Ancient Old Things – Annie Katsura Rollins
I work with old things, really old things: Chinese shadow puppets. The intricately carved leather figures are old and have an even older history. And, every time I hold one, I feel their accumulated past, heavy in my hands: their age is on them and in them.
I was initially pulled to them because of this oldness, this weight. Living in the modern Western world, I feel increasingly distressed by our growing preoccupation with newness and planned obsolescence. I still hate to throw things in the garbage or buy something I can’t pass onto the next generation – but there are only so many times you can darn a sock or glue your pleather wallet back together. The stuff of our world is meant for now and only now.
Certainly, my attraction to the shadow puppets was motivated by a fetishization and nostalgia around ancientness: a hope that by sheer proximity, the shadow puppets would teach me something better, smarter, wiser. And they did. Mostly, that nothing is forever and old is just a word to express the impermanence of everything.
In the fictional world of absolute permanence, the words old, age, and ancient have less meaning. Without a beginning or end point, what can age communicate? Not much, with all things existing equally alongside each other. But in this real world of absolute impermanence, old or aged importantly delineates our current place on an individual timeline in relation to someone/something else’s – because no age is absolute. I mean, how old is old? And how old is ancient? My old is not your old. North America’s old is not China’s old. Humans’ ancient is not the earth’s ancient. Even objects that seem permanent in their relation to a human lifespan are not immune. Stonehenge will eventually disintegrate, as will the pyramids, the palaces, and the pineapples. “A thing is just a slow event” (Stanley Eveling, quoted in Kirshenblatt-Gimblett 2004, 59).
It gives me some comfort. To know that my old socks past darning and my shredded wallet are older, much older and have lived longer than any mosquito’s life makes me feel less guilty, less unsatisfied. But, I still feel pulled to the older-than-me things. They create longer instances of meaning making for me. “Although artifacts are produced at particular moments, their persistence creates histories” (Grassby 2005, 593).
Not everyone loves these old things as I do. To many, they are rightfully unimportant, long on historical burdens and no longer relevant in our daily consciousness. Things that have aged past their prime, a tacitly decided median along their chronologies, are given a pitiful look or none at all. The unconscious exclusion is what I find most disheartening.
After a few years conducting fieldwork and apprenticeship with the practitioners of Chinese shadow puppetry, I realized that the prejudice of old is divided in its expression between objects and, well, us. Whenever I shared my stories and experiences about the aging artists that had literally put their life on the line to continue practicing through a number of revolutions in China and outright bans on performance in the 1900s, I got blank stares and just a few furrowed brows. But, sharing stories with audiences about the ancient shadow puppets elicited coos and genuine curiosity.
Everyone wanted to touch, examine, and possess these beautiful old objects. No one wanted to touch, question, or congratulate the artists.
Could the reason for this allergy to oldness be as pedestrian as our fear of death? To look something old and aged in the eye is to see our own crippling future? I don’t get it. I am comforted to know that age is also a slow process, filled with new learning, innovation, and sweatpants. To talk to these older artists, I am comforted to know I don’t have to finish everything right now. There is time.
Certainly a large part of the prejudice is also culturally born. Within a month of researching in China, I realized I wanted to retire there. There, one doesn’t recede into the bricks of an old persons home, never to be heard from again, once they reach the ripe old age of 58. No. Instead the Chinese elders are given automatic membership to the coolest, widest network of oldness around the mainland: parks, dance clubs, musical groups, impromptu karaoke parties, and outdoor exercise gyms are all at your exclusive disposal. The most honored seat at the dinner table? Yours. The coveted fish eyeball on the platter? Yours.
No question. You get the best stuff and those that try to deny you will be shamed. That seems more like it to me.
When we age, our age is on us and in us. Irreplaceably accumulative experiences all bottled up in our time-honored bodies. Sure, my fear of death and rejection will make me cringe at my creeping grey hairs, but I do hope that my initial appreciation of old things and their makers will help expand my tacitly accepted place on the chronology of age. I will try, too, to coo and express genuine interest when I meet others who are further along their chronology than I am. I will press to touch, question, and congratulate the ancient old things, hoping to become one myself someday.
Grassby, Richard. “Material Culture and Cultural History.” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History 35.4 (2005): 591-603.
Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. “Intangible Heritage as Metaculture Production.” Museum International 56.1-2 (2004): 52-65.
Annie Katsura Rollins is a research practitioner and theatre maker who works at the intersection of traditional Chinese shadow puppetry, visual ethnography, and the evolution of traditional forms into our modern age. She was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship in rural China to apprentice with the last remaining shadow puppet practitioners in seven provinces. As a theatre designer, maker, and performer, her historical and practical research about traditional art informs every aspect of her creative and performative work. As such, Annie works hard not to appropriate ancientness for her own nostalgic pleasures, but to make present the lineage of artists, objects, and storytelling that has continued unbroken throughout humans’ short time on earth.
Annie is currently pursuing an interdisciplinary PhD at Concordia University in Montreal on the transmission of traditional Chinese shadow puppet making methods. Recent venues for exhibitions, lectures, and performances include The Art Institute of Chicago, The Montreal Botanical Gardens, The Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, the Virginia Fine Arts Museum, the Linden Center in Yunnan China, and the Rietveld Academie in the Netherlands. Annie frequently publishes in Puppetry International and has recently published an article in Asian Theatre Journal. www.anniekatsurarollins.com