FOR GODS ONLY

Swiss art photographer Hannes Schmid (born 1946) is guided by the principle of coincidence: ever vigilant, he travels the world, pausing only for the unusual; and yet his method is routinely premised on meticulous preliminary study of a given motif. Such an empathic approach requires not only time and patience, but respect and understanding as well, as in the case of the Chinese theatrical ensemble whose performances are traditionally reserved “for Gods only”, but which granted Schmid the privilege of working with them after the artist had paid his dues over years of attendance.
In 1998 Schmid had what seemed to be a clandestine encounter in the mean streets of Singapore, where a troupe of Chinese players were performing a religious ceremony-cum-Gesamtkunstwerk for an imaginary audience. The musical drama Schmid witnessed was an outgrowth of the Teochew clan’s rendition, itself a sub-genre of Chinese ritual street opera. The form, handed down by oral tradition from generation to generation within a given clan via secret rites, was brought to Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand by south Chinese immigrants in the early 19th century. The operatic ritual, governed by a strict symbolism and preordained casting, comprises theatre, music and singing, as well as dance enriched with martial posturing. Since the foundation of the Thian Hock Kheng temple in Singapore in 1840, the spectacle has been produced on or near the grounds of the Taoist shrine, where a simple wooden stage has been erected especially for the performances. Its ad hoc character and improvised theatrics, together with the incineration of paraphernalia and paper costumes, are an index of the ephemeral and otherworldly aspects of an operatic genre virtually fated for extinction by natural attrition.
The Gods provide the true occasion for the ceremonial production, which aims at once to honour and to propitiate them, as well as to secure their support for the members of the immigrant community; and thus the performance of piety also includes contact with the divinities and the making of votive offerings. At the same time, brief apotropaic interludes serve to ward off evil spirits and to purge the stage of profanity before the ritual proper commences.
In his series “For Gods Only”, created between 2005 and 2007 and inscribed in its present form in 2010 by Chinese master calligrapher Simon Huang, Schmid addresses the work – and inevitable disappearance – of the Kim Eng theatre troupe, which he accompanies faithfully until the preparations for their very last show.
The photographer’s intention is to join the perception of the reality and authenticity of each production with that of its supernatural and imaginary aspects – in which aim he is successful, not only in terms of the typically reduced, deliberately monochrome vocabulary of his prints, but in his conveyance of their symbolic content as well. Collaborating with the calligraphic artist and in homage to the tradition’s inscribed stage sets, he superimposes on his photographs meticulously selected Chinese characters, whose redness renders the world of the Gods vividly present. The ideograms themselves, applied directly to the photographs in acrylics, underscore the ritual, its premises and the invocation of the Gods, while the imagistic nature of the Chinese characters harmonizes with this photographic record of a particular theatrical world. Indeed, the characters chosen have an expressive weight that goes well beyond their immediate significance. What is more, the Chinese calligraphy used in this work is performative and requires bodily action for its realization, a balance of cognition and intuition and thus one of Schmid’s recurrent topics. It inspires physical and spiritual calm in its viewers, a tribute to nature surely worthy of emulation by the players as well.
“For Gods Only” comprises 138 photographic pieces and a multipart video work. Its contribution to the preservation of world culture has won the art project the patronage of UNESCO.
A new edition of the 2008 documentary film has been awarded in 2011 with the prestigious Delphic Art Movie Award in Berlin (Special Prize «Protection of Intangible Heritage»).

Ildegarda E. Scheidegger, Zurich, 2010