An open letter to Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (Singapore)

Dear Dr Yaacob Ibrahim,

The Venice Biennale is unequivocally the most highly visible and important international stage for contemporary artists at work today. Since 2001, the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been an important platform for Singaporean artists to introduce and share their diverse and multifaceted practices to the world. An opportunity to present their work in Venice has spurred our artists to challenge themselves into conceptualising, developing and executing artworks of enduring critical, historical and global significance.

We, the undersigned, are therefore writing to you to express our utter disappointment in the National Arts Council’s (NAC) decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and to formally request that this decision be reconsidered.

Each subsequent edition of the Singapore Pavilion has borne witness to ever greater sensibility and sophistication in the quality of works that our artists have produced. Also of significance and no less important is the way in which Singaporean curators have learned to navigate and negotiate the process of communicating the work to a wider audience. While we recognise that Singapore’s participation in Venice need not be the determination of artistic worth for Singaporean artists, the fact remains that it is one of the most important and invaluable channels through which Singaporean artists can connect with the international art world on our terms.

There are also other important issues at stake beyond that of artistic excellence. While a country’s participation in an international event like Venice need not and must not be reduced to a matter of cultural representation, the visibility of participation in such a significant international art event affords us an indispensable channel through which to negotiate issues of how we represent ourselves to the world – something vital to our on-going national conversation about the direction and development of Singaporean identity. Just as we cannot afford to be parochial in our economic development, so too must we not allow culture and community to be interpreted in narrow provincial terms that preclude the engagement of Singaporean art with global movements and discourses. Indeed, greater community involvement in the arts does not, should not – and need not – be at the expense of artistic excellence.

While we respect the NAC’s decision to “critically re-assess Singapore’s long-term participation at this event to ensure optimal benefits to visual arts development”, we are alarmed and perturbed by the sudden decision to withdraw from participation as a means of exercising this critical review. We seek to understand how the NAC arrived at this conclusion. The NAC has stated recently that it intends to pursue greater dialogue and engagement with artists, curators and the arts community in Singapore; this abrupt and unilateral decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale is very much contrary to the spirit of consensus and engagement. It should be reconsidered.

