An interview with Lee Wen, Kai Lam and Melati Suryodamo

12 02 2011

It was a hectic first week and many of us were still hung over the New Year celebrations. The Sub-city Rockers program of home-grown alternative music blasted the Substation as they started the New Year’s line-up of artists both new and familiar giving us performances with refreshing promise. The three-storey Substation had ended 2010 with works from Khairuddin Hori (Us and Them and You) and the annual Graey Festival, a plethora of contemporary performing artists from South and Southeast Asia. Singapore’s art scene began the year buzzing with Art Stage Singapore held from 12th till 16th January bringing to our shores the likes of Germany based, Indonesian artist Melati Suryodamo, thanks to Valentine Willie Fine Art. This short trip to Singapore gave R.I.T.E.S. the chance to invite Melati in their inaugural 2011 program. A hiccup with approval of the permit for artist Seelan Palay did not set back the tone of the day. Sha Najak who attended the event found that a review of the show would not show justice and resorted to interviewing the artists individually about their performances. Lee Wen, Kai Lam and Melati Suryodamo tell Sha Najak the concepts behind their latest performance presented for R.I.T.E.S. held at The Substation on 15 January.

(SN=Sha Najak / MS=Melati Suryodamo / LW=Lee Wen / KL=Kai Lam)

SN: The first part of your performance looked like it was set in a bedroom. Was this what you intended it to be?

MS: If the image has given you a scene of a bed room, I accept that. But for me it is about going out of from a home, through the door and sleep out of the common space. I wanted to bring out the anxieties of stepping out and the fear that every child might have when they leave their parents home.

SN: Tell me about the part where you danced on stage with a red cloth. What was it about?

MS: For this performance I tried to formulate my understanding about gestures of homeless people. When I was travelling to some places, I observed homeless people on the streets, under the bridges, in front of the shops, the market, etc.  I’ve not seen many homeless people in Singapore.

It is related to my personal stage of being homeless or not having the real sense of rootedness. I lost it gradually and have been reducing the concept of home, back into the most minimal state of it, which is the body and nothing else.

I was not intending to move around and travel to different places, but more about releasing the possession of materials that bound my life. It is such a relief to be in a state of mind where there is nothing to lose. All dimensions were reduced into a narrow scope, and the big world out there feels like a wave of air, bringing me from one spot to another spot. It does not matter where. Like a little fish in the ocean, like a bird moving over the continent, like the sand in the river.

SN: What was going through your mind with the marching scene? Is it an ode to your native country, Indonesia?

MS: Actually it has nothing to do with any specific country. But the military gestures, came up to my mind when I remember how our mentality was educated to build up our nationalism. Yes sure, I received this indoctrination when I was a child. When our country cannot protect us and respect your basic human rights, how are we supposed to relate to nationalism? And why nationalism? Some children in Russia are military trained and prepared for war deliberately. They were told, to be ready to protect the country from enemies Ideology and politicians are using their young generation to form the the future of their country.

SN: The final part of your work is a scene where you cut out square boxes from a book of world maps. What was going through your mind?

MS: I refer to the idea of the world without borders, which is utopian. The borders exist and since they exist the world is divided into different kinds of classes. The idea of global market has not been a successful result. It overlaps older issues and brings the world into a different dimension. Recent political situation is an effect of a big change from the old form of polarization into new polarization. But polarizations are still there. If our humanity is not maintained, soon we will be losing trust on people’s origins, culture and respect to their beliefs. Cutting a square, making a hole on the map book, feels to me like digging the globe instead of embarrassing it.

SN: There were 3 parts to your performance – the folk music, the tea serving, the performance with the red slippers/red pail/box filled with fake defecate. The whole performance was called Anyhow Blues Project and I can see this in the folk music as well as tea serving. How does the third part (improvisation with red pail/slippers and box of feces) tie in with the Anyhow Blues Project?

LW: It is not very much a structured performance. I did it like a stream of consciousness through some songs I play and I talk a little about what the next song or previous one was about as I make some related or unrelated actions. For example, with the fake shit,  it refers to “same old shit” as in when history repeats itself. I sing a song with reference to licensing and censorship referring to Kurt Cobain and Nirvana’s visit in 1991, hence the dewberry perfume which was Cobain’s favorite perfume and sprinkled it on the plastic shit for the audience to sniff. I see this as an “anti-performance performance” as much as I see performance art as an “anti-disciplinary discipline” as Marvin Carlson in his definitive book termed it. A few years back we had a forum  organized questioning “Is performance art in a state of menopause?” Doing performance art can be as safe and complacent as any other genre of art as it becomes widely accepted into the mainstream. Yet many who take their “cutting edge” or avant-garde status for granted. In my attempts at working with ballet music or folk songs I try to look back in time and history at the same urge that is making work based on my personal life situation and current changes in society around me. I use the word ‘Anyhow’ as a cross-reference to Singlish to a make-do spirit but with an attitude in delivery i.e. Art based on conceptual thinking and philosophy. And not “anyhow anyhow”. So objects I use can be anything like a red bucket and a pair of clogs. Used in some focused actions, concentration of energies they just become dare I say it, “art” and I don’t mean dead art as in dead art.

SN: It was my first time learning that you survived Parkinson’s disease. To me, this is inspirational. Partly due to my experience in social work but also that you have picked up the guitar and started playing once again. Was there any connection of this in your ‘anyhow blues project’?

