From sea to screen
Yang Lian and John Cayley's iterations
The long poem “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” 大海停止之处 by Yang Lian 杨炼 and its transformation into the collaborative digital and performance piece Where the Sea Stands Still illustrate an iterative response to digital technologies and globalization. The iterative structure of Yang Lian’s long poem produces an expanding sense of space and geography that, like the title, combines perpetual repetition with continuous change.
The long poem comprises four poems, each entitled “Dahai tingzhi zhi chu” (“Where the Sea Stands Still”). There is no numbering: each poem’s title is identical to all the others. Each has three sections and ends with “zhi chu” 之处 (where/the place where). These final characters combine stillness, spatial and temporal arrest with the sea’s ceaseless repetitive movements. The poem’s repeated images, title, final words, and structure produce a fluid sense of space: they leave the reader unsure of his or her place within the text because the usual markers of progression––such as progressive numbering, varied titles, or changes in subject matter––are absent. Adding another layer to these iterations, Yang gave the same title, Dahai tingzhi zhi chu / Where the Sea Stands Still, to the collection in which the poem first appeared. Thus each poem entitled Where the Sea Stands Still appears within the long poem Where the Sea Stands Still, which is in turn within the collection Where the Sea Stands Still. Each poem relates to all the others in wave-like expanding circles of meaning.
The poem’s repeating, expanding form is mirrored in an expanding sense of geographic and oceanic space. “Where the Sea Stands Still” is located in Sydney, Australia, where Yang held the position of writer-in-residence in 1993. He even gives his address:
King Street 一直走
Enmore Road 右转
Cambridge Street 14 号
The shift to roman script emphasizes the geographic and cultural movement between Sydney and Beijing. Elsewhere Yang contrasts Auckland, another harbor city and the place he first lived after June Fourth 1989, with “that ancient city buried in dust and yellow earth” where the “sea is only a myth.” The sea marks his geographical displacement from dry northern Beijing and his “floating life” (piaobo 漂泊)––a Chinese term for wandering or exile that chimes with the maritime theme.
Through its iterative form, the poem’s precise geographic and temporal location opens into modernity at large and into a global system of oceanic currents and geographic interrelations. Yang’s subsequent collaboration with John Cayley (and also Brian Holton, who provided the English translation, and Gao Xingjian 高行健, who supplied some of the images for the project) further expands the geographical reach of the poem, as a multimedia collaboration now encompassing China, Australia, Canada, the UK, and France. Here is a clip from the work, as performed by Yang and Cayley at the ICA in London in 1997:
This geographical constellation went truly global when Cayley subsequently published a hypertext version on the World Wide Web.
These multi-media iterations of Where the Sea Stands Still fuse new media technology with Orientalist imaginings of China (marked especially by the computer technology, multiple screens and calligraphy). In this, the poem recalls “the intersection of . . . technological and ethnographic imaginaries” in what Chris Bush calls the “ideographic modernism” of Pound and other Western modernists. Like ideographic modernism, Yang’s poem stresses the link between “the real and the really made up.” As Bush argues, Chinese writing links the figural China in modernist orientalism to China’s “very real part in modernism’s world.” Likewise, in Yang’s poem, language and sea as media of figuration also figure the literal transoceanic patterns of travel and trade in our current era of globalization.
Yang’s poem also engages directly with this history. The text of Where the Sea Stands Still bears the mark of Yang’s exile years. It exchanges the fixity of the earth and Chinese history in his earlier work for the fluidity and transnational reach of the sea. It is written in the shadow of the events of June Fourth 1989, but also of Deng Xiaoping’s 1992 trip to the south that ushered in China’s subsequent economic expansion and our current era of globalization. That it was first published in London and in English as well as Chinese itself marks the historical period of flux that it traverses and the problems of intercultural mediation for which the sea is both a figure and a concrete reality.
Yang and Cayley’s multi-media performance piece engages another chapter in recent Chinese history. It was commissioned by the ICA as part of a series to mark Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997. The ICA performance re-contextualizes the work in relation to this later historic moment. The sea becomes a figure for the southern seaport of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is juxtaposed to its new capital, through Yang’s Mandarin Chinese and Beijing accent, and to its old colonial master, London, through the performance’s setting and through Cayley’s Anglo-Canadian accent. Refracted through this new historical moment, Where the Sea Stands Still comes to confront the entrapment threatened by both Chinese and Western traditions: the “wound of all the past,” as the poem puts it. Rather than mimesis we have here what Haun Saussy calls a digestive model of cross-cultural exchange. In the poem’s words, “the carcass” is “always picked clean by the very last line.” The pounding waves warn that there is “no sea that doesn’t slip into the void of the poem,” no context that it might not consume in a subsequent reiteration.
We might say, then, that Where the Sea Stands Still is about the iterations of translation in its broader sense. Cosima Bruno has written beautifully about the complex choices involved in translating Yang Lian’s poetry. Her method of reading Yang’s poetry emerges out of reading the many English translations of his work. Bruno thereby adopts an approach to reading that likewise emphasizes iteration and so seems particularly appropriate to his work. For Bruno, “a successful translation cannot be regarded as a model to which all translations must confirm, because every translation is always instant specific.” Similarly, as Yang and Cayley’s collaboration suggests, even the same translation is reframed and refracted by the shifting sands of media and historical contexts, arresting us with each new wave of reading.