Mitsu Salmon’s “Tsuchi”: A Response by Shi-An Costello (世 安)

 

Tsuchi created and performed by Mitsu Salmon

A-Squared Asian American Performing Arts Festival co-presented with Links Hall October 2016

image: A-Squared Theatre

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I entered the space seeking lines on faces that looked like my own. I entered the space, seeking a rare spotlight on an identity deemed “invisible.” Asian. Asian-American. Asian-American-Pacific-Islander. Asian-American-Pacific-Islander-Desi-American. These cumulative dashes are the smooth, almost-invisible lines I sought to reveal. Identities between dashes, dashes of identities, dashes of dashes that together reveal a great whole. These are my own lines too. My own lineage. My own thread. The thread that runs through me, and sews me together, and them too, and those—further separated by land and water, time and space—those too. Those broken lines become unbroken when you seek them out and realize that they are not broken at all. The invisible is not unseen; The invisible is merely hidden.

The space I was in was Links Hall in Chicago, for the 2016 A-squared Asian American Performing Arts Festival. The performance that sewed me together was Tsuchi by Mitsu Salmon. Mitsu is now a dear friend, but when I saw her Tsuchi that day, I did not yet know who she was. In fact, we became friends because I was lucky enough to see her perform that day. This is how friendship among artists works: The core of our being runs through our externalized actions, so the formal courting process is truncated, even at times completely omitted.

How did Mitsu’s Tsuchi sew me together? Mitsu is a hapa like me (mixed race of Asian descent), and explores her Japanese ancestry in her work. She dedicates a section of Tsuchi to her Japanese great-grandfather, telling his story through speaking, drawings, and dance. This needle slid right through my fabric: The night before, I had rediscovered my Chinese birth name, given to me by my grandparents. Sparked by the discovery, the overwhelming presence of my mother’s whole family lineage poured back into my life through dreams and remembered experiences. My Chinese name assignment is more than my apostolic, blandly stentorian Western name: my Chinese name is both a generational assignment, and an expression of ideals, wisdom and values to uphold in life. This direct addressal from my Chinese ancestry was thrust upon me the night before I confronted Mitsu’s Tsuchi.

Mitsu’s performance was timely. Through Mitsu, I was able to reflect on the power of remembrance, the anxiety of names, and the wounds of colonialism. And most importantly, I was able to reflect in a space where I was not alone. I remember myself sitting in that space, watching the segment on Mitsu’s great-grandfather, leaning in. Leaning in to hear, see and feel with eager proximity, like a flower facing the sun.

Then I watched Mitsu dance from island to island with a suitcase. I felt myself sewn into this narrative too. Having grown up an only child with divorced parents, having lived in a foreign country, having lived bilingually, having a mixed race identity, and having a career as a freelance artist, I feel the isolation of her islands, the tragedy of their being multiple, and the burden of her duty to constantly travel between them.

Then Mitsu sings. Mitsu begins with the word “hey”. “Hey” sounds almost as if it was intoned, not spoken. But it is gone, and no one will ever know. Now the “hey” multiplies and grows and harmonizes with itself until the the word itself, and its root in the tongue, becomes meaningless. The word becomes its own sound, no longer a word. Only performers like Mitsu can divorce the word from the word through uttering it, giving it the gift of music.

Then Mitsu serves sake and sushi to the audience and tells them a story. This is a rare warmth for me. Growing up with no siblings and two full-time working parents, I don’t have many memories of food prepared and served to me. In adulthood however, burdened with a busy schedule, I am almost always being served by someone I pay to do it. Mitsu explores the servile and submissive Asian female stereotype by playfully poking fun, subverting expectations, and critically engaging the audience with subtlety and quietism that most non-Asian performers are unable to accomplish.

These are all of the component parts of Mitsu’s performance that day. All other memories of Mitsu I cannot definitively separate from other performances I’ve seen of hers. Her work is cohesive and genuine, and this makes it hard to see her performance practice as nothing other than a long continuous thread through her body and the bodies of her audiences.

I envy this, because I feel that my own path as an artist is much more jagged than Mitsu’s. Between writing, composing, teaching, piano playing and theater, I have difficulty in feeling sewn together. Sometimes I feel that each part of my life is an island of isolation, and the grand archipelago of my life is untraversable. Perhaps it is traversable, I just haven’t figured out how yet. Or perhaps Mitsu feels jagged and disconnected at times too—I should ask her. Or maybe the feeling of disconnect between your component parts is what it means to live a full life.

Some paradoxes to consider: Art challenges life, yet also provides relief from the strains of the challenge it creates; Art makes you see what you’re missing, yet also distracts you from seeing what’s right in front of you; Art is both your rebellious punk child and your servile sage elder; Art is both your warm community facilitator and your prison guard for solitary confinement; Art both poses unanswerable questions and provides unquestionable answers.

Art contains all the paradoxes of life. In life is art, in art is life. Perhaps life and art are meant to be together, separated only by a dash identity: Art-life; Life-art. Seeing the deep lineage between art- and -life is a way to unsee the (seemingly) broken line. Those who believe lines to be broken are the ones who vote for politicians that choose to fund life, yet not art. Perhaps it is part of a master plan to fund neither. Conquer art and life will follow. Divide and conquer.

But that is neither here nor there. What is truly important is the art itself and the people who create it, and the connections you make to them. What’s important is the connection I’ve made to Mitsu and her art. Without this connection and others like it, my life would be utterly inhumane, worthless, hopeless. To me, art is my life—there is simply no one without the other. To me it is art-life, life-art. To me it is me-Mitsu and Mitsu-me, Tsuchi-me and me-Tsuchi, and me-art, art-me. Identity-place. Asia-America. Love-hope. Beauty-everything. To dash life with dashes is to bring the connections out of hiding and to celebrate their wholeness.

I find myself using slashes less often—slashes brutalize dichotomies. Work/life balance. On/off switch. Slashes make you think in either/or binaries. You must choose a side because the differences marked by the slash are irreconcilable. But hyphens open the possibility of forming bonds. No either/or, just both and. The hyphen forces you to think of the elements as unified, whole, inseparable. Work-life balance. On-off switch. Life-art. Art-life.

With dashes, you can speak copiously through a single word. This submitted text has a word count—a minimum and maximum, in fact—yet the word I conclude with will wholly count for one: Me-Mitsu-Mitsu-me-Tsuchi-me-life-art-art-life-Asian-me-American-me-love-hope-friendship-place-identity-beauty-me-art-me.

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Shi-An (世安) regularly writes and reports for New Music Box, Family Court Nightmares, and the Media/Communications team at Asian Americans for Advancing Justice-Chicago. They have contributed articles to FOCI Arts, chicshifter, and Riksha on the topics of economy, fashion and racial identity. As a writer, Shi An is interested in articulating politics, activism and law as performance. They also maintain careers as a classical pianist, actor, and performance artist. In 2017, they are joining the team of writers at Cacophony Magazine.