LW: I have been dealing with it since “Interakcje 2007” Piotrkow Trybunalski in Poland where I first got problems with moving my left fingers and left leg. At first I thought it was due to my scoliosis. After a wild goose chase with various doctors I found out it was Parkinson’s disease 3 years later. It had become so bad sometimes I could not type on the computer or open the door with a key or cut my own toenails. And I had played the guitar for a long time and used to do my own song which was why I got into performance, where I met and used to jam with Zai Kuning who read his poetry with The Artists Village in the past. Zai is the guitar maestro, I just do the basic chords but I liked making up songs with my own lyrics. So my first actions were readings, which I dropped out of eventually and when I went full swing into it I forget all about the guitar and songs. With medication now, my fingers start to move like it did before and while hanging out with Zai again after long years of going in different directions, it was such a joy to play the guitar and sing again that I had to get into the “Anyhow Blues Project”. It’s really a part of how I cope with my health as much as it’s a comment on society and life, and also about the trials and tribulations of friends like Zai and the Artists Village. As the songs were in the beginning mostly inspired while just spontaneously singing and playing about things we were talking about. There is much more about my relationship with language and music, death and suicide etc. as well. But I think you have to wait for the “book” in good time.

SN: Why did you serve blue tea to the audience? I recall you mentioned that the blue tea is good for detoxification. Is there an attempt to link this to for e.g., purification of the inside or were you trying to say that we should change within the self before seeing change on the outer self.

LW: For a start I work closely with visual images. So the blue tea strikes me as a visual rhyming with the blues I sing. And I do have a self-destructive nature, which is probably why my body is fucked, but I get back to the cleansing again and again. I am embodying my own contradiction and my life has always been a struggle to reconcile them that is how I see it. I admit that there is something rotten about me. My dig is that I am consciously trying to deal with what I think is relevant to others who may not notice it until maybe we make it available as art.

SN: One of your songs, ‘Art is Dead’ seems to reference local arts scene. Is this true?

LW: I try to relate what is happening to me in the local context as much as anywhere else. I find that the experience of globalization in Singapore is intense since the industrial age began. What happened here is even more intense because we are so exposed to the world and yet we’re a small island city-state, controlled by a nanny mentality government that I fear some of the not so egalitarian policies are spreading to the rest of the world without anyone noticing. There is a tendency to read into what is happening with the socially engineered cultural developments as all growth and generative in human consciousness but in truth this could actually killing or is killing our humanity quicker than we are aware of it. I hear more young artists make works based on research of what is happening in prize winning trends set by international branding and Mafioso curators rather than based on actual life experiences or their own evaluation of human values. The emphasis of our media in highlighting the success of artists are based on market value and their shameless repetition of tested formulas rather than research, innovations and explorations of new ideas or debate on social values and our human conflicts with power and evil. We are trivializing our humanity which is already extreme and dangerously surrendering our ethical core of civilization to greed disguised as progress, development and nation building. My song is a warning cry in desperation.

SN: You mentioned in your performance that your work touches on removing the self from representation. Could you elaborate more on this?

KL: My sound works allow me to remove myself from the visual representations temporarily. By removal, I meant sound works as an alternative to the visual culture. It allows me, to put away the obvious representations that come with a baggage of my cultural ethnicity and social / individual background as a visual artist.

This comment was made as a reference about sound based works in relation to performance art. Sound works are by nature non-visual and it shares inherent qualities with other performance forms as a ‘live’ expression performed to an audience in a given time and space. By non-visuals, it does not oppose the sensibilities of the visual but rather it exists as a parallel form of expression, at times merging into a singular inter-disciplinary art form.

SN: Have you ever done work on consumerism/environmentalism before?

KL: I am not working directly on ‘green’ issues or consumerism/environmentalism.  As a ‘global citizen’ living in a industrialised society, one cannot avoid ecological and environmental issues  as we come into daily contact with mass produced daily needs and contribution to impending wastages. I see ‘environmentalism’ or ‘consumerism’ as manufactured concerns, coming from a new 21st century schizophrenic consciousness that is arising out of our fears and aspiration for our heavily industrialised future. But more importantly to me, it is about individual direct actions and working out rational responses, not for, or against any movements, but observing, questioning and interacting through acts of art and maintaining a neutral position consistently. This is my artistic goal.

SN: You mentioned that you’re trained in visual arts but that your sound work is an extension of your visual art practice. How did you make the transition and where else will your work evolve into?

KL: I like to explore the hybrid in art, as each encounter brings me new perception on the processes and reproduction of art. By ‘evolve’ I assume you mean transitions or crossovers from various disciplines in my artistic work. When I was beginning to work as an artist in the mid-90s, I could not afford to rent a studio to work in, the question was how can I transform my art production into processes to respond to my personal accessibility? So I did away with the traditional studio framework of art-making and I found a process in performance art, producing more site-specific and material-based works of ephemeral nature. It transformed my outlook about art greatly, but I am still engaged in ‘traditional’ forms of art making constantly.

Traditional art forms like sculpture and painting are equally important in cross-genre works, the ‘inter-disciplinarian’ way of working by artists has been going on since a long time, it becomes more evident in this era as ‘art’ is constantly being analysed and categorised to fit into a perceived cultural framework to serve certain functions. To me, it’s the ability to integrate different forms of creative practices into an entire whole that is the ingenuity in art’s hybrid form.

SN: How did your trip in India impact on your practice? Can you talk more about what you will be doing in Varanasi?

KL: I think India has to be experienced in the real to be able to grasp a true understanding of the place, its people and its long history as one of the earliest human civilisation.  My words are mere descriptions, and will not be able to capture the true meanings of India here.

India inspires me to create, but at the same time, I am cautious about romanticising its cultural meanings and significance as an artist working with tendencies to ‘appropriate’ contexts or ideas. I had the possibility to re-invent my language in particular with recyclable materials as art. In my last trip to the southern states of India, through observation of the Indian people’s daily pragmatism and largely due to economical factors, recycling is like an industrial part of the Indian society. Recycling serves as an alternative way to use lesser mass consumer products, it also makes full use of a certain material and transforms it to give it a new function. This approach can contribute fairly to the ecological equilibrium and this is a model that can be appropriated into artistic productions.  For me it is insightful to experience how recycling can be a part of the everyday life in India, and it inspires me to adopt such approach in art making.

