February 19th: A talk by Kathy Foley: Tangible Intangibles: Heritage and Performance in Bordered Worlds.

The PSWG blog this week presents a curated series of responses to Kathy Foley’s talk, titled Tangible Intangibles: Heritage and Performance in Bordered Worlds. Kathy has selected for us an iconic object of performance (in this case, a set of photographs) around which her work has crystallized. By ‘objects of performance’ we mean things which embody, depict, surrogate, reflect, describe or resonate with a performance in the past and which constitute the focus of our critical attention. They could be films, audio recordings, clothes, anecdotes, buildings, gestures and so on- in short, objects by which we know the presence- or disappearance- of a performance.

Of the selected images, she writes:

“Here are two images from Mak Yong, a southeast Asian female dance form which seems to be going gender straight as a result of current efforts to preserve it. The question is why with modernization female forms tend not to be preserved with the females doing the male roles, but male forms (consider Kabuki, Noh) are successful and “more artistic” than the female genres. When “heritage” hits the modern proscenium stage is it heritage or just the next evolution of various forms and how can genres be made “national icons” without such modifications which suit contemporary mores and political polemics?”

Mak Yong Male Dancers

Mak Yong Female Dancers


on “February 19th: A talk by Kathy Foley: Tangible Intangibles: Heritage and Performance in Bordered Worlds.
12 Comments on “February 19th: A talk by Kathy Foley: Tangible Intangibles: Heritage and Performance in Bordered Worlds.
  1. Kathy Foley’s excellent and lively presentation last week effectively laid out the political stakes of cultural preservation. Through the UNESCO ‘intangible heritage’ fund, countries around the world can apply to award certain art forms and performance traditions the cultural status and economic support that will help preserve these as part of a cultural heritage.

    The questions about gender, heritage, and cultural performance raised in these photographs are fascinating and haunting ones. I can’t help but want to link the intangibile-tanglibles of cultural heritage to the intangible-tangibles of gender. As a series of repeated acts that become sedimented upon the material bodies that perform them, gender is also a form of cultural heritage, a set of received gestures, patterns of movement, modes of dress, and expressions that are passed down from generation to generation. Like the changes in cultural performances and traditions that happen over time, as new generations experiment with old forms, performances of gender also evolve and are revised even as they are repeated (Butler’s famous idea of ‘a different kind of repeating’).

    But what if, as Kathy suggests here, the ‘different kind of repeating’ repeatedly leads (back) towards male dominated performance traditions? What is the implicit ‘gender heritage’ being preserved? It seems, perhaps, that the cultural institutions making the decisions to have men perform in place of women (and not vice versa) positively link male performing bodies with the economic success that would come from UNESCO intangible heritage investment. Is there another tangible ($$) intangible (cultural capital) relationship that is being rehearsed and sedimented in these performances of gender and heritage?

    This also makes me think of Elizabeth Freeman’s notion of ‘temporal drag’ in performance, which plays with associations of retrogression, delay, and the pull of the past upon the present (and vice versa) in the term drag. Is there something about performing for the eye of posterity, preservation, Heritage and History that urges (drags, pulls) institutions and performers to move towards male dominated performance forms, something that does not pull as strongly on more recently popular performance forms, such as the all-female Takarazuka review in Japan? There is much to be mined here from a feminist perspective, I am sure, and I thank Kathy for opening the can of in/tangible worms.

    Elise Morrison

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