How to create living art

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 January, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 January, 2005, 12:00am

Nature and culture could be strange bedfellows. Yet nature and culture could also be the perfect match. My recent visit to Yangshuo , about one hour's drive from picturesque Guilin , has rekindled my reinterpretation of culture in nature and nature in culture.

A must-see itinerary for tourists to inspiring Yangshuo is the outdoor evening light-and-sound show, which is a legendary folk tale about a peasant girl's brave battle against feudalism. Reinterpreted by Zhang Yimou , the renowned director of Hero and Raise the Red Lantern, the outdoor show was more than a tourism money-spinner.

Guilin's idyllic Lijiang River and its rings of rock islands provided the stage. The silhouette of intriguing rock forms served as a poetic backstage. The body of gentle, flowing river water caught the moonlight and provided silvery stage lighting against the pitch-black sky.

Tourists sat around a rudimentary amphitheatre on a hill. There was no fanfare, no orchestral overture or thundering fireworks. Instead, the opening captured the audience's attention with a humble procession of white-costumed performers carrying white lights, spreading across the span of boundless river water that flowed under the eyes of the awe-inspired crowd.

The scene was animated with simulated wave movements in the form of endless, bright red mega-streamers. The symbolism: 'Night gives way to sunrise. And sunrise gives way to daylight.' The unfolding scenes depicted fishermen casting their nets, paddlers transporting passengers on bamboo rafts, and farmers busy planting rice.

The drama was about everyday life and everyday people. I later found out that most of the performers were actually local fishermen, farmers and raftsmen earning a small income. But most important of all, they took pride in showing off a living culture and a living art.

Today we talk about art and culture as a standalone heritage to be appreciated and conserved. We spend money on building structures to house art and cultural relics, but we are not ready to spend money to enhance and conserve the real thing.

Why are we not ready to support the revitalisation of indigenous villages, their cultural traditions and natural assets? Why are we tearing down historic buildings to make way for new civic centres and art venues? Why have we traded our cultural heritage for man-made theme parks?

As an anthropology graduate-turned-environmentalist, I have been privileged to make ecological and cultural pilgrimages on the mainland, as part of my environmental education empowerment lecture tours, in the past 15 years.

My other memorable eco-cultural enlightenment took place in the heart of the bamboo forest in Anji, Zhejiang - the location of the Oscar-winning movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Imagine attending a 'natural concert' in a bamboo forest, with performers creating tunes on bamboo instruments.

I can vividly remember the colourful Cantonese operas of my childhood, performed inside temporary bamboo pavilions. Today, traditional festivities have given way to shortlived fireworks and amusement-park rides.

It is sad that my grandchildren and their grandchildren might not have the benefit of enlightenment through living culture and living art. We are putting digitised fantasies and man-made replicas in place of indigenous culture and ecological diversity. What a waste.

Mei Ng Fong Siu-mei is director of Friends of the Earth (HK)