In Varanasi, I will be observing the Mahashivaratri festival. It is a holy festival where Hindu devotees worship Lord Shiva consistently for three days as a ritual of devotion to the Hindu god, and at the same time, there is also Drupad Mela (3-days festival of Indian music) by hundreds of musicians in the streets, numerous Hindu temples and Ghats along the Ganges River. To my tourist-gaze, it will be a carnival of music, colour, sound, in one of the holiest city on earth and I am looking forward to it!

(Photos by Jason Lee)

Affect, Ritual and Materiality in FADO’s Survey From Singapore.

27 12 2010

by Natalie Loveless


It is Friday, October 1, 2010. I enter the Toronto Free Gallery ready for Survey from Singapore, an evening of performance art featuring Amanda Heng, Kai Lam and Lee Wen. I am walking in with a bit of knowledge, culled from the artist’s own statements and my past familiarity with their work: Amanda Heng’s interdisciplinary art practice, addressing clashes between Eastern and Western values, traditions and gender roles in Singapore; Kai Lam’s social commentary performances that are a response to what he calls Singapore’s urban pluralism; and Lee Wen’s art/life works, questioning the ideologies and value systems of their Southeast Asian context. I am walking in with this general knowledge, but, as I find a corner to settle in and enjoy the evening, I find myself letting all of that go in favour of just seeing. Of course, there is no such thing as “just seeing.” Every “seeing” happens within a complex of association, banality, and interpretation. Nonetheless, I try.

Act One
The silence is broken with a gentle ringing. Amanda Heng stands at one end of the gallery, holding a ceremonial bowl. She runs a wooden mallet round and round its rim. A gentle clear sound fills the space, reminiscent of a Buddhist temple. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it grows in intensity. Then stillness. And again, silence. Focus. And a single, clear, “ding.”

A ritual beginning.

Heng moves to a table set up with a live feed projection against the gallery wall to her right. She places herself behind the table, gently, with purpose. Holding an orange up to the video camera she cuts it in half and places it face down on the table. Each action is intensified through the close-up of the live feed. In the darkened space of the gallery we can see the detail of the orange’s puckered skin as she inserts a stick of incense into it. She lights it. We are drawn into the magnified fire and then, slowly, the smoke. Into the detail of her hair against the smoke as it curls and rises. Into the materiality of her hand, projected to three or four feet in size. The grain of the image against the wall is seductive. Yet it is in the context of liveness that this seduction lives. It is the prosthetic invitation into the detail of the live action that I find so mesmerizing.

For ten minutes now Heng has been staring at the burning ember of the incense. The action has been nothing but a stare. Glancing at her body in space, I see very little. In the projected image, however, the incense burns, each millimeter of ash visible as it gathers, falls, and gathers again. Heng gives the action her full attention and, in turn, I give full attention to the details of her face, staring. The smell of incense fills the room. The materiality of the ash and smoke are rivaled only by the materiality of time passing. Heng’s action asks us – no, commands us – to stare, quietly, with her. We may disobey, but in the silence of the room there is nothing else to do but join her in the trance of the ash, with its slight glow, as it grows and falls. Flaccid. Mournful. Before the image, I am drawn into my own emotional landscape, drawn into a poetic commentary on the ravages of time.

Just then, the incense goes out and the gallery lights come up. I am slightly displaced by the bright whiteness of the space after such an intimate dimness. Heng hands out a set of 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper to the audience members closest to her and asks each to do an action with her. With the first participant she engages in a kiss mediated by the clean white sheet, their breath – it looks like her sucking in and him blowing out – holding the sheet in place. Another uses an elbow. Another a forehead. From the divided attention of the live feed we are brought into a kind of consummate presence. From silence and severity – the solemnity of the burning ash – to the humour of an absurd encounter between performer and audienceturned- performer. Three sheets. Three people. And the action is over.

With the audience engaged and brought into the performance, Heng opens a mat, lays it, again ceremoniously, across the gallery floor, and takes out a small booklet. What the booklet is isn’t clear – at least from my vantage point. She takes off her glasses and reads to herself. The book is then placed on the mat along with a small tablecloth. She puts her hands together in prayer and bows. Slowly up and slowly down. Lips moving soundlessly, Heng kneels on the mat. Hands reaching out and moving forward, she prostrates herself. Then, in a slow Yogic dance, she balances on her side. Then moves onto her back with hands overhead. And finally back to a frontal prayer with arms and legs up, balancing on her belly. Holding. Holding. A ritual prayer to what? We don’t know.

Throughout the performance we are brought in to her micro-movements. She lifts herself up and slowly gathers a series of objects, one by one from the table, and places them on the now consecrated floor. Ritual objects: another mat, a bolt of cloth, a bowl, a knife. And then, interspersed with these objects, a set of mundane objects: red boots, a bag out of which she takes a scarf, a bottle of water, a wallet, a shawl, a pair gloves, an umbrella. A performance art still-life. Sitting before the bowl – which looks, from here, as if it is filled with water – Heng picks up an ink brush and begins making what seems like calligraphic shapes in the air, but for all I know she is writing in English. Either way, the action is beautiful. Slow. Detailed.

In a way that lets us know that the action is almost complete, Heng folds the cloth that has been the ground for her calligraphy action, stacks the bolts of cloth over each other, and slowly rolls them up from left to right. Lifting the mass like a dead body she walks across the room and suddenly smacks it against the wall. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The audience moves away, reminded of performance art’s ever-present threat: get in my way and you may be collateral damage.

