Writing about people's everyday journeys in art
The ruler has already been a language teacher’s cane and a samurai sword dancing and slicing the air. Now, in the darkened studio, it’s being flicked at speed across a beam of light, allowing a few words to hover momentarily in the air, fragile, temporary. The artist, Hetain Patel, silently says how his father has worked hard for 45 years so that his son wouldn’t have to, how his father has fought some tough battles so that his son wouldn’t have to.
This is the poor parent’s mantra, the sacrifice of one’s self for one’s child. It is particularly the experience of migrants because the enormous decision to try to graft oneself onto a different tree is energised by the hope that things will be better. Eventually.
But as the flickering wand moves on, Hetain admits that, sometimes, he also wants to work hard. He also wants to fight his battles, if not like Bruce Lee then at least in making himself understood by his Chinese co-performer, or his audience.
Be Like Water is a remarkable performance in many ways. It’s funny, clever, moving and profound. More unusually still there is a real humility in the artist’s exploration of self in relation to others. Although it’s hard to imagine anyone disliking the piece, it never exploits its likeability. Grown out of the particular experience of a migrant’s child in late 20th century Britain it could not have been made at another time, in another way, by another person.
As I watched the unfolding of this beautiful, complex piece, filtering it through my own experience of hybrid identity, I felt growing dismay at the challenge I have set myself in Bread and Salt. This sets the bar so high. At the same time, the performance is also a sign of change in the art world, of accommodation if not acceptance. Perhaps those 45 years of hard work really have made things better.
Fortunately, though, we still have to work hard. And we each still have our own fights to win, whether or not our opponents are actually there.
Be Like Water is on tour now, but there are only a few dates: if you are in Bournemouth, Lancaster or Manchester, do go. If you’re not, go anyway.