s personal development and influences as a filmmaker, as well as the evolution of his work from an emphasis on geopolitics to more personal subjects, such as on friendships and his own backyard where he spent six years filming.

“I could just stay in my own garden and observe the living things there,” he said. “There’s a lot that you can capture, the pond, river, a frog or a carp playing.”

Katsu began his film education at Nihon University, where he set out to disprove the common opinion there that film-writing is a lower form of writing than literature. Despite his parents’ opposition, Katsu decided to become a filmmaker.

Quoting a famous Japanese expression, he said: “People die twice. The first time is their physical death, the second time is when they are forgotten. I make films so that my characters do not have to suffer that second death.”

On Saturday, Shen Wei discussed his personal biography and the principle themes of his work, both of which are deeply intertwined. Born in 1968 in Hunan, China, Wei was educated in the traditional Chinese arts, including Chinese opera and calligraphy. It was not until the 1980s that Wei first started seeing Western ideals in China.

After he saw his first performance of modern dance, Wei said he was surprised to see a dance “about the present and the issues of our time.”

“The freedom of their dance inspired me to do things that have to do with our time and my life, my day-to-day life,” he said.

Now a resident of New York, Wei is the executive and artistic director of Shen Wei Dance, which has toured at Lincoln Center and the Sydney Opera House, among others places. His experience in traditional and modern, as well as Eastern and Western, modes of expression is reflected in his work.

For the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Wei said he fused Chinese culture with international appeal in a performance that featured dancers with paint in their gloves and socks. He said that his “artsy, modern” dance was influenced by his earlier education in Chinese calligraphy.

When asked whether he considers himself an American or Chinese artist, Wei replied, “What people see me as doesn’t matter. I only want to create good art.”

The event was co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Languages and Literature, the Council on East Asian Studies, and the Whitney Humanities Center.

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