With a deep breath, Heng finishes the performance the way she began, with a ritual sounding – mallet against bowl. This time, however, she performs it walking across the room instead of standing still. With this action closing and cleansing the space, she turns to us and gently utters the first words that I have heard from her: Thank you for your time.

Act Two
We’ve had a small break during which the meditative quality of Heng’s performance has lingered. Meanwhile, I notice that the projector has been moved onto the floor at one end of the gallery, while the next artist, Kai, has quietly begun to set up his space. First he places lengths of wood against the wall. To this he adds a hammer, a license plate, some weeds in a small cup, a small lion statue, something in a bag, a motley pile of books, and a few other odds and ends that I can’t quite make out. He does this surreptitiously, while the audience is milling, glasses of wine in hand, socializing. Suddenly a loud POP grabs our attention. It seems to have come from a large bottle of something that might be Sprite or Tonic Water, but exactly how is unclear. Kai hammers some nails into the wall at the far side of the gallery, hangs up his coat, rips it purposefully, and catapults the soda bottle across the floor. All our attention now on him, he matter-of-factly takes each of the materials that he had placed against the gallery wall and repositions them in the middle of the space. I see now that there are also two picture frames, a small dish, and something that looks like chopsticks. He grabs the weeds and dumps them on the floor – a floor that is no longer a floor for us but has become a canvas for these objects.

Kai moves through the materials with an intensity that seems less ceremonial than driven. He stuffs some paper in a glass. Folds some paper. Takes it out. Folds it again. Stuffs it again – the action seems meaning-ful but use-less. There is a portrait on one piece of paper; another is ripped into two pieces. Kai reaches for the lion. Placing it in the center of the space he shakes the soda bottle into a frothy frenzy and rolls it across floor again. It hisses. He steps on the license plate, plays with a squeaky floorboard and then stops to make music with the two sounds. Floorboard and license plate. Squeak clack. Clack squeak. Engrossed in the process of working with the materials he creates a painting with objects in space… a concert of unconventional objects… an installation in the mundane. Any larger narrative – if there is one – is hidden behind the opacity and seeming randomness of the objects and actions. Instead, he asks us to simply go with him, accumulating detail and visual images, without knowing where they are going.

Kai shakes the bottle and throws it. The audience jumps. He repeats the action, more and more vigorously, teasing us with the threat of violence – whether in the form of the bottle ricocheting off the wall and into our midst or of its bursting and spraying us all. At one point he pretends to kick it into the audience, football style, but catches himself at the last minute, smiling mischievously. His actions are getting quicker – if that’s possible – and more animated. Somebody got a light? he asks. Can I borrow a light? An audience member hands him a lighter and he proceeds to light what looks like a wick placed on the top of the soda bottle and stick a rolled up piece of paper in a hole in the floor as the wick goes out with a hissing sound. The audience jumps but nothing happens. After a pause he breaks the butt off one cigarette, then a second, and offers one to someone in the audience. While smoking he holds the bottle up to the ears of the audience members seated closest to him. Do you hear? he asks. The bottle now spurting, he pours some liquid into small bowl, mixes something that looks like charcoal, and spreads it on his face. With an exaggerated smile he paints himself a mustache. Then, taking something – chocolate? – out of his pocket, he chews it, transforming his smile into a black mess. I can smell the cigarette smoke.

His improvisatory actions recall something of Amanda Heng’s performance, but where her actions were long, concentrated and reverent, his have the edge of mania. He does what looks like calligraphy with a brush on a ripped photocopy. Pours ink onto a stub of something dark. Goes over the calligraphy with an ink stick. Puts the photocopied sheets into frames and displays the framed pieces. Then, taking a tube of white paint out of his pocket, he squishes it onto his hand and covers the logo on his cap – a logo I didn’t even notice until he erased it. Rubbing white across his lips, he eats more of the chocolate. Black teeth. White mouth. He takes his cap off and paints on it: “I heart dalai” and puts it back on. He stands, in black-face, holding up the two pictures, smiling disturbingly.

With a pause to indicate, perhaps, that we are winding towards the end of the performance, Kai turns the projector on. At the far end of the gallery we see a fish swimming around in circles. To the right of the projection, he holds the first picture frame to the wall and hammers through it. He then holds the second one on top of the first and hammers through both of them. The noise is deafening. With the lion standing in the middle of the room, he puts black, blue and red paint on his palm, places his hand to the wall, and creates a trail reminiscent of Ana Mendieta’s 1974 “Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2)”.

Without warning he smashes the two framed pictures, glass flying. He picks up the lion, turns to the audience, and says This lion is a tourist symbol. Then grabbing an Ontario license plate Kai, hammer in hand, smashes it around and around the lion like some bizarre metalwork blanket. Lion encased and returned to the middle of the space, Kai plays with a small puppet, beheading it and then erecting a yardstick with black flag. Suddenly the images he is playing with have gathered a political edge. He hangs his hat on the wall and addresses the audience: Yours to Discover he says. The audience chuckles, recognizing the ubiquitous Ontario license plate motto.

The tension broken, Lam ends his performance with a story: he tells us of a Native People’s museum he visited in Quebec City. He tells us the story of the Singapore Lion and compares the two as symbols of post-colonial oppression. While telling us these stories, he makes a small slide instrument from a single string and a couple pieces of wood. Playing it as he talks I am thrown back into the ritualistic space of Heng’s performance, but only just. And, all the while, the materials and symbols that he has just spent the better part of an hour playing with surround us. Finished, Kai bows and leaves us in the wreckage.

