by Nathalie Johnston
The 8th installment of the R.I.T.E.S. International Performance event was held on a cool November evening at the Post Museum in Little India, Singapore. Rooted in the Ephemeral Speak upholds communication across international boundaries, rendering differences obsolete when it comes to artistic expression. It is no wonder that so many were in attendance on Friday November 5th, 2010 to catch a glimpse of artists from all over the world. The event opened with Lee Wen, a highly regarded performance artist himself, hailing from Singapore, singing an acoustic version of “Get Together” – an appropriate beginning to a meaningful event.
Thai artist Jittima Pholsawek first took the floor at 8 pm sharp. The creator of Womanifesto and a regular participant in Thailand’s Asiatopia, her experience is far-reaching and wide-ranging. Growing up in Thailand, Jittima, like many others in greater Southeast Asia, was raised with a deeply entrenched sense of history and identity; it is no wonder she began her performance in R.I.T.E.S. by describing a prop – a piece of thinly woven cloth, its smell resembling vinegar. She explained that the cloth is traditionally used in Thailand for royalty during a ceremony. It represents protection of the monarchy in Thailand, an entity to defend. She then held up 5 discs of hard wax and stated aloud that they symbolize the land. Land as representative of quality of life and belonging. She proceeded to caress the cloth, rub it over her face and body then hung it on the wall. She then took the wax discs and laid them out as stepping-stones on the floor. She stood on one, then two and rubbed the bottoms of her feet on the wax. She struggled to balance atop the two pieces but all the while she focused on her own body, the touch of the wax, her eyes on the cloth. In the background played traditional music, as though a band were performing right next to her. One can imagine the connection to her country, her history and how it defines her. Her feet firmly planted in the past and present of her country, the honoring of the traditional and contemporary through symbols of wax pieces and cloth. Shortly after stepping off the wax pieces, she took another piece of cloth and tightened it against her face, slowly inviting it into her mouth, chewing it slowly, taking in its scent and meaning. Her look was sick, focused and in ecstasy all at once.
Eventually she spit out the balled up piece of cloth, opened it up and tore it apart, strategically placing the pieces along the line of wax discs. It was based on that instinctual need to protect one’s own place of origin, not only with pride but also with talisman, something tangible to keep the land and its people safe. She moved on to a pile of photographs of mushroom clouds – the disheartening representation of man waging war against his own world – and taped each image on each side of the cloth hung on the wall. Her last testament? A hammer to the wax discs, the loud smack against the stone floor causing everyone in the audience to stiffen. Why do we destroy what is ours? How can we stop it? Where is our protection?
Jittima Pholsawek often works with societal issues of migration and hardship due to natural and human tragedies. Her strength of conviction relating to such issues showed through her work on November 5th and spoke volumes to the international audience present.
American artist Eric Scott Nelson, currently residing in South Korea, followed Jittima’s thought-provoking work with an equally intriguing commentary on communication. The audience shifted to a room with an amp, microphone and white wall, onto which a video could be projected. Eric sat cross-legged on the floor and opened a drawing pad, his head down, a camcorder in one hand and the microphone in the other. He began in a low voice, explaining his desire to communicate in pictures rather than words with the city of Singapore. His past works often involve the exploration of language and relationships of a place. Perhaps it relates to his own extensive travels – consistently feeling foreign in a foreign place and, by extension, finding new ways to communicate with his surroundings. The camera focused on each page he turned, showing pictures of ordering food, buying drinks or asking directions. Eventually he came to a street map, where he wrote the word “communicate” using the street corners as letter angles. He calls these his word maps. He continued flipping through the drawing notebook, showing his conversations in pictures with those he met in Singapore. He never once looked up. He kept his head down and used the camera to show his work, enlarged on the wall in front of him. All that echoed was his voice. It was an emotional testament to the trials of conversation in cross-cultural situations, in addition giving strength of purpose to the fundamental use of pictures.
He then involved the audience, by slowing walking around the room, inspecting each face closely with his camera. He said “this is the way I want to communicate with you – maybe we can communicate this way in the future.” He skipped from face to wall to spot on the floor, speaking or watching with his camera, all the while breathing into the microphone. Perhaps the most intriguing part of the work was when he began to speak his own language, a high pitched gibberish which he addressed each audience member with, putting them on the spot, in an awkward state of confrontation and friendliness. Most reacted well, saying one thing or another, offering him a glass of wine, and many responded in a version of the language he was using, causing random eruptions of laughter. It was a light-hearted attempt to convey the interactions between people, sometimes trying and other times pure delight.
It seemed that his mission to communicate came full circle. In pictures, in language, in friendship and discomfort. The audience reactions were a form of a communication in themselves.
