DELPHIC ART MOVIE AWARD   short presentation

From the contest for the Delphic Art Movie Award:
Documentary 'For Gods Only'

Winner 2011, Special Prize 'Protection of Intangible Heritage': For Gods Only by Hannes Schmid / Switzerland (one minute abstract)

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HANNES SCHMID, Swiss art photographer (born 1946) is guided by the principle of coincidence: ever vigilant, he travels the world, pausing only for the unusual; and yet his method is routinely premised on meticulous preliminary study of a given motif. Such an empathic approach requires not only time and patience, but respect and understanding as well, as in the case of the Chinese theatrical ensemble whose performances are traditionally reserved for Gods only, but which granted Schmid the privilege of working with them after the artist had paid his dues over years of attendance.

In 1998 Schmid had what seemed to be a clandestine encounter in the mean streets of Singapore, where a troupe of Chinese players were performing a religious ceremony-cum-Gesamtkunstwerk for an imaginary audience. The musical drama Schmid witnessed was an outgrowth of the Teochew clans rendition, itself a sub-genre of Chinese ritual street opera. The form, handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation within a given clan via secret rites, was brought to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand by south Chinese immigrants in the early 19th century. The operatic ritual, governed by a strictsymbolism and preordained casting, comprises theatre, music and singing, as well as dance enriched with martial posturing.

Since the foundation of the Thian Hock Kheng temple in Singapore in 1840, the spectacle has been produced on or near the grounds of the Taoist shrine, where a simple wooden stage has been erected especially for the performances. Its ad hoc character and improvised theatrics, together with the incineration of paraphernalia and paper costumes, are an index of the ephemeral and otherworldly aspects of an operatic genre virtually fated for extinction by natural attrition.

The Gods provide the true occasion for the ceremonial production, which aims at once to honour and to propitiate them, as well as to secure their support for the members of the immigrant community; and thus the performance of piety also includes contact with the divinities and the making of votive offerings. At the same time, brief apotropaic interludes serve to ward off evil spirits and to purge the stage of profanity before the ritual proper commences.

In his series For Gods Only, created between 2005 and 2007 and inscribed in its present form in 2010 by Chinese master calligrapher Simon Huang, Schmid addresses the work and inevitable disappearance of the Kim Eng theatre troupe, which he accompanies faithfully until the preparations for their very last show.
The photographers intention is to join the perception of the reality and authenticity of each production with that of its supernatural and imaginary aspects in which aim he is successful, not only in terms of the typically reduced, deliberately monochrome vocabulary of his prints, but in his conveyance of their symbolic content as well. Collaborating with the calligraphic artist and in homage to the traditions inscribed stage sets, he superimposes on his photographs meticulously selected Chinese characters, whose redness renders the world of the Gods vividly present. The ideograms themselves, applied directly to the photographs in acrylics, underscore the ritual, its premises and the invocation of the Gods, while the imagistic nature of the Chinese characters harmonizes with this photographic record of a particular theatrical world. Indeed, the characters chosen have an expressive weight that goes well beyond their immediate significance. What is more, the Chinese calligraphy used in this work is performative and requires bodily action for its realization, a balance of cognition and intuition and thus one of Schmids recurrent topics. It inspires physical and spiritual calm in its viewers, a tribute to nature surely worthy of emulation by the players as well.

For Gods Only comprises 138 photographic pieces and a multipart video work; a new edition of the 2008 documentary film of the same name is in preparation. Its contribution to the preservation of world culture has won the art project the patronage of UNESCO. - Ildegarda E. Scheidegger, Zurich, 2010

Teochew Chinese Street Opera
This is a brief introduction to the Chinese Street Opera and the way its originality had been preserved in Singapore.

The Chinese Street Opera catered to the religious needs of the Chinese community. In a religious context such as the birthday celebration of a particular Chinese deity, the Chinese Opera actors and actresses impersonate the deities and entertain both gods and ghosts. The venues of the performances could be anywhere like temples, cemeteries, local housing area etc. One reason for the demand of Chinese Street Opera was the need to satisfy the deities or Gods during religious festivities. It was a common belief that many temple owners feel that the correct form of paying respects to the deities was no other than the Opera performance. Due to the deteriorating political and economical situation in China during the late Qing period ~1900, opera troupe?s actors and actresses travelled to Southeast Asia in search of wealth and opportunities. The immigrant society slowly expanded and prospered economically and temple festivities were celebrated in grander scale. From reports, we know that Teochew opera troupes had been travelling between Singapore, Penang and Thailand in the 1890s. It can be conjectured that opera troupes had been visiting or stationed in Singapore ever since the opening of the Thian Hock Kheng temple in the 1840.

As reflected in the Lat Pau, the earliest Chinese newspaper of Singapore, ritual performance served as a major theatrical form of Chinese opera in 19th century Singapore. In fact, the street opera in Singapore was a continuation of a long established tradition of the Chinese drama culture. From an academic point of view, it is believed that the street opera culture of Singapore had preserved the performance practices and religious culture that might have been lost in Mainland China during the Cultural Revolution. In the past 30 years, street opera in Singapore has attracted much attention from overseas scholars of various academic backgrounds, including anthropology, ethnomusicology and Chinese studies.

For Gods only Project is under the patronage of UNESCO Switzerland (United Nations).
Professor Jung Sai Shing of the National University of Singapore (NUS), 2008