Act Three
The final performance of the night is by Lee Wen. Unlike the previous two, the set-up for this one is bare and stage-like: a guitar, a music stand, a few pieces of sheet music, a tall stool and a small bag. On the wall there is a Singapore tourist logo, which can’t help, at this point, but echo what we have just experienced at the hands of Kai Lam: a strange, fragmented political commentary. The logo reads: “Uniquely Hip… Singapore.”

Lee enters, dressed all in black. He sits on the stool and addresses the audience: This is called the Anyhow Blues because I believe in the Anyhow Aesthetic of Art Making. In Singapore when we don’t know how to do something we say do it Anyhow. So this is the Anyhow Blues.

He picks up the guitar and plays. The song is a three or four chord campfire-style bluesy song. As it draws to a close Lee looks up. Did that bring a smile to your face? he asks, and the audience laughs. A convivial communitarian laugh. The tone has been set. With barely a pause Lee announces the next song: Art Is Dead. This one is a little more urgent. A protest song. Art… is… dead. Dead… is… art. I am reminded of one of Yoko Ono’s songs from Double Fantasy. This has a similarly inscrutable cynicism mixed with unabashed earnestness.

And now a sad song.

I was going to sing about the dark clouds of Toronto, because yesterday was really dark…and then, this morning, I wake up to see the sun is shining. Lee launches into a ballad about the sun. We have gone from blues to protest to weather without knowing why or where the performance is going. We wait; we listen.

By the way, my name is “too late a hippy.” He puts down his guitar and takes off his scarf.

Everyone laughs.

I decided… a few years back when I started this project… to become a born-again hippy.

He points to the “Uniquely Hip” slogan.

I decided to become a born-again hippy because I saw this slogan in the tourist office, and it reminded me of what it was like in Singapore in the 70s and the 60s. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and the state was getting a bit paranoid with these “hippy cultures,” these “subcultures.”

Lee takes off his jacket.

So it was a different “hip.”

He takes off his watch.

What happened was there was a lot of censorship and paranoia. So if you had long hair, you had to cut your hair.

He takes a pair of Sarong-style pants out of a bag.

They would cut your hair at the airport. And songs were banned because they were promoting, what do you call it? Habits of drug culture.

He takes off his pants. He takes off one sock, then the other, holds up the pants and asks Is this hippy enough? We all laugh. These are actually Thai farmer’s pants. I forgot my sarong. I forgot my slippers too. As he ties the oversized pants around his slight frame he grabs a book from the same bag. One thing that is happening now in Singapore is a big controversy surrounding the publishing of a book. The book is called “Once a Jolly Hangman.”

Leaning the book against the guitar stand, Lee tells us about the way that it exposes Singapore’s uneven enforcement of the death penalty for even minor drug trafficking and how the Singaporean government has arrested the author on defamation charges. The book isn’t actually banned, he tells us, but not many people want to sell it for fear of government reprisal.

He takes off his shirt.

I think people should speak up. There are too many of these defamation charges in Singapore.

He puts on a brightly coloured tie-dye and the room erupts in laughter.

Perfect shirt, no? I don’t mean to spoil the party, he says. But somebody once said that singing a song is like saying a prayer. I’d like to do this for people who have been sentenced and killed…

He takes out a candle, lights it, puts it on the floor, and picks up the guitar.

…because it is unfair. The Singapore government is one of the biggest supporters of the Myanmar government, where the Golden Triangle is, where they produce heroin. And they are laundering their money in Singapore banks. And the government sentences people who are just mules. And I don’t understand why we let it happen. A lot of them are very young. Ignorant.

He starts another song.

…Out on Highway 69 they hung the men while still alive… Out on Highway 69 they hung the men until they died…

This time when the song ends the room is silent. No convivial laughing. Just a chill unease as the candle burns.

It’s hard to sing another song. I will just ask, maybe, for a minute of silence.

After a minute Lee stands up, thanks us for listening and offers a small bow.


The crowd disperses and mingles while the three performances intertwine, painting a picture of Singapore, performance art-style: Heng’s performance drawing me into the textured detail of an unknown religion, performed through a mixed set of Western and Eastern objects made sacred through performance… Kai drawing me into the space between travel memoir and the public musings of the stranger, abroad, telling tales of his homeland and the culture clash of his present experience… Lee inviting me to nostalgically recall the political and artistic impetus of the 1960s, and reflect, in turn, on politics today.

I have experienced an evening in three acts – each act blending ritual with political commentary, and each act offering this socio-political commentary through enigmatic actions. I have been privy to the actions of three Singaporean artists who are not in Singapore, each in their own way performing a problematic relationship to a repressive government. I have been drawn into a micro-political mode of attention operating through subtle gesture and porous relations between performer and audience, and have witnessed the mixing of ritually symbolic with mundane objects that have moved us through associations echoing from one performance to another.  Three overlapping voices have emerged, tonight, weaving an inconsistent, heterogeneous, and yet resonant national tapestry.

There is a link to be made, here, between the materiality of the performing body and the materiality of reading and writing about performance.  This link is one that Roland Barthes, borrowing from Julia Kristeva, calls the geno-text’s priority over the pheno-text (a distinction drawn from genetic discourse that speaks to those aspects that at once exceed and inhabit signification, transmitting at an affective level).  In this context, however, I might rewrite the distinction as one in which the geno-act takes precedence over the pheno-act. This “geno-act” offers an analysis (literally, a loosening up) of the materiality of the to-be-seen-ness in action-art that takes precedence over the content analysis central to much writing about performance, and brings it, instead, into the space of detailed excess, of ritual.

