How a genre-bending artwork rediscovered the voice of Liu Xia

echoes of time
Echoes of Time at the 2018 Taipei Fringe Festival. Courtesy of 37°C.
The many lives of an echo.

What happens to a sound as time goes by? In the installation-performance Echoes of Time 迴聲, it does not simply fade away—it repeats.

Between dimly lit walls, cassette players are arranged in a hexagonal shape, reminiscent of a ritual. A tape begins moving between the players, producing a muffled whisper. The voice reverberates each time the tape winds through another player, resolving into a maelstrom of overlapping murmurs.

The artwork is a collective effort of 37°C, an experimental theatre group formed by stage designer Wiki Lo, sound artist Ng Chun-tung and lighting designer Au Yeung Hon-ki. In their concept, the cassette tape serves as the metaphor for a timeline; as “time” courses through cassette players, the original voice recording becomes unrecognisable amidst the sea of playbacks and tape hisses.

This echo-shrouded voice belongs to Chinese poet Liu Xia, whose late husband was dissident and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo. In the audio recording, she reads out her poem, Untitled (2013), that she wrote during her eight-year house arrest. A sense of isolation and loneliness prevails:

這是一棵樹嗎?/ 這是我一個人 / 這是冬天的樹嗎?它一年四季都是這個樣
Is this a tree? / It’s me, alone / Is it a winter tree? / It’s always like this, all year round 

“Her voice is buried by the surroundings, especially the media and others’ interpretation,” says Lo.

For 37°C, Echoes of Time is an attempt to uncover trapped voices like Liu’s, and explore what happens to these voices when their stories are repeatedly retold. “My concern was how to present to the audience both the feeling of being trapped and [memories] fading,” says Ng. “If sounds are transformed into trains, they arrive at each cassette player at a different time; old sounds are continuously being ‘washed away’ as new sounds appear.”

It is this ability to render political despair into indirect yet thought-provoking artistic expressions that sets 37°C apart. Despite the unsettling political reality expressed in Liu’s words, it is difficult to consider Echoes of Time to be a dramatic work: the set is stripped down to just six cassette players, without a storyline or any catharsis throughout the 40-minute performance.

echoes of time
Echoes of Time at FOO TAK FLUX. Koel Chu, Still / Loud.

Rather than creating a work that is direct and approachable, Lo says the group is more concerned with opening up possibilities in theatre. “In Hong Kong, theatre is mostly divided into two groups: dance, such as contemporary and traditional dance, and drama, which is primarily script-based. Even for impromptu performances, they often fall into the two categories of being body- or text-oriented,” says Lo.

37°C was born out of the desire to blur these boundaries. The group chose its name to emphasise its focus on the audience’s experience, regardless of the art form. “Perhaps it’s because I have a background in design and visual arts, I think of theatre as merely a space,” Lo adds. “What matters is how I compose this space with movements, lights, sounds and even texts.”

If sounds are transformed into trains, they arrive at each cassette player at a different time.

This is why it would do a great disservice to Echoes of Time to classify it as either an installation or performance, or in any category at all. The work is a reminder of how much time and effort it takes for a piece of non-traditional, experimental arts to develop. “In the [art] ecology, you need to put out new works regularly to prove the value of your existence. But it doesn’t always have to be like that,” Lo says. 

After performing in Hong Kong and at the 2018 Taipei Fringe Festival this summer, the group transformed the piece into an interactive installation for viewing at “FOO TAK FLUX”, an open studios event at Foo Tak Building. This time, they added a microphone next to the cassette players; any surrounding sounds were recorded and incorporated into the installation on the spot. A clap, a step or even a whisper from the audience became part of the noise that engulfed Liu Xia’s voice. 

echoes of time
Courtesy of 37°C.

37°C said a visitor told them: “As long as I have Liu’s poem in hand, I can keep reciting it and let her live on.”

Towards the end of the performance, the trio quietly hands out a tiny bookmark. Printed on one side is Liu Xia’s Untitled; but flip it over and you will find something else:

請把想說的話 藉以你擁有的自由 傳遞至各處
With the freedom you have, please pass on what you wish to say to every corner of the world.

Echoes of Time 2.0 was on view at treehole, 8/F Foo Tak Building from 8 to 9 December. Still / Loud’s Holmes Chan contributed editing.