1. Suzann Victor, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2001)
2. Heman Chong, Artist, Curator and Writer (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
3. Francis Ng, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
4. Tang Da Wu, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
5. Vincent Leow, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
6. Zul Mahmod, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
7. Ming Wong, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
8. Ho Tzu Nyen, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2011)
9. Lindy Poh, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2007, Venice Biennale
10. Tang Fukuen, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2009, Venice Biennale
11. Emi Eu, Director, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
12. Ong Keng Sen, Artistic Director, Theatreworks
13. Tay Tong, Managing Director, TheatreWorks
14. Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Artistic Director, The Substation
15. Chew Kheng Chuan,  Chairman, The Substation Limited.
16. Graham Berry, Board Member, The Substation
17. Sabapathy Thiagarajan, Lecturer, History of Art
18. Peter Schoppert, Member, International Association of Art Critcs (AICA); Member of the Board, The Substation
19. Joselina Cruz, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2008
20. Russell Storer, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
21. Trevor Smith, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
22. Rudy Tseng, Collector
23. T. Sasitharan, Director, Intercultural Theatre Institute
24. Chong Tze Chien, Company Director, The Finger Players
25. Sean Tobin, Head of Theatre, School of the Arts, Singapore
26. Tan Wee Lit, Head of Visual Arts, School of the Arts, Singapore
27. Jacquelyn Soo, Artist and Chairperson, Singapore Contemporary Young Artists (SCYA)
28. Woon Tai Ho, Founder & Creative Director, The Green Orange
29. Aun Koh, Co-founder, The Ate Group; formerly Deputy Director Visual and Literary Arts, National Arts Council Singapore
30. Lim Qinyi, Curator, Para/site
31. Karen Lim Li-Ching, Asst. Director (Curatorial), NUS Museum
32. Lonce Wyse, Director, IDMI Arts and Creativity Lab, National University of Singapore
33. Dr Charles Merewether, Curator and writer
34. Professor Tony Godfrey, Director, Equator Art Projects
35. Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-chief, Asymptote Journal
36. Suzzana Chew, Owner of Artitute.com
37. Amelia Abdullahsani, Gallery Owner, Lu Magnus
38. Valentine Willie, Gallery Owner, Valentine Willie Fine Art
39. Benjamin Hampe, Gallery Owner, Chan Hampe Galleries
40. Audrey Phng, Art Consultant, Asian Art Options
41. Wahyuni A. Hadi, Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking
42. Woon Tien Wei, Director, post-museum
43. Jennifer Teo, Director, post-museum
44. Amanda Heng Liang Ngim, Artist
45. Milenko Prvacki, Artist
46. Delia Prvacki, Artist
47. Ana Prvacki, Artist
48. Jimmy Ong, Artist
49. Michael Lee, Artist and Curator
50. Ang Song Ming, Artist
51. Charles Lim, Artist
52. Genevieve Chua, Artist
53. Ho Rui An, Artist and Writer
54. Alvin Pang, Writer
55. Choy Ka Fai , Artist
56. Robert Zhao Renhui, Artist
57. Donna Ong, Artist
58. Tan Kai Syng, Artist
59. John Clang, Artist
60. Erika Tan, Artist
61. Dana Lam, Artist
62. Tara Tan, Creative
63. Sherman Ong, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
64. Tan Pin Pin, Filmmaker
65. Wee Li Lin, Filmmaker
66. Fran Borgia, Filmmaker
67. Jeremy Chua, filmmaker
68. Yeo Siew Hua, Filmmaker
69. Adelene Kwan, Producer
70. Sylvia Tan, Producer
71. Melanie Chua, Editor
72. Yuen Chee Wai, Musician
73. Susie Lingham, Writer and Artist
74. Alan Oei, Artist and Curator
75. Dr Lynn Lu, Artist and art educator
76. Tang Ling Nah, Artist, Curator and art Educator
77. Hazel Lim, Artist and art educator
78. Urich Lau, Artist and art educator
79. Debbie Ding, Artist, Archivist and Writer
80. Susie Wong, Artist
81. Vivian Lee, Artist
82. Yvonne Leow-Lee, Artist
83. Gilles Massot, Artist
84. Melinda Lauw, Artist
85. Jying Tan, Artist
86. Joel Ong, Artist
87. Lynette Tan, Artist
88. Brendan Goh, Artist
89. Tan Guo-Liang, Artist
90. Ang Song Nian, Artist
91. Kah Kit, Artist
92. Tay Bee Aye, Artist
93. Weixin Chong, Artist
94. Godwin Koay, Artist
95. Geralding Kang, artist
96. Samantha Tio, Artist
97. Cheong Sze-Yenn, Artist
98. Ho Zhen Ming, Artist
99. Kin Chui, Artist
100. Yen Phang, Artist
101. Regina De Rozario, Artist
102. Bruce Quek, Artist
103. Joshua Yang, Artist
104. Alecia Neo, Artist
105. Chan Sze-Wei, Artist
106. Vladimir Todorovic, Artist
107. Mike HJ Chang, Artist
108. George Wong Yung Choon, Artist
109. Liana Yang, Artist
110. Valerie Oliveiro, Artist
111. Kent Chan, Artist and Filmmaker
112. Daniel Kok Yik Leng, Choreographer and dancer
113. Joavien Ng, Choreographer and art educator
114. Lim How Ngean, Dramaturge
115. Lok Meng Chue, Theatre practitioner
116. Michelle Tan, Theatre practitioner
117. Jason Wee, Artist, Curator and Writer
118. Shubigi Rao, Visual artist and writer
119. Seah Sze Yunn, Artist and Designer
120. Jackson Tan, Artist and Designer
121. Sean Lee, Photographer
122. Jing Quek, Photographer
123. Ian Woo, Artist and Art Educator
124. Adeline Kueh, Artist and Art Educator
125. Jeremy Sharma, Artist and Art Educator
126. Betty Susiarjo, Art Educator
127. Karen Mitchell, Art Educator
128. Tan Peiling, Art Educator
129. Karen Yeh, Educator
130. Philip Holden, Educator
131. Shirley Soh, Art Educator
132. Ng Yun Sian, Educator
132. Dr C.J.W.-L. Wee, Academic
133. Dr Warren Liew, Academic
134. Dr Lilian Chee, Assistant Professor
135. Dr Margaret Tan, Fellow, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore
136. Jeremy Fernando, Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School
137. Jay Koh, Founding director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
138. Chu Chu Yuan, co-director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
139. Isabella Chen, Media Co-coordinator, United Nations
140. Jeremy Tiang
141. Jeannine Tang, Art historian, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
142. Paul Khoo, Art Historian
143. Syed Muhd Hafiz Bin Syed Nasir, Curator and Writer
144. Joleen Loh, Curator and writer
145. Daniela Beltrani, Curator and artist
146. Eliza Tan, Curator
147. Josef Ng, Curator and Writer
148. Loredana Paracciani, Curator
149. Nurul Huda Binte Abdul Rashid, Assistant Curator, NUS Museum
150. Eva Ella McGovern, Curator, Valentine Willie Fine Art
151. Traslin Ong, Arts Administrator & Program curator
152. Ben Slater, Writer
153. Justin Zhuang, Writer
154. Teh Su Ching, Writer
155. Darryl Wee, Art Writer and Translator
156. Louis Ho, Writer and Critic
157. Raksha M., Writer and Editor
158. Joycelyn Ng, Producer and Writer
159. Yishan Lam, Design Researcher
160. Angelia Poon, Academic
161. Amanda Lee, Editor
162. Nazry Bahrawi, Critic
163. Apple Lee, Gallery manager, Valentine Willie Fine Art
164. Teng Yen Hui, Gallery assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
165. Richard Lim, Registrar assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
166. Mervyn Quek, Arts Manager, TheatreWorks
167. Hafiz Osman, Exhibition officer
168. Tan Li-Jen, Manager, Museum Programmes & Outreach, NUS Museum
169. Aishah Abu Bakar, Programming Manager, Moving Images, The Substation
170. Annabelle Felise Aw, Programme Manager, Visual Art, The Substation
171. Chelsea Chua, Marketing Manager, The Substation
172. Nur Khairiyah Bte Ramli, Programme Manager, The Substation
173. Chris Ong, Programme Manager, The Substation
174. Ann Mui Ling, Museum docent and art collector
175. Clifford D. Mallory
176. Kay Vasey
177. Jeremiah Choy
178. Meena Mylvaganam, Collector
179. Oon Shu An, Actor
180. Madelyn Yeo, Designer
181. Darel Seow, Illustrator
182. Jessica Anne Rahardjo, Arts Publications Executive
183. Tiara Johari, Arts Manager
184. Teresa Fu, Arts Manager
185. Nicole Ho, Arts manager
186. Low Zheng Yi, Admin Coordinator
187. Joyce Teo, Arts educator
188. Seah Tzi Yan, Arts organiser
189. Wirashery Fangiono, Arts freelancer
190. Jo-Anne Lee, Health Administrator
191. Jolovan Wham, Social Worker
192. Chris Williams, Manager
193. John Solomon, Graduate Student
194. Nigel Jon Sing, Student
195. Sarah Lee, Student
196. Au Yeong Yeen, Student
197. Kim Tay, Student
198. Wong Binghao, Student
199. Elvis Wang, Art Student
200. Ang Siew Ching, Student
201. Debrah Jiang, Student
202. Hajar Abdullah-Anjong, Student
203. Wesley Aroozoo, Student
204. Loe Chek Siang Kenneth
205. Joanna Ng Shuhui
206. Sarah Yap
207. Joscelin Chew
208. Justin Lebrun