Indeed, during these performances, and in the situated practice of writing about them, I fing myself inescapably drawn into a certain space of looking – one attentive to what Barthes might call the “grain” of each performance.[i] While Barthes’ term refers to an aural and not a visual encounter, his engagement with what he calls the grain of the voice gets at the materiality of action-based performance in a manner consonant with what I have been drawn into here: a material and temporal detail linked to the embodied experience of viewing; a visual grain that points less to the overtly signifying aspects of a performance encounter than to its ephemeral materiality. This materiality, this grain, is one that, further, speaks to the task of writing about action-art as a practice that does not transcribe the truth of the event, but that, rather, offers an unrepentantly inhabited description – one that, itself, functions as a ritual mode of looking.  In Survey from Singapore, the function of ritual – somewhere between the secular and the sacred – has been harnessed and shown to be inherently political in nature.  A political that, pace Ranciere, inhabits the very heart of the aesthetic.

[i] “The ‘grain’ is the body in the voice as it sings, the hand as it writes, the limb as it performs.” Roland Barthes, “The Grain of the Voice,” in Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977, p. 188.

Natalie Loveless is an artist, teacher and writer. She recently completed a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz, entitled Acts of Pedagogy: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Art and Ethics. She is a visiting assistant professor in the Visual Arts Department of the University of Western Ontario and is on the editorial board of >> liminal << the journal of new performance.

Materiality, Communication, Exchange: The Boundless Energy of R.I.T.E.S #8 Performance

6 12 2010

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.

Jittima Pholsawek

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.

Eric Scott Nelson

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.

Him Lo

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.

Alice De Visscher

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.

Cheng Guang Feng

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

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)

How To Change The World Without Really Trying – Reflections On Performance Art Today

3 12 2010

Hermes’ Ear

6 09 2010

by Sha Najak

HEyeRMEarS is a nickname used by artist Josef Cseres to document experimental and improvised music. Cseres, who lectures in Slovakia and Czech Republic, is interested in archiving artists who touch on the discursive and nondiscursive modes of expression. One such presentation was the improvisational violin works of Jon Rose, Violin Factory and Double Indemnity. I had the chance to listen in on some of the tracks from Rose’s album which Josef is archiving during the artist talk held at Post Museum on 19th August 2010. 

Documentation of R.I.T.E.S. #7 performance at The Substation, Singapore. 2010. Courtesy of Jason Lee.

In this talk, Josef shared that his appearance in Singapore was purely accidental. Having made plans to swing by Southeast Asia, he contacted Lee Wen, a Singaporean performance artist whom he had met in an international conference. At that time Lee Wenwas involved with an emerging new platform for experimental and improvisational musicians called Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak (R.I.T.E.S). It was a match waiting to happen, and Josef was invited to perform at the next R.I.T.E.S presentation.

Josef performed with a suitcase and a typewriter which were nostalgic elements rarely seen in today’s times. In this performance, he went on the mundane and monotonous task of typing words. He also integrated spoken word into the performance via a speaker that was drumming out muffled recordings of an unknown person reading letters of the alphabet which Josef proceeded to type out. He asked the audience to read from books he had laid out on chairs in the performance space at The Substation Theatre. The audience members read these books aloud and Josef kept typing. When they were done, Josef ended the performance with a lighted tea candle placed next to these typewritten sheets laid out on the floor. But this was not the end of the show — Josef retreated to the back of the wall where there was a board and using some chalks he wrote, “Terrorists destroy buildings. Tourists destroy places. Artists destroy both.” Josef was not done. He used a rubber stamp with the words ‘The Lazy Anarchists’ and stamped them on the papers he’s laid out near the tea candles in a public display of criticism against how young artists do not lay claim to anarchism as a critical response to the status quo anymore. Josef, who confessed to being a university lecturer weary of the institutionalized way of teaching art, was sending a non-verbal message about the monotonous and droning style of academia, education and learning in today’s contemporary times.

Documentation of R.I.T.E.S. #7 performance at The Substation, Singapore. 2010. Courtesy of Jason Lee.

In his artist talk, Josef admits that academic discourse does not satisfy him. He finds the arguments and discussions to be contradictory between those who practice art and others who interpret art. He went searching for alternative ways of expressing himself by dabbling into installation works in the past. When asked to explain the reference to the Greek god Hermes, Josef shared that it was a topic for his thesis which was devoted to mythology. He connected with Hermes, known as an ancient God who takes care of all travelers and thieves, as he was an unconventional God known to deconstruct the norm.  The other known phenomenon about Hermes was the winged shoes he wore to travel between the mortal and immortal world. It was Hermes who had influenced the use of ‘hermeneutics’ in language which translates to the study of interpretation. Cseres’ deeper desire to look for different interpretations of music and art is not a new finding amongst artists whose visions are far more stretched and far-sighted. There was little show of works from the museum aside from Jon Rose’s albums but a book documenting some images of violins were passed around to the audience as a sample of what the museum does.

This article was originally published on DAILY SERVING. an international forum for the contemporary visual arts on August 31, 2010

The use and abuse of nostalgia

22 08 2010

RITES #7, Saturday 14 August 2010, 7.30 pm

Venue: The Substation Theatre

Like everyone else in this busy country I am always complaining about insufficient time and would really like to form a movement to change the 24 hour day to that of 48 hours to ease our stressfulness over not enough time but I don’t have the time for that. But the real issue is how everything boils down to that of making a judgment and decision as to what we find is most important in terms of priorities. No I am not referring to the people who should be in the audience but not there to help us celebrate our one year anniversary of R.I.T.E.S. but I think this is one big question for all performance artists, that of time. There are different approaches of course and this evening’s program somehow made me nostalgic and although the artists may not be had intended they actually gave me some things to think about concerning nostalgia in relationship to time. But nostalgia is not just about time but how our emotions are moved in certain directions when thinking back about the past.

“Hermes Action Writing”

Jozef Czeres walked in with a suitcase containing a typewriter, among other things. Who uses a typewriter in the age of computers? This aroused my first nostalgic impression. While setting up Ceres seemed to be speaking to himself in a low almost inaudible tone. His mumbling at first sounded like a retelling of the Greek mythology of Hermes and his reverence for the founder of music and art and then ending with jaded rants about how most of contemporary art is crap? Or maybe I was just imagining it but it gave me a second nostalgic impression as although dressed casually he gave the an aura of a world weary philosopher who had seen better days when art and culture was really gracious manifestation of humanity in our daily life. We then hear a voice calling out random alphabets, were they spoken live or prerecorded and played through a speaker? I wished artists who speak did make sure they could be heard unless they intend it that way. But the alphabet and typewriter were making a sleepy drone as if hypnotizing me into; you guessed it, a nostalgic mood. As Jozef typed on it looked like he was typing the letters that were being spoken through the speakers. This continued for some time and later asked to the audience for help to read from books laid on the chairs that were already placed in front. They read them out loud, in various languages the books were in as Czeres carried on typing on different pieces of paper. It became a choir of rather monotonous, rhythmic drone that now seemed to be tone of the whole presentation. The readers stop reading, and Jozef goes on to end the performance by laying out the typed papers, with a lighted tea light placed beside each paper. He went to the back wall and using some chalk wrote, “Terrorists destroy buildings. Tourists destroy places. Artists destroy both”. He then ended by using a rubber stamp to put some red words on the paper he laid out which says “THE LAZY ANARCHISTS”. Another nostalgic moment for me as not many young artists care, discusses or even refer to anarchy in their slick art world although performance and conceptual art has been seemingly accepted, most are comfortably strutting out with pride and confidence sans the original motivations of being a critical response to the status quo.

Jozef Czeres


This installment of R.I.T.E.S. coincides with the exhibition “Touch” held in the Substation gallery, organized with the help of Jeremy Hiah together with Nopawan Sirivejku and Monkol Plienbanchang both active organizer artists base in Bangkok. Nopawan Sirivejku, or more popularly known Aor, blew into a child’s whistle before going on with various actions. Her piece was also entitled “Touch” and could be seen in relation to the exhibition that called our attention to the often neglected and taken for granted need of sensory gratification in human nature. Although attitudes are changing, within various Asian traditions touching each other especially between the different genders is not commonly seen in public. Coming from her background of an active organizer artist with concerns for social work her actions also led beyond the interpersonal act of physical touching to sharing life experiences seeking community. After blowing the whistle, she worked on a ball of red thread, unwinding and spreading it as she walked through the audience, tying or entangling some of them up in the process. The red thread appears as a vehicle for the artist to touch and relate to our separate independent individual bodies of senses attempting to unify everyone. The red thread touched the audience as she walks through them.

Nopawan Sirivejku

“We Are What We Have Lost”

Ezzam Rahman’s piece is the second part, dedicated to his father’s passing away, the day before his 40th day of departure. The first part was presented during the Sama-sama Guesthouse mini Alternative Festival 2010 [i]just a week before in Malacca where his father was born. Ezzam told an emotion filled tale of his parent’s separation after which he chewed a whole bunch of “gulang melba”, a kind of rock sugar, tied onto a string he wore around his neck until he bled from his mouth. He also asked his younger brother, Fareed Rahman to come on board in the second part performed at R.I.T.E.S. While Fareed played on the sadatanah, or suarantanah, which literally translates to “voices of earth” Ezzam blew into a small translucent plastic bag, tied it to a length of string as he dropped the bag and held it like a pendulum. He carried to use larger plastic bags from mortuaries that are meant for corpses, explicitly referring to the notion of death. Unrolling one of the plastic bags to its length, he stepped with intent across it, as he laid it out in front of himself, creating a series of fleeting footprints that appeared and disappeared as he stretches over the translucent plastic surfaces. He then proceeded to open up other plastic bags fully and swung them around like flogging himself or covering and uncovering over his head and body. Stretching the bag over his tall stout body frame changing his form into amorphous shapes. At some point standing against the back wall, while still covered with the plastic, he continued to stretch them till they tore at various overstretched sections. As his leg was became visible through the torn plastic followed by his body emerging like a birthing scene. With the accelerating tempo and rhythm of Fareed’s playing, Ezzam furiously thrashed the plastic around himself blatantly letting fly his motions, himself culminating perhaps into catharsis. Fareed slowed down the tempo back to silence as Ezzam covered both himself and his brother with the bag, laying it all to rest. Ezzam later explained that he used various material like the “gulang melba” out of nostalgia for his growing up years, something that many of us could also identify with. In working with the nostalgic elements he had become what he had lost.

Ezzam Rahman

“It’s a hole”

Chua Chin Chin filled three glasses with water, constantly shuffling them on the table top, quite like gamblers with playing cards. Perhaps a gamble on life with the physical body in which we are all trapped inside. She occasionally takes mouthfuls of water, which later she reveals that her voice is always prone to being hoarse. She then tells the audience that one of her biggest fears is to be stuck in the cold, of hypothermia. She proceeds to fill a bucket up with ice, and plunges her feet into it. She strums strings entwined around some nails across some lengths of wooden planks boards laid on the table with some metal cutlery. She begins a narrative on how to get out of a house with no doors or windows, signifying our own entrapped within our physical body. She punched her own upper arms, in turn revealing that her feet, which had been soaking in ice perhaps in contrast had become numbed to the pain. At times strumming the strings with the cutlery. With pensive actions and self-inflicted pain, Chin translated intangible emotions and sensitivities into physical images attempting to reveal her personal struggles at evoking the yearning to fulfill oneself.

Chua Chin Chin

“War Therapy”

Monkol Plienbangchang also used some images that were exhibited in “Touch” showing in the Substation gallery. Holding up a toy elephant and military artillery tank he wrote the word “VIOLENCE” on his arm and on his shirt. He then added a “NON” suffix to the word. And then another, in turn shows the audience ‘non-non-violence’, a complete redundancy of the first paradox. He then wrapped his right foot with an army printed cloth, and his left with a photograph image of the blue sky, which he had used in the exhibit “Touch”. The image he used was actually part of a photograph, which showed Monkol tearing up the image and evoking man’s violence on nature, with the elephant and the army tank. He filled a glass bowl with cinnamon and some herbal powder adding and mixing them with water. He soaks his covered feet in the cinnamon water, and held the water into his gaping mouth and spitting the water out, dripping over himself, the toy army tank, and the toy elephant. He went to the back and writing the word VIOLENCE” with chalk on the black wall and added a number of the suffix “NON” as if to emphasize the urgency to negate violence.

Monkol Plienbangchang

With the prospect of a tense future we tend to nostalgically dream of recapturing an idealized past. Perhaps it was the air-conditioning, but I came out with a fever after the performances and hurried home trying to figure out how we may use and abuse our nostalgia.

By Lee Wen and Chand Chandra Mohan

[i] Sama-sama Guesthouse Mini Alternative Art Festival 2010 (Melaka), 06/08/2010 – 08/08/2010, Venue: Sama-sama Guesthouse, Jalan Tukang Besi, Melaka, Malaysia,

Grow Some Funk Of Our Own…

25 07 2010

RITES #6, Friday 23 July 2010, 7.30 pm

Brother Joseph McNally Gallery,

Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.

Three reasons why I was nervous as the evening began. My wife and son from Tokyo, whom I had not been with since April, were in town. It was our first RITES gig at Institute of Contemporary Art (ICAS). And Mayo Martin, who inspired me to start this blog had not showed up yet as we started …sigh.

The gallery filled up with more people than expected as I welcomed the audience, announcng that this gig was the beginning of our new collaboration with ICAS. Thanks to Charles Merewether, the new director of ICAS, for inviting us to work together. Hopefully this partnership will at least take some weight off our shoulders and help us to do more in working towards the other much neglected aspirations as outlined in our inception statement. The program was quite appropriate in comprising four young artists all giving us presentations that were leaning towards self-biographical references.

Jacklyn Soo

Jacklyn Soo made a narrative of growing up in Singapore’s ever-changing “picturesque scenario”. Her speech using bits of Malay, Chinese, and English, two masked assistants and a ghetto blaster remind me of attention seekers at shopping malls doing some promotional gig. As she went through her story moving atop a vanguard sheet map clearly marked sectors of north, south, east, west, central, she stripped down into a golden dance costume and black leotards while her assistants sprayed water over her. I found it hard to hear clearly whatever she was seriously tying to say as the loud awful forgettable music kept jugging on in the background. Soo apparently did not had an easy time growing up as she ended entangling herself with connected rubber bands, stretching them as they were anchored around her neck, ankles and wrists. Her assistants finally boxed her up with the map she had been standing on, and handing out colored pens to the audience to write comments on Singapore. Jacklyn’s actions in shiny costumes, masks and music came across as a painful self portrait of a life exposed and entrapped in totalitarian kitsch and cliché. I hope she learns to grow out of it.

Yusa Zhuang

Yusa Zhuang is a prolific poet, writer and editor of Walnut Literary Review, a new bimonthly online journal featuring new writings from Singapore. Beginning with double projections of photographic and painting portrayals of Arshille Gorky and his mother it was an eye opener introduction to his poetic portrayal of his mother’s love for literature and art, paralleling succinctly his independent frame from growing out of a tense relationship between two poets. His poems gave an insight to his difficult relationship with his mother, Wong Sin Yah who was detained for demonstration during the turbulent 60s years in Singapore.

Roan Lizhen

Roan Lizhen squeezed out ultramarine blue paint onto paper stretched and stuck on the wall to make images of a large eye to face the other from opposite edges of the paper. She then squeezed out the words “What have you been doing?” and “I swim in systems.” in reply over the space between the eyes as if a conversation was going on between them. She then licked them into unrecognizable amorphous shapes of blue like an abstract painting. The quiet seriousness of her statement emerged with a lighter vein as we watched Lizhen licked the words into an abstract painting. It may seem anachronistic to use the painting medium to make performance art, usually denoting the protagonist’s attachment to a traditional preferred medium or perhaps we should continue to provoke questions to the tyranny of painting in art through actions again and again.

Many found the Kelvin Atmadibrata’s “Baby’s Breath” more accessible as expected from performance art presentations. With a video projection of a baby crying at the background, he threw tiny white origami looking like sweets to the front open space and later offering them to the audience. After which he started to plant baby’s breath onto a sponge he attached on top of his head. Gathering some of the tiny white origami he put them through a blender together with some of the flowers and fed the resulting concoction to the video projected baby’s open mouth and to himself. Kelvin then blindfolded himself and offered an old Chinese popular sweets, white rabbit brand with out stretched hands to the audience, walking out still blindfolded and led by the recipients of his offerings perhaps, leading us back to innocence.

It would be difficult to say if I liked or disliked what I saw. Despite any weaknesses, they all had a presence that showed a real desire to speak out and made images and impressions to me like an understated surprise. If only we look more seriously into our own backyard and allow the young artists here a platform of elevated earnestness and an interested audience, something good will grow from it.

– Lee Wen, 25 July 2010

Kelvin Atmadibrata

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