A Chinese artist named Lin Bo constructs a jail cell in his New York City apartment: It’s a re-creation of the cell in which he himself was imprisoned, back in Beijing. Then he advertises it on Airbnb for a dollar a night, and videos his guests’ every movement while they’re inside.
Sounds like a provocative piece. It also sounds a lot like some other famous works of art: Ai Weiwei’s “S.A.C.R.E.D.,” or Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1978–1979 (Cage Piece). Exhibition notes explain that Bo is paying homage to these works — but as it turns out, Bo doesn’t exist, and it’s playwright Christopher Chen who’s toying with our desire to believe what we’re told: by artists, curators, and “experts” of every kind. Chen’s dark meta-comedy, Caught — now in its New York premiere, directed by Lee Sunday Evans — is a smart, self-assured meditation on the politics of truth, in art and in life.
Bo’s installation, “documented” in La MaMa’s lobby, launches a series of playful scenarios, each of which Chen unfurls just long enough for us to get comfortable, then cheerfully dismantles to reveal it as fiction, plagiarism, or lie. Bo (Louis Ozawa Changchien) arrives in person to deliver an artist talk, expanding on the horrors of his imprisonment (filthy conditions, harsh interrogations), but no sooner have we applauded his resilience than the backdrop shifts. We’re now in the offices of the New Yorker, which has just run a profile of Bo, only to receive embarrassing emails from an expert on Chinese prisons revealing that Bo’s story couldn’t possibly be true. The journalists have summoned Bo to “clarify” his tale, but are soon screaming recriminations at him instead. Bo’s being interrogated, all right, just not in the way he described.
Before we can register shock or dismay, Chen yanks the frame away: Performers announce that this histrionic scene was only a play, written by prominent Chinese artist Wang Min (Jennifer Lim), who appears onstage for a question-and-answer session about the performance we’ve just witnessed. But rather than explaining her provocative drama, Min turns the spotlight back on her American interlocutor, a curator (Leslie Fray) delighted to be presenting Min’s work in the U.S. What motives drive Americans to seek out Chinese artists? Min asks — perhaps the desire to feel both generous and culturally superior? What prejudices haunt our intercultural relationships, and especially our assumptions about what’s true and false?
Caught was inspired partially by the scandal surrounding Mike Daisey’s The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, in which the theater artist infamously fabricated details about conditions in Chinese factories making Apple products, then presented them as true — both onstage and on the radio program This American Life. To Chen, the incident was telling: both in how “truth” shifts according to medium, and in Americans’ eagerness to believe the worst of China. Truth isn’t just relative and medium-specific, Chen shows us; it’s racialized and nationalized, sorted into categories according to how closely it conforms to what we already believe.
Under Evans’s direction, Caught‘s cascading series of revelations unfolds crisply, set against shifting white backdrops that give the impression we’re in an art gallery, and a theater, at once. Toward the end, the flats slide open and we see the performers who portrayed Bo and Min in what seems to be their natural habitat: checking iPhones, munching McDonald’s. And yet: They’re sitting in a brightly lit white cube, no larger than Bo’s bedroom jail cell. Is it possible they, too, are actors, performers, fakes?
There’s a frame around every fact, Chen suggests. Theater, an art form in which no one’s who they say they are, helps us see it.
By Christopher Chen
66 East 4th Street
Through September 24