Street vs. Art

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Over the past few months, pedestrians in Singapore may have stumbled upon one or more curious round stickers pasted above buttons at traffic lights, featuring captions that include instructions to “PRESS TO TIME TRAVEL” and cheeky admonishments of “PRESS ONCE CAN ALREADY”. Most have responded in delight to the stickers, variously calling them “witty” and “thought-provoking”. The artist behind these interventions, who goes by the tag of SKL0, is apparently also responsible for spray-painting the words “MY GRANDFATHER ROAD” on several streets in Singapore. On 4 June 2012, the said artist was arrested on suspicions of vandalism. As reports of the arrest poured in, the reaction online was almost immediate, with netizens both within and outside the arts community responding with outrage at what was perceived as a draconian measure crushing a seemingly harmless act of creativity. A petition was launched within hours of the news and digital stickers in the style of SKL0’s creations were springing up by the dozens across social media, sporting messages that expressed solidarity with the young artist. Such a vehement reaction can be seen as just one of the many expressions of resentment against a technocratic state perceived to be governed by automaton-bureaucrats with no appreciation for humour or creativity. In the words of one netizen, “CREATIVITY SHOULDN’T BE PUNISHED!” Indeed, creativity is important for society, and so is wit, but amidst the clarion calls for “creativity”, “freedom”, “spontaneity” and “humour”, rearing its bloated, cumbersome head is another word that has not received an audience of such size for quite some time now: “art”.

“But is it art?” was the question raised almost over a decade ago in light of the controversial 1993 performance by artist Josef Ng, in which the artist snipped off his pubic hair in protest of the police entrapment of gay men in Singapore. The question, asked then with raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity, at times disgust, has most fascinatingly resurfaced today in the paraphrased form of the indignant proclamation, “THIS IS ART”, uttered in a near-unequivocal chorus, no less. But while it would be most desirable to be able to read this as a sign of progress, of the public’s increased enlightenment towards the arts, the reality is far from the case, showing instead that artistic discourse in Singapore still builds itself upon an outmoded and essentialist rubric that draws arbitrary lines between art and non-art, or in this instance, between art and vandalism. Indeed as the debate rages on, the untenability of the argument reveals itself, with the slippages between the terms becoming too obvious to ignore.

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

For instance, a number of supporters point to how SKL0’s works are “aesthetically pleasing” and “not unsightly”, referring plausibly to their clean-cut aesthetics. But this argument ignores the fact that both historically and in contemporary times, much of street art has never aspired towards aesthetic appeal. Street art, having emerged from the sixties to seventies counterculture movements in New York, has for most part of history served as an instrument for political resistance, with imagery meant to provoke rather than “to bring a smile to one’s face”. The works produced in protest of the 2003 Iraq War and the wider War on Terror by street artists worldwide is an exemplar of this, and it bears mention that Singapore was in a small but significant way a part of this movement, with the garden wall of the Substation, an independent arts centre by Armenian Street, used as an “approved” graffiti wall. The messy scrawls of angst-ridden messages accompanied by strident anti-war motifs often seen in such instances of street art are a far cry from SKL0’s crisp aesthetics, thus rendering the criterion of visual appeal used to justify SKL0’s works as art spurious. In one notable instance, one particular netizen posted on Facebook a photograph of “MY GRANDFATHER BUILDING” sprayed in a noticeably hasty fashion across a wall, claiming that the police should be catching the person who did this instead, unbeknownst to the fact that the very same artist he was supporting, SKL0, is also behind this very work. Herein lies the absurdity: the method for discerning between art and vandalism rests solely upon the choice of font.

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

But why do all these slippages concerning the definition of art matter, some may ask, as long as the intention is to exonerate SKL0? But the fact is that such careless pitting of art against non-art serves not only to rouse the chagrin of art theory pedants, for it does ultimately exert a real-world impact upon the kind of art we are sanctioning as a society. The safeguarding and propagation of carefully defined notions of art would eventually serve only to protect some works under the privileged cover of “art” at the expense of others that fall outside the circumscribed boundaries. Already we are beginning to see such acts of exclusion happening. On 6 June 2012, publichouse.sg posted on its Facebook page a photograph of “legalized graffiti” in Singapore, featuring a large and elaborately rendered male human figure spray-painted onto the walls of the former premises of cultural and social space, Post-Museum. The response by those who commented was lukewarm, with one netizen dismissing it as “nice but [lacking] the local connection”. He was rightly rebuked by another netizen: “if it doesn’t connect with you, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t connect with others”. One naturally wonders if the same statement cannot also be applied to SKL0’s creations. Granted, one can contend that SKL0’s works are widely popular, but surely mass appeal cannot be a definitive criterion for aesthetic judgement? Clearly, using an aesthetic argument to defend the works of SKL0’s is deeply problematic.

The last high-profile case of vandalism or, as some may say, street art, to happen in Singapore was the case of Swiss national Oliver Fricker in 2010, but as the incident involves the contentious issue of a foreign national acting on Singapore soil and the far more serious offence of trespass, it will be difficult to compare it to the case at hand. But slightly over a year before Fricker’s incident was the case of an unemployed, middle-aged Singaporean man by the name of Koh Chan Meng, who was caught red-handed scribbling “Hi Harry Lee. I love you.” on the wall of the Parliament House. On another occasion, Koh had also wrote “Go sue me Lee Kuan Yew Go Gavin Son” and “Shammugan can you play your own orgams” at the same site. From the outset, the acts committed by SKL0 and Koh cannot be more different. The former was a planned project with a thoughtfully designed aesthetic and identifiable by an icon equivalent to that of an artist’s signature and the latter, a putatively spontaneous act, performed by a man either out of vexation or lunacy.

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

As it seems, SKL0 is an artist and Koh, a vandal; one should be in a gallery, the other, a prison or an asylum. But are the distinctions really as stark as they appear? Sure, while Koh can hardly be called an artist and I suspect neither did he harbour any intention of being one, his “offence”, like that of SKL0, is in a way also an individual act of expression that has left its marks upon a public site. One of the arguments that has been tossed around lately defends SKL0’s works by claiming that they reflect our culture and society; can the same then not also be said about the scribbles of Koh, which however unthinkingly inscribed, reflect a prevailing sentiment of a certain underclass of Singaporeans saddled with financial and social woes? Can one go even further and claim that as a spontaneous act, Koh’s scribbles, as compared to the works of SKL0’s, bear even greater authenticity as expressions of a current social climate and as such, are more legitimate acts of intervention upon a public space? Granted, given that Koh was later ruled to be mentally unsound, one cannot take his acts so seriously, but scribbles like those of Koh are not uncommon. For instance, a friend once recounted to me how he found scrawled beneath the screen of a TVMobile television the words, “Stop Chinese Shows!!”. Acts like these cannot be written off simply as instances of mischief, but are instead, in their own small but pointed ways, forms of civil resistance that can only find expression through clandestine channels in an authoritarian society, away from the surveying gaze of the state.

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Of the many proposals raised online in response to the episode of the “Sticker Lady”, some have called for “less restriction” to be imposed on street art, which in effect is calling for existing laws on vandalism to make an exceptional case for street art. However, if implemented, such a move would run against the very ethos of the medium itself. Street art, at least that particular strand that we are concerned with here, exists at the margins of society. Through their interventions upon a public space, street artists seek precisely to transgress established orders, either for the purposes of critique, or simply for the sheer kick of doing so. Should laws change and margins shift, street artists will too shift their location of operations, following wherever the margin goes. Street art like those by SKL0 can never exist within the law. To do so is to be simply absorbed into the kitschy fare that dominates much of legalised street art in Singapore, seen in the most cheesy manifestations in state-organised youth festivals and as marketing gimmicks undertaken by opportunistic corporations. As a matter of fact, most street artists around the world recognise the “barely legal” (to use to the title of the 2006 show by British graffiti artist, Banksy) nature of their practice and understand that the onus is upon them to cover their tracks to evade arrest or to work in legal grey areas, as artists who practise “reverse graffiti” do.

As such, if the law on vandalism really ought to be amended, it should be done to protect “vandals” like Koh instead who require such immunity more so than street artists who seek precisely to test the limits of the law. Street art claims the street as a site for art-making, but prior to the legitimisation of street art as a serious form of artistic practice, the street has always been, more generally speaking, a public platform for all forms of personal and cultural expression. In principle, the streets belong not just to artists, but to us all. Whether a piece of graffiti is “creative”, “witty” or “aesthetically pleasing” is besides the point, for the value of the streets as a shared public space is its ability to give visibility to any idea, opinion, sentiment and memory that is being suppressed by the powers that be, especially precious and necessary in a tightly controlled society like ours where most channels of public expression for the everyman – from print to televisual media – are blocked by the hand of the state, and the dominant socio-political climate is one of fear and self-censorship. Hence, street art like SKL0’s are important not because they are art, and certainly not because they “bring a smile to one’s face”, but because they reclaim the street as a site for everyday forms of civil resistance.

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

But ultimately, tinkering with legal apparatus is inadequate, serving only to draw even more arbitrary parameters, as if we don’t already have enough of that to deal with in existing statutes. How can one definitively distinguish between acts of civil resistance from those that are plainly a social menace – the familiar “O$P$” sprayed by loan sharks, for instance? Can the law possibly draw a clear line between acts of creativity or resistance and those of plain destruction?

Indeed, any attempt at “regulating” graffiti through legal means is bound to be tricky, for graffiti, or any created object or rendered mark, art or otherwise, can be said to possess a life of its own beyond its maker’s, thus rendering the central legal concept of intentionality inapplicable. For one, consider the example of Hong Kong’s Tsang Tsou-choi, otherwise known as the King of Kowloon, a garbageman-turned-vandal-turned-artist whose works have over time grown from being perceived as obnoxious acts of vandalism to being inducted into the canons of “outsider art”. It is important to note that Tsang’s works arose from what can only be described as megalomania; his graffiti, identifiable by their distinctive calligraphic style, are filled with messages that proclaim himself to be the “King of Kowloon”. Yet, over time, his obsessive markings have gained such a ubiquitous presence that they have become part of physical landscape and cultural imaginary of the city, and in 2003, the inclusion of Tsang in the Venice Biennale cemented his status as an art world legend. Evidently, when dealing with a figure like Tsang, any attempt at establishing a satisfactory legal definition of “creative” graffiti against “destructive” ones is completely frustrated.

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

Every society has its laws, but as restrictive as they must necessarily be, spaces for manoeuvre within the law do still exist. In other words, one does not need to change the law for society to recognise the value graffiti can hold for a city. Just like how some street artists circumvent existing laws by seeking alternative tactics of intervention that work not with the law but through it, the public should also find ways to support and embrace street art (and more generally, graffiti) beyond that of seeking legal recourse. In fact, such is the case for most cities with a thriving graffiti scene. In Melbourne, for instance, despite the fact that graffiti continues to be illegal, the city’s graffiti-filled laneways have been heavily promoted as tourist attractions, with calls also having been made to consider them for heritage protection. The current “micro-movement” of sorts of producing and disseminating stickers across social media calling to “FREE STICKER LADY” can also be considered a positive instance of this.

To end, perhaps it is important for me to state clearly my stand on the arrest of SKL0, should any misunderstandings arise. If all the information circulating presently is accurate, then yes, I believe that in the eyes of the law, SKL0 has committed a crime. But of course, as most will know either from experience or history, the law is not always an authority on matters of right and wrong, or in this case, on how we use and share our public space. I concur with the general opinion that leniency should be exercised in her sentencing and chances are that it probably would. (Claims that she faces the maximum three years imprisonment are, it must be said, wildly exaggerated. In fact, as of yesterday at least, SKL0 has not even been formally charged.)

But what is more important in the current debate is not how we need to “set art free”, but the more critical issue of how we need to set our streets free. The street is in way the physical counterpart to the Internet, and if the Internet in Singapore has been so hailed as the bastion of democratic expression, the same can be said also of our streets, for they are not just spaces for the traffic of branded cars and Chingay floats, but also nexuses where ideas, opinions, sentiments and memories of the everyday Singaporean converge and are exchanged.

This essay has been revised from an earlier version that was first published on 8 June 2012, the main revision being the addition of a new segment on Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi. The essay has also been published on New Asia Republic.

Work-in-Process

Frost Drawing for Kallang (2011), Gosia Wlodarczak, Performative drawing, pigment marker on glass

Frost Drawing for Kallang (2011), Gosia Wlodarczak, Performative drawing, pigment marker on glass

Space and process are the two curatorial strands running through the third Singapore Biennale. Conceived around the idea of “Open House” by artistic director Matthew Ngui and curators Russell Storer and Trevor Smith, the Biennale eschews an overtly issue-based approach in favour of probing the conditions that shape art-making, specifically how individual practices negotiate notions of space – both in terms of a physical locality and a contingent sphere of social relations. Underpinning the approach are two simultaneous acts of “opening”: the first referring to that of artistic practice, the second, to that of the city-space, through which the artist-outsider is invited to engage its peculiarities. In considering the albeit simplistic binary that contemporary biennales fall into – either esoteric in its city-specificity or overstretched in its pursuit of a global theme – this gesture of “opening” forms a middle ground, bringing together the local and the cosmopolitan.

The approach reflects a point of maturation for the young Biennale which has previously adopted the vague themes of “Belief” and “Wonder”. The results, however, prove to be rather uneven, for there still remains an overriding tendency for the curatorial formula to defer to the ineluctable obligation to please. Spanning four venues – the National Museum of Singapore (NMS), the Singapore Art Museum (SAM), the Old Kallang Airport and Marina Bay – the Biennale features an eclectic albeit modest range of works, of which the more successful are those that move beyond a mere staging of process towards an interpenetration of practice and site.

Exemplifying this is Thai artist Arin Rungjang’s Unequal Exchange/No Exchange Can Be Unequal, an installation at the Old Kallang Airport modeled after an IKEA showroom with an intriguing contract at work: on weekends, Thai migrant workers from the lower socio-economic stratum are invited to swap the urbane furniture with items brought from their homes. The acts of displacement the artist initiates, performed by a group of displaced individuals no less, become a sculptural gesture as the showroom transforms into a vault of personal artifacts over time. As the indexes of consumption are reclaimed by those toiling at the production end of the consumerist chain, we witness a temporal reconfiguration of social relations, a redressing of inequalities – the hallmark of social sculpture.

Nearby, we witness another act of displacement: in German Barn, artists Elmgreen and Dragset implant within the cavernous hangar a mock-Tudor barn – an icon of quaint rusticity incongruous to the metropolitan sprawl of Singapore. Inside, four shirtless boys sit upon haystacks in a display of homoeroticism and unproductive labour: spatial intervention becomes an institutional critique on the existing order.

Artists in the News (2011), Koh Nguang How, Installation with newspaper archive and on-going research

Artists in the News (2011), Koh Nguang How, Installation with newspaper archive and on-going research

Meanwhile, at SAM, local artist-archivist Koh Nguang How’s Artists in the News, an installation-archive of newspaper articles documenting twenty years of local art history, sees space and process fusing into a symbiotic union, for the word “archive” itself connotes both a place and an act. The artist replicates the configuration of his apartment where he stores his collection, through which he highlights how the act of archiving implicates space-based processes of placement and classification – both in terms of the personal space of memory and the public space of history.

Also notable are the works that take a broader outlook of “site”, figuring it not merely in terms of an specified locality, but as nodes within a larger network of shifting geographies and temporalities, with the artist assuming the role of the “nomad”. Taking the term from Nicolas Bourriaud’s essay, “Altermodern”, such artists operate practices that are “vehicular, exchange-based and translative”, transforming ideas and signs as they are being transported from one place to another.[1]

South Korean artist Kyungah Ham’s embroideries, for instance, offer a compelling example of the ways artistic process negotiates and circumvent cross-border geopolitical sensitivities. Her embroideries, some of which include images of nuclear explosions, are designed by the artist and handmade by artisans from North Korea – an arduous process involving the transportation of the designs and completed works in parts to avoid rousing the suspicions of the censorial regime. The resulting work is poignant but decidedly anti-auratic, its presence fragmented and thus all the more precious.

Devo partire. Domani (2010), Ming Wong, Five-channel video installation

Devo partire. Domani (2010), Ming Wong, Five-channel video installation

Apart from space and time, this nomadism of the artist can also occur between signs in a semiological system. A simultaneity of all three movements – spatial, temporal, semiological – can be seen in Ming Wong’s ambitiously conceived video installation, Devo Partire. Domani, a recreation of the Pasolini’s cult classic, Teorema. The work, in an act of deliberate miscasting, features the artist playing all of the characters of the film – a characteristic feature of Wong’s practice which often involves mining the archive of world cinema for images of alterity. Crucially, the reenactments here transcend parody and mere exposures of performativity; they constitute an opening of the structures of performance, cinema and by extension, identity. A crucial move here is the splitting of the video into five channels, each playing in a different room, thus spatialising the cinematic montage and demanding the viewer to reconstitute it temporally by way of his or her physical participation in the installation. The filmic encounter turns both processual and spatial.

However, the curatorial formula falters when the processual becomes processional – a tendency that is understandably difficult to circumvent given how the format of a Biennale naturally lends itself to the building of spectacles. Gosia Wlodarczak’s Frost Drawing for Kallang, for instance, marker drawings on the windows of the airport that trace the shifting vistas, forms pretty constellations that are unfortunately only mere illustrations of process. Similarly, Michael Lin’s What a Difference a Day Made, a recreation of a daily goods store, displayed along with the crates in which the wares were shipped to Singapore and video footage of a performer juggling the various wares, appears like a vacuous charade, with the power relations surrounding these commercial items failing to gain a tangible expression. Most conspicuous is Tatzu Nishi’s overhyped The Merlion Hotel, a luxurious hotel constructed around the emblematic Merlion sculpture. While compelling in its professed intent of collapsing public and private space, the work, like the monument that inspired it, ended up as a disingenuous tourist spectacle. But, as an afterthought: can this degeneration into kitsch possibly be construed as “process”?

White Discharge (Built-up objects #10) (2009), Teppei Kaneuji, Found objects, resin, glue

White Discharge (Built-up objects #10) (2009), Teppei Kaneuji, Found objects, resin, glue

The works at NMS bear the greatest disjuncture from the Biennale’s overall direction. Exhibited within a large, black and minimally partitioned gallery, they inhabit a nebulous void, decontextualised architecturally and curatorially and yoked into a bewildering concatenation. Shao Yinong and Mu Chen’s massive embroideries of obsolete currencies in Spring and Autumn (2004-2010), for one, appear too glossy under the theatrical setting. Compared to Ham’s more understated works, the political overtones here are significantly obscured by spectacle. Likewise, Teppei Kaneuji’s delicate figures in his White Discharge series, created first by amassing numerous consumer items, followed by their pseudo-taxonomic classification and abstraction with carefully dripped white resin, lose their complexity amidst the environmental pressure to see them plainly as visual curios. Outside, artist collective ruangrupa’s mini-exhibition, Singapore Fiction, which displays artifacts, images and anecdotes accumulated by the artists during their sojourn in Singapore, appears superficial in its methods. While entertaining, the postmodern hodgepodge it presents seems symptomatic of a half-hearted anthropological venture devoid of rigour.

The Biennale’s examination of space and process is certainly a worthy one, especially when seen against the contemporary surfeit of manufactured imagery, of which the truth of its production is often concealed by inscrutable veneers. One could only hope the endeavour was pursued with greater gumption, giving up some of the sheen to make room for works that are more inchoate, in which the negotiations between space and process are not expressed as mere postures, but actual dialogues that unfold in the encounter between art, spectator and site.

The Singapore Biennale 2011 was held from 13 March to 15 May 2011.


Notes

[1] Nicolas Bourriaud, “Altermodern” in Altermodern: Tate Triennial 2009, ed. Nicolas Bourriaud (London: Tate Publishing, 2009), 23.

The Wall Outside

Installation view of The World Outside

Installation view of The World Outside

The Esplanade Tunnel is probably one of the most difficult places to configure for installation art. For one, it is inconveniently narrow, with just enough space to accommodate the droves of concert-goers making their way to the halls. It’s also furnished with some of the most banal contrivances of urban design: ceiling grids concealing unsightly air-con vents, turquoise glass tiles separating the tunnel from the underground carpark, huge cylindrical pillars and so on. Evidently, it’s a space designed more for transit than anything else, slotted between the bustling world of commerce and the hallowed grounds of a prime arts monument. It resides in a contextual vacuum, belonging neither to the ideologically charged sanctum of the museum nor the hustle and flow of public life. It is effectively a non-space; and the fate of a work exhibited within it is, more often than not, its reduction to kitsch, serving as a fancy backdrop for the Kodak moments of the passers-by.

But through artist Tang Ling Nah’s sleight of hand, the Tunnel is transformed into a living space which not only breathes, but also thinks. This self-reflexive turn would not be possible if not for an artist like Tang, whose works have always examined transitory spaces such as corridors and staircases. The Tunnel is a perfect venue for the extension of her inquiry.

Tang’s The World Outside is an installation spanning the entire length of the passageway. It is divided into three sections or “rooms” and each features charcoal drawings done directly upon the two walls of the space. To accomplish this, wall panels were specially mounted on the side of the tunnel occupied by the obtrusive glass tiles. Seats have also been installed to encourage the viewer to pause, sit down and contemplate the works. The monochromatic drawings mostly feature the vernacular architecture prominent in Tang’s oeuvre such as the angular staircases, rectangular pillars, sewage pipes and drains commonly seen in our housing estates. The structures criss-cross and overlap, creating dense, intricate constructions.

But the work is certainly not just a formalistic interplay of two-dimensional planes. As its title suggests, Tang’s piece is about looking beyond the surface of the wall to the world that lies outside it. It strives to rekindle the imagination which has been so suppressed by the pragmatic pursuits of urban life. In her drawings, the artist imbues seemingly banal architecture with a gentle but evocative sense of possibility: layers of walls, each with an opening or doorway, opens up to a new space beyond it, creating an unending sequence of exits and entrances, of departing and arriving. It is tempting to describe Tang’s illusionism as a trompe l’œil, but her work is so much more than a visual gimmick. While a trompe l’oeil forecloses the mind, Tang’s work does the exact opposite: we wander beyond the illusion on the wall to enter the multiple spaces in our imagination.

The first "room" of the installation

The first "room" of the installation

This is helped by the transformation which occurs when we move from one “room” to the other. The first depicts the architectural elements at their most distinct and identifiable, as if transplanted straight from our void decks. But in the subsequent “rooms”, a visible abstraction occurs. Planes of flat greys begin to dominate as the scaffolding of each depicted scene appears to disintegrate, leaving us with isolated fragments instead of a coherent whole. The architectural vernacular specific to our local urbanity begins to give way to constructions that appear more generalised, or at times, even rustic. In the last “room”, one window opens to a blurry pastoral landscape outside, another to a vague swarm of darkness. There is a sense of the space itself escaping from itself, opening up its structure to be reconstituted anew by our minds.

Furthermore, imbued within the environment is a curious self-reflexivity. Here is a transitory space about transitory spaces. In the first “room”, framed “pictures” of certain architectural forms are seen upon the “wall” depicted in the wall drawing – an instance of a picture within a picture. They appear to be close-ups of chic, modern architecture. One wonders: are these the “aspirations” or “idols” of the banal architecture that is the subject of Tang’s drawings? Taking this analogy farther, can the drawings upon the physical walls be read as an expression of what the Tunnel as a whole may be thinking of? When inscribed upon the very skin of the Tunnel, the charcoal gains a potent immediacy, as if it were surfacing from its epidermal pores. It is as if we have caught the Tunnel in the very act of contemplating its own “tunnel-ness”. Suddenly, this seemingly utilitarian space of the Tunnel is endowed with a touch of humanity. The Tunnel is pensive; the Tunnel thinks.

The third "room" of the installation

The third "room" of the installation

The fusing of charcoal drawing with large-scale installation produces some interesting effects. While from afar, the labyrinthine construction (seen more in the first “room” than the others) appears to overwhelm and take you away into a wide, escapist universe; at close range, the work draws you instead towards the infinitesimal black grains clutching onto the surface of the wall. Tang does not attempt to obscure the unevenness of her canvas or the marks of history upon it, allowing the charcoal to interact with these imperfections. In fact, charcoal marks run across the wall in brusque trails, making visible the very coarseness of the surface. As we scrutinise the grains of charcoal, they each begin to tremble with poetic possibility; and from taking the leap into an external fantasy world, we begin to retreat into a world of a wholly different character – the melancholic, private world of drawing. This introspection is compounded by the two lyrical poems on love and love lost exhibited in between the “rooms”. As we withdraw from the monumental into the intimate, it begins to seem that the world outside really lies within.

The nature of Tang’s practice situates her work at certain critical nodes in the complex system of artistic production, where the artwork and its document, public and private and intervention and creation intersect. Drawing is usually an intensely private activity, often confined within the artist’s studio and used more as a preparatory sketch than a final product. It rarely even shows up in a gallery setting. So what happens when the drawing is taken outside the studio into the public domain? How does charcoal drawing fit within a public space so dominated by site-specific sculptural works, of which most (those of a more edgy, contemporary ilk) invite audience interaction? As such, there is always a level of uncertainty with regard to the extent to which the audience can engage with the works of an artist like Tang. Can they touch it, to engage with the tactile qualities of the charcoal? But when the very act of touching a work leaves a literal mark, how much marking is permissible? What are the limits to the interaction between the audience and the artwork?

Furthermore, by drawing on the very surface of the Tunnel, Tang enables her work to take on the most intimate attachment possible to its space. It is not just displayed against or mounted on the walls, but inscribed upon them – the ultimate form of propinquity between the artwork and its exhibition site. The mutual intervention between the two enables new and exciting ways for us to engage with charcoal – a medium which has truly transcended the drawing board to enter the world outside.

The World Outside is currently running at the Esplanade Tunnel from 12 November 2010 to 2 January 2011. Admission is free. Images taken by Arron Teo.

Arts Engage: The Bigger Conversation

Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.

Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.

Lately, I have wanted to write something in response to the arts community’s ongoing campaign against censorship, but have hesitated since there was little I could add to enrich the conversation. The campaign tagline (“Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.”) probably doesn’t sound as snappy as expected, but this is perhaps a reflection of the curious position the paper takes as a whole. In fact, at first glance, the definition of censorship and regulation against each other would raise some eyebrows.

It’s a really fine line we are treading upon, which is why much of the paper is dedicated towards differentiating the two policy directions and in the process, identifying the latter as desirable to the continued development of the arts. The dwelling on definitional particularities comes across as a little belaboured and my worry is that it would lead only to a technification of the two terms. Furthermore, the claim that regulation entails a “disinterested classification of content” is largely an ideal, for both censorship and regulation will always involve the drawing of arbitrary boundaries. There is no litmus test available when it comes to making decisions on what rating a work should be given. And in many cases, “regulation” may even provide a euphemistic veil to cover up acts of censorship.

But in all honesty, I can scarcely think of a more viable position to be taken, which accounts for my hesitation on speaking on the issue. Depending on how it is practised, the distinctions between censorship and regulation can be stark. Censorship involves the outright denial of content. In contrast, with regulation, access to a work remains available, but is monitored and managed.

But perhaps is the biggest head-scratcher for many is this: doesn’t Singapore already have regulation?

Yes, we do, but the problem is its coexistence with censorship, which the campaign hopes to obliterate entirely. In other words, what is being pushed for is an extensive refinement of an existing system, falling short of a complete overhaul. It’s a very clever position to take, particularly since we are dealing with an authority with a knee-jerk aversion to any signs of radicalism.

Answering the tough questions on art

However, in contemplating the relationship between the artist and the state, it is also necessary to look at the bigger picture, which involves an examination on the role of art in society and more crucially, the methods through which art is produced, consumed and distributed. There is a dominant perception within the mainstream that art emerges into the world complete and self-made, embedded with intrinsic meanings that form the core of its nature.

Such essentialist views towards art need to be deconstructed to give way to an understanding of art as a process in which meanings are constantly created, ascribed and transformed through complex interactions between the various stakeholders (artists, audience, curators, critics, the state, the market economy, the media and so on) and the art object within a specific context. Artists themselves cannot be imagined to be driven by purely missionary goals for they are also operating within a highly politicised sphere govern by the rules of the economy and society.

Essentially, art constitutes a becoming; and without a critical mass of stakeholders who is capable of discussing the varied methods through which art becomes art, it is almost impossible to speak of a system that aims to address the difficult questions on art.

An ongoing negotiation between the artist and the system is, in all senses, a structural necessity, but over-emphasising it would belie the greater complexities that govern cultural production and consumption. The nature of negotiation imagines a bifurcation of the stakeholders into two initially oppositional groups. Its ultimate intention is the attainment of consensus, or even more idealistically, a coalescence of the disparate fractions. But how attainable is this desired consensus? And why must consensus always be seen as the necessary end point of any reconciliatory endeavour? Has consensus, or even resolution, been overrated? Can something productive be generated out of a state of indeterminacy instead?

I say this because the attempts at negotiation thus far have not really culminated to any genuine form of consensus. Some interests are simply irreconcilable – a fact we need to contend with. What we can reasonably expect is a little give and take; in other words, a movement towards building consensus but never its attainment.

Until recently, the engagement between the artist and the state in Singapore has largely been that of a cross-checking and second-guessing of each other’s modus operandi. Both the government and the arts are only involved in a process of speculative self-calibration, not negotiation, keeping in mind of an unmarked threshold that each tries not to surpass. Occasionally, one side attempts to test these unidentified boundaries, only to frantically retreat upon realising that it has overstepped them. What is happening between the artist and the state is like that of an awkward dance between two dancers who are trying very hard to preempt each other’s next move.

I am, however, in no measure, trying to discredit the efforts of the ongoing petition. Consensus-building has its limits but it has definitely yet to reach its point of exhaustion in a country where the state has been engaging the arts in only monologic terms. But in the long run, to effectively grapple with the difficult questions that arise from “transgressive art”, we need something beyond a set rubric derived through consensus (which is primarily interested in the ends of production). We need a culture of conversation which is capable of a critical inquiry into the very methods through which works of art have come to be in our society. We cannot rely on a select group of cultural intellectuals in the academic world to answer these questions. Conversation needs to permeate society.

What is Conversation?

But how can we do this? How do we get people to make talk? It is an endeavour, which I believe, can only be achieved on the level of the individual. Institutional solutions are untenable when it comes to something as intuitive and organic as conversation. This is where I feel arts practitioners need to take the lead, which can take the form of a more self-reflexive practice or curatorial strategy. I say this particularly in the field of the visual arts, in which there seems to be a lack of both inspired curatorship as well as a developed critical discourse. Too much of contemporary art relies on performative mimicry, in which many works only strive to perform contemporaneity without engaging its internal structures. More projects in the likes of Curating Labs, the curatorial experiment and pedagogical programme seen last year at the Singapore Art Show, are needed to stimulate such conversations about art.

Amanda Heng's Let's Chat (1996-2000), re-presented last year at Curating Labs

Amanda Heng's Let's Chat (1996-2000), re-presented last year at Curating Labs

Given its importance, it is also necessary to discuss what is the kind of conversation we should be striving towards. The problem with conversation in Singapore, whether is in the context of spoken or written form, online or offline, is that it’s either too instrumentalised or dismissed as frivolous chatter. There appears to be only two places where people make talk – either in the coffee shop or the official talk shop, may it be a governmental feedback unit or some other round-table discussion forum. The overriding notion that talk must lead to a particular end is stifling. There is, or would be a need for what one can call conversation for conversation’s sake.

First, such conversations are not driven by preset convictions but by inquiry. They are motivated not only by a thirst for knowledge but also a desire to understand the means through which knowledge is produced. A lot of what is seen in the local blogosphere, so hailed as the bastion of citizen journalism, entails not conversation but pure defence. People are more interested in driving their point across under the cloak of anonymity, instead of being committed to an interpenetration of ideas. Repartee is seen as a hallmark of discourse. We are valorised for our ability to single-mindedly safeguard our personal worldview and to squash that of others, instead of our receptiveness towards change. Go to any online discussion platform and you would see knee-jerk reactions flying all over the place.

Next, conversation needs to entail a respect for plurality. There is a need to appreciate instead of resist or rationalise any fundamental incompatibility of ideas and beliefs. I refer to the work of postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard which asserts that consensus is inadequate as a process for validating truth and that it is effectively driven by manipulation and power. Lyotard’s philosophy is particularly marked by its opposition towards meta-narratives, which often aim to order disparate forms of knowledge and experience into one unified cultural narrative schema. The Singaporean mind is, unfortunately, structured on such narrativity. We are obsessed with originaries, trajectories and endings. We grew up learning about the Singapore Story even before we have figured out what Singapore is. Too many art exhibitions are also too fixated with narrativity, with little attentiveness to the act of narrativisation and what it constitutes. This is not say that any form of narrativity ought to be abandoned. Narrativisation has its value, particularly in understanding art-historical developments, something which our national museums are doing an excellent job in. But at the same time, weaving historical narratives is a project which is essentially methodological and not critical in nature. There needs to be less of that awkward insertion of works into an artificially drawn trajectory and a greater recognition of the inevitably pluralistic nature of knowledge production.

Classic Contemporary, held earlier this year at Singapore Art Museum 8Q, is a fine instance of a show which approaches the art-historical narrative with a level of criticality.

Classic Contemporary, held earlier this year at Singapore Art Museum 8Q, is a fine instance of a show which approaches the art-historical narrative with a level of criticality.

Finally, conversation needs to be boundless, endless and fearless; the last condition being the most difficult to fulfill. Too often is conversation truncated when we accidentally veer into the touchy areas. It’s like hitting the wrong nerve. We quickly gloss over them, unwilling to return to them for we fear its sting. Admittedly, such audacity is difficult and can even be dangerous. But we should still endeavour to imagine a conversational culture in which moments of tension and resistance are not blindly shunned. Instead, one rests in them and cultivates them, not for their own sake but for their potentialities.

In fact, there have been promising glimpses of such conversations happening within the recent past, and what is remarkable is the fact that while they were often not conceived to culminate in certain tangible, identifiable ends, they often end up doing so, if not by serendipity, then by the generative nature of conversation. Take the Artscommunity e-group set up in 1999 and still running today, which has spun several initiatives through the online discourse. The two “working committees”, The Working Committee (TWC) in 1999 and subsequently, TWC2 in 2003, are also cases in point. TWC2 was subsequently re-invented as an officially gazetted civil society called Transient