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Ronaldo Wilson’s Radical Femininity; or, the Muga of South Bend; or, TEAR-E AVATAR as 바리데기
1. In her essays in Princess Abandoned, translated with typical nimbleness by Don Mee Choi, poet Kim Hyesoon presents figure of the (usually woman) artist as the Abandoned or Paridegi 바리데기. In early Korean mythology, the Paridaegi (or Abandoned) is a discarded royal daughter who roams the afterlife/underworld, an area of blackness, hearing the dead. This censored or abandoned girl is herself the kind of moving hole which is the most dynamic material in Kim Hyesoon’s cosmology.
Then she reaches a point where she can name her own death. She accepts the conception of death which is similar to painful childbirth. At that moment, somewhere within her, she can feel a sense of opening of a woman’s world that has the hearing of death. She is hearing the femininity…. In the world of hearing, she learns that she is more conversational and performative. In the numerous repetitions of the symbolic processes, the going back and forth between the inside and the outside, through this spiral process, she discards the identity imposed on her and begins to feel the transformed identity she now has—the identity coded by a different method that can only be named within the connection with death.
2. One hosts femininity, the hearing of Death; one thereby performs the Abandoned, a performed femininity, and becomes a site of radical rupture, “life and death mashed inside the performance-space.” Though shamanistic performance in Korea is traditionally associated with women, Don Mee Choi specifies in her introduction that it is not so much biological femaleness as the position of cultural abandonment that makes one fit the category of muga or shaman: “Shaman narratives have always held a lowly position in Korean literature, allocated to women and commoners, while shamans are outsiders, the lowest of the low.”
Performing the Abandoned is thus a performance of radical disempowerment even as it is also a performance of radical receptivity, the power to hear the dead, hear the oppressed, put Death at the center of one’s own life:
And she begins to realize that she stands at the center of death rather than at the center of life and that she cannot maintain her life if she does not embrace death. . . . she feels as if all of the outside is entering the inside like the way ghosts rush up to the performer.
3. I thought of Kim Hyesoon’s notion of the Paridegiwhen viewing the eight videos Ronaldo Wilson has created during his residency at the Center for Art + Thought. The Center for Art + Thought is, to begin with, an online center; what does it mean for Ronaldo Wilson to go as paridigae into a residency in this bodiless zone? The website of the CA+T describes its remarkable mission this way:
Starting from the perspectives of Filipinos around the world, the Center for Art + Thought (CA+T) harnesses the potential of digital and new media technologies in order to foster dialogues between artists, scholars, and the broader public. […]
We understand global processes through the experiences of the Filipino diaspora.
We examine Filipinos’ experiences to learn about the rest of the world. As a site where colonialism and neocolonialism, militarization, migration, and globalization all come together, the Philippines and its diaspora exemplify the global dynamics and processes of the last five centuries. CA+T thus takes the Philippines and Filipinos around the world as a point of departure—rather than a point of arrival—for bringing into focus and understanding other histories, spaces, and communities.
I adore this project, I want to learn from the Center for Art + Thought’s radical break with imperialist geographies of knowledge, this recentering of the world around a point of view identified as diasporic and thus not a central point at all. It seems to me that the digital hosting of this intellectual project thus creates an opportunity for intellectual mapping and remapping which will be networked rather than interested in hierarchy. A center which is not a center, a residency for the bodiless, a sight of digital embodiment, an area for Wilson as Paridegito move into the hearing of femininity, to go back and forth between the inside and the outside, to name death.
Kim Hyesoon and Don Mee Choi, with their own radical understanding of Korea as the feminist site of imperial and militaristic occupation and censorship, of a blacked out feminine zone from which art arises, will be delighted to learn about this Center, this paradoxically decentering and diasporic site.
4. Wilson’s TEAR-E AVATAR as Paridegi
The videos Ronaldo Wilson has created for CA+T residency are brilliantly layered. Like the CA+T they are not just one thing, a place where hierarchies of surveillance, assessment, and analysis cannot be easily re-established. Most of the videos feature one or more free-styling spoken or singing vocal tracks, footage of Wilson dancing in an enclosed or open space, in costume or plain dress, and textual residue that appears on the screen either out of synch with the vocal or so fast as to be unreadable. It is difficult for a viewer to come away with just one version of any given video, to reconstruct a sense of wholeness, even as collage, because of the various speeds and visual languages of the various tracks and texts. The effect of watching these performances is one of being fascinated and overwhelmed by violence, brilliance, beauty and rupture. Wilson’s videos entail a kind of throbbing, a kind of coming in and out the world, a repurposing of the world’s violence into something mythic, a political rupture, an issuing force of new political force.
For me as a viewer, this radical radiant force may be identified with the masked feminine figure Wilson dances in many of the videos. To this muscular figure with a long pink feminine wig, the miniskirt, leggings or heels of a feminine dancer, and a painted mask, Wilson gives the name TEAR-E AVATAR. I like the notion of the Avatar, who, like the Abandoned, is a vessel, an embodier, a hear-er, a paradoxically present hole. She is identified both with a rupture (a tear) and a leak (a tear), an emission of affect in through a possibly contaminating bodily fluid. Her name sounds like theory, but she dances a praxis, a praxis of rupture, exposure, challenge, emission, radiance.
5. If the experience of imperialism and militarization creates a twinning of modern Filipino and Korean history we should remember that Kim Hyesoon also suggests that the shamanistic performance of the Paridegi is a kind of twinning:
The performer exists as a twin-like being, who is intertwined with death, the death she was able to name through her active participation in it, and she uses this ability to visit back and forth with the death everyone harbors. She attains her ability as a performer of death through her own life’s suffering, the naming of her suffering which is like death, the metaphorical naming of the metonymic. In other words, making contact with her own spirit allows her to communicate with other spirits through the bodies of the others and enables her to guide the spirits of the dead to a safe place (?) in the netherworld at the request of her regulars.
6. It is this possibility of fierce and fearsome vulnerability, receptivity, empathy, metonymity and twinship, which holds the political dimension of the Paridegi for contemporary art-making, as exemplified by Wilson. When I watch his video “Grey,” shot in the parking lot of a liquor store here in South Bend, Indiana, as I watch his athletic and beautiful form dancing first in a studio and then as TEAR-E AVATAR in her mask, heels, and wig, carrying with her the large tote bag that means concealment, exposure, and self-sufficiency, I feel a radical sense of opening, a rupture, a tearing and a tearing, a beauty that gushes up and rushes out, a flooding of my body with ghosts. South Bend is part of the Rust Belt, a site of economic depletion, desertion, and environmental ravagement, a strange kind of wrecked place I find beautiful. In watching Wilson-as-Paridegi dance in our parking lot, amid our ugly snow, with our ugly signature color, gray, titling his performance, I feel a kind of grace, an opening, witnessing of the Death-in-Life which twins the parideagi and South Bend, the rupturing of Art with all the grief and radiance of a ruined and exposed place which has nothing worth hiding and cannot hide. In this sense, Wilson’s dancing of the Paridegiin South Bend adds another point to the radical remapping entailed by the Center for Art + Thought, by Don Mee Choi and Kim Hyesoon, by Susan Schultz’s Tinfish Press which first published Kim Hyesoon’s poetry and prose in English—and by the Paridegiherself.