Pan Daijing on how power, strength and alienation inform her wide-ranging work as a musician and artist.

This feature was originally published in Fact’s A/W 2020 issue, which is available to buy here.

Under different circumstances, Fact would love to be able to start an essay on Pan Daijing’s work with an encounter. Daijing—born in Guiyang, a city in southwestern China, and based since 2016 in Berlin — makes audiovisual performances that, particularly of late, have a stake in liveness that breaks with the recent hopes of musicians and artists, record labels and galleries that a livestreamed transmission will be enough.

Though I’ve spent a good deal of time with Pan Daijing’s recorded music, which is piercing in its own right, I haven’t been in the room for any of the full-scale operas she has staged in the last several years (most recently, Dead Time Blue at Berlin’s Martin Gropius Bau in January 2020, and late 2019’s Tissues in the Tanks of the Tate Modern in London). The documentation of these events amounts to an incomplete multisensory collage: hours-long selections of video and audio, still photographs, Daijing’s writing. To piece together a work as if these disciplinary elements — all of which have an interconnected and inextricable place in the artist’s practice — are somehow distinct seems to steer me, the distant viewer, in the wrong formal direction.

But when we speak over FaceTime, Daijing’s forthcoming operas are on pause anyway. Even before the coronavirus upended the production schedules of virtually everyone involved in making and disseminating art, live or otherwise, she was trying to take a break in order to figure out what to make next. She considers research the backbone of her practice, but what constitutes research is for her expansive, encompassing what one might call field work (touring and performing live) as well as reading (generally in philosophy and psychology) and watching films. Even listening to music has been somewhat on hold, as it seems to activate too much in her mind—though she’s found pleasure of late, she says, in listening to old Burial, concrete music, and makeup tutorials.

Solitude, she tells me, is in her view crucial to maintaining the “pure state of mind” necessary to do authentic and original creative production: “In Chinese philosophy, we talk about this figure playing his ancient instrument alone deep in the mountain. The notes are sparse and simple, almost blended into his sonic surroundings, but you can hear his state of mind in its sound, and that’s how he talks to the mountain, which was his only company. I grew up in a city which is built 1200 meters high in the mountains, and I see myself like that.” And yet, because of the demands of her touring and production schedules, such seclusion has been difficult to come by. “I’ve been trying to stay on the quiet side so that I can clear out the fog and let things reveal themselves to me,” she says. “The philosophical being often comes after the physical and emotional being and I want to give more chances for that persona to speak up.”

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, to use something like a daydream as a point of entry. Near the end of our conversation, and trying to get a sense of what’s to come, I ask her what space, without limitations, might be the ideal venue for a forthcoming work. Daijing recounts a response she gave to a curator’s post-opening “What’s next?” query: “It would be really amazing if I could abduct the audience and bring them on a proper trip without them knowing that they’re being taken to a place,” Daijing says. The concept of a “trip”, in the psychedelic sense, has already been thrown around throughout our conversation in reference to the capacity of sound: “I would create an experience that they felt is special and just for them, like something they wouldn’t expect—and for me as well: I wouldn’t know who or how many people are coming. I would want to work with a very clean space, like a desert or a cliff by the sea. Very minimal color, simple stuff: just one tiny person in this great big vast void. And then we’d do the concert in this space, everyone together in this huge void.” Everyone together in this huge void: there’s a binding idea for what Daijing makes possible.

In order to find a language with which to call forth this void — a lonely and severe process — Daijing has taken on various roles and media, combining sound, movement and image. One less abstract—and also less holistic, and frankly more dull — way of describing what she does might be locating it at the so-called intersection of experimental music and the art institution, within a growing cohort of artists whose work, originating in sound, has spilled out of the containers offered by music venues and record labels. It finds an imperfect, but nonetheless accommodating home in art institutions increasingly invested in (live) performance; crucially, it also finds funding. In any event, Daijing distances herself from distinctions, asking us to think outside of containers altogether. “I don’t feel comfortable labelling myself based on others’ definition of profession,” she says. “Whether I’m taking on the role of artist, composer, director, performer, or designer, I merely view myself as a storyteller.”

But Daijing’s roots are in noise, and sound is still primary: a language, or an alternative to language, that makes possible some deeply felt communication and communion from that isolated place in the void where Daijing’s work originates. “I’ve always worshipped sound, sonic experience,” she says. Conjuring another dreamlike scenario, she recounts an experience on psychedelics where, sitting in a creek, “I felt like all my other senses were overpowered, and my ears were gigantic. And I could hear the water touching the rocks, I could hear the wind travelling from far away to touch the leaves. I really felt like, how arrogant I am, to think I make music! I don’t make music, music is there, and my ears are built to reveal it to me.”

She links this expansive conception of music to the way she experienced sound growing up without music proper as part of her everyday life. “To me, sonic experience can be many different things: it can be a car crash, for example,” she explains. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have music, but I had sonic experiences, so I understand the concept of music in a different way.” For one thing, those experiences invoked other senses, which, she says, “shows in my work: I personally think music is way beyond sonic experience. It’s an ultimate art form that combines all these triggers on the senses.” Memories, landscapes, films, paintings and movement all call forth this multisensory exchange. An arc forms out of Daijing’s first releases as a noise artist, which are built from searing and unvarnished synthesis, venturing into industrial propulsion but always maintaining a greyscale asceticism. In the short window of time between Daijing’s 2015 debut tape for Noisekölln, Sex & Disease, and 2017’s Lack, a full-length album released by PAN, one can hear the artist expanding her tools of communication, gaining command of new intensities in addition to, and beyond, the roiling electricity of pure noise.

The role of the voice on Lack seems in particular a turning point. The music on that record is on the whole remarkably controlled, developing a sense of narrative that was not nearly so palpable on Daijing’s earlier releases. It is itself a form of opera, and seems to nod to a less contained version of itself: within a composition, one might ricochet between claustrophobia and an unsteady sense of vastness. The record affects in a spatial, bodily kind of way that, one imagines, would only escalate if one shared a room with its elements in real time. And within this milieu, Daijing’s use of vocals is less an interjection of a human presence than an emulsifying force, a reminder that the totality of what we’re hearing is mined from human experience.

Furthermore, the operatic voice within her work—hers, or that of any of the singers she directs—complicates the notion of performed vocals acting as the source of intimacy within a composition. It’s not always natural, nor is it always narrative; or sometimes it’s so natural—guttural, instinctual, a groan or a piercing note more immediate than verbal language—that it unsettles. The voice, Daijing says, is singular, “the most vulnerable instrument a person has”, one that necessarily alters with time and experience, and one that can be shaped and trained—though, at least in the case of the performers she works with, not necessarily controlled. Still, vulnerability and control are symbiotic forces within her practice, both formally and in Daijing’s sense of herself as a performer. She describes how early in her career, her openness was met with being taken advantage of, “even by the audience sometimes”. Rather than disavowing such openness altogether, learning to self-protect seems to have made possible the vulnerability that she calls “a necessary step in my work”: “I’m braver than before. I have the courage to do things I wouldn’t have done.”

Vulnerability is also about achieving a certain level of exchange with her audience, a tool by which she cultivates an environment in which it’s possible for onlookers to feel secure enough, perhaps even themselves brave enough, to engage. “If I’m asking for this kind of trip or journey together, I want people to feel like they won’t be judged, no matter what happens,” she explains. “Music gives me power and strength; I have survived because of music. So I know where the power is at, and I know what it can do. And I hope I can reproduce that for others in my work.” As much as Daijing and her music acknowledge her experiences on the receiving end of power, she seems presently most curious about the power she wields herself.

And perhaps it’s this ongoing question of power, and Daijing’s attunement to — and growing ability to welcome and even possess — forces of seeming immensity, both emotional and aesthetic, that makes her practice paradoxically one that’s increasingly about shared experience. “There’s a big flood of doom, thick liquid that drowns me from inside,” she tells me. “I’m unable to let it out through words or communicate it on a daily basis, and the only place for me to breathe is through my work. There’s no other choice.” Daijing’s work begins with alienation; it’s a sensation she returns to, whether in her sense of herself in the world, or the image of the lone performer summoning the beautiful enormity of noise. Like vulnerability, it’s a necessary stage in her process, and one thinks, again, of her description of the lone musician on a mountaintop. But she seems propelled as well by a yearning for community, and equally inspired by the solutions she finds to this alienation, generally in others’ art: an encounter with Pauline Oliveros, with whom she played in Montreal shortly before the electronic pioneer’s death, or the reading she does — currently texts by Artaud, R. D. Laing, and Bachelard. “I feel very much alone in the creative process, so connection through reading brings me a sense of belonging,” she says. “It’s a force for me to carry on.”

Without bringing, let’s say, the fruits of this alienation before others, Daijing’s work would not be realised. “I experience myself through the experience of others experiencing my work, and this contributes to continuous developments in my projects,” she says. The most important part of her process, she emphasises, “is touring as a live musician. My shows form a sort of autodidactic research in the hyper-vulnerability of the performer, their connection with the audience and the conditioning effect of location and environment.” And yet beyond research, there is again the possibility of sharing intensity, everyone together in the void. By coming to understand people, “the strength and weakness they contain”, Daijing is able, “hopefully, to form a sense of community through the experience [her] work generates”.

“Language itself is beyond words, music is beyond sound, and art is eventually beyond life,” she says. “It’s not about me being understood or acknowledged, it’s more about how we come together in this trip during the experience of my work, and what we are left with.” The forced isolation we’re faced with — Pan and I and everyone we know — is not necessarily a barrier to experience, but something that has to be studied with openness such that, when liveness is possible, we’ll be open to that as well.

WORDS: Thea Ballard
PICTURES: Matt Lambert

STYLIST: Larissa Bechtold
HAIR AND MAKEUP: Jana Kalgajeva
PRODUCTION: Jannis Birsner
DANCER: Mickey Mahar
RETOUCH: 100 Berlin

This feature was originally published in Fact’s A/W 2020 issue, which is available to buy here.

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