Him Lo, from Hong Kong, had a more public artistic display in mind. His performance, the third in the series of R.I.T.E.S 8, moved onto the streets of Little India, a particularly interesting spot for a public performance because of the throngs of people in the streets at all times. People often crowd due to spectacle and that is exactly what happened to Him Lo. He began by crawling down the alley, black paint covering his head, face, arms and hands. He wore a white shirt and black pants. He proceeded slowly on all fours, down the alley, across the busy street to the other side where he picked up a cardboard box, which he then dragged under his hands and knees back across the streets. It was an arduous journey, dragging his knees along the pavement. It was clear that the action was representative of a struggle, some kind of human suffering. This went on until he had a pile of cardboard on the ground in the alley. He pulled a box cutter out of his pocket and went to work. By this time, a hundred people were crammed into the tiny alley, watching and waiting, most having no idea that this was a performance work.
At the end of the performance, the boxes had become a home with a roof and a doorway, above which was painted the words “RENT HKD$999999, call [number],” with the paint from his own arms, hands and face. The work not only addresses the rising prices of real estate in Hong Kong and greater Asia but, more specifically, the questioning of the urban sprawl, the struggle of the city environment and the things humans endure to live in such a congested and demanding space.
Belgian artist Alice De Visscher followed Him Lo’s performance with her own interpretation of body and objects. Inside the small museum, she positioned herself in a doorway between two brick walls. Behind her were stacked dozens of sponges, cut and stacked to look like bricks. She carefully built a wall between herself and her audience, laying sponge one by one until the wall was well over her small frame. She slowly extracted one sponge at a time. At the bottom, a sponge was removed and in its place was her foot, peeking out from the tall yellow sponge wall. The second sponge removed was replaced by another sponge, this time perpendicular to the rest of the wall rather than fitted within the crevices. The third sponge was removed and in its place, a small hand rested on the wall. The fourth and final sponge removed was replaced by a part of Alice’s face. After a minute had passed, she broke out of the wall, sponges flying everywhere. Almost immediately, she began retrieving each sponge and placing it between her legs and the wall, building herself into her sponge sculpture. After realizing she could not complete the project herself, audience members assisted in making her a part of the museum structure, with sponge and body.
Eventually she broke out of her own wall as well. The audience was endeared and to confirm this fact, host of the event and artist Lee Wen followed the work by calling Alice a “comedian performance artist.” Perhaps she was addressing something quite intangible but her methods were approachable and amusing. Alice often considers the preconceived definitions of materials in order to further challenge and, in some cases, disprove them. This was an example of the use of the body in tandem with the object to create something new and active.
Next was Cheng Guang Feng, an artist from China, who collected objects from audience members in a big red bucket. He led the audience into an adjacent room in the museum, where the same speaker (which Eric had used earlier) was set up with the microphone. In the corner was a small table, on which Guang Feng dropped each individual object, one by one on the microphone – the sound of each object, some light some heavy, echoed through the space in a rhythmic sequence. He then moved the table to the center of the room and played with the objects and their respective sounds. Back to the corner the table went and Guang Feng repeated the act of the echo, only this time taking the objects and dropping them back in the bucket, which was propped on top of the microphone. At the drop of the last object, Guang Feng bent down to the microphone and said, “The sound in here comes from everyone.
It was a simple series of actions but it spoke to the musical ear of the audience in addition to the personal aspect of object to owner. Sounds can be interpreted just as easily as objects and Cheng Guang Feng highlighted this often-neglected comparison in his performance.
Following Guang Feng’s performance, the audience was asked to leave the space for 10 minutes while staffers prepared the next performance by Singaporean artist Lynn Lu. The building of anticipation was incredibly successful. As audience members re-entered the museum space, all was pitch black except for a man sitting in the middle of the room. A table was placed before him and on the table, a heavy antique book and dozens of tea light candles. The man had already begun exploring the text aloud, which read like an encyclopedia. The text discussed light, its origins and various findings on light by scientists over the years. The candles flickered all around the book and its reader. One candle stood alone under the table, in front of the audience. It was as if one had traveled back in time, listening to a story by candlelight, and absorbing knowledge the only way one could before we had information at the click of a button.
Lynn Lu entered the space carrying a tall cylindrical glass vase, which she placed carefully over a group of candles, snuffing them out within seconds. This continued with different vases of all shapes and sizes. One giant vase was placed over the solitary candle on the floor. All the while the man kept reading, rarely faltering, about light and all its characteristics. All around him, the candles were slowly being extinguished. As the room grew darker, the reader slowed and Lynn Lu methodically put out the candles, until there was none left. It was a moving testament not only to the transfer of information between people but the history of light, how we define it and how it, in turn defines us. Furthermore, if that light defines us, then does not the dark hold a place of equal importance in our lives?
This installment of R.I.T.E.S. had no theme and held no expectations of what was meant to be conveyed or achieved. Even my own testament through writing surely does not do justice to the work of these diverse artists, whose repertoire reaches far beyond the confines of performance art. What is important was that R.I.T.E.S. is a happening – a creation of space and time carved out for artist thinkers who share with an audience their interpretative actions and thoughts on environment, object, material and communication.
Nathalie Johnston is originally from the United States, though recently completed a Master’s course in Singapore at the Sotheby’s Institute. Her completed thesis explored the origins and anatomy of contemporary performance art in Myanmar. She currently works as a freelance critic and curator.
(All photos by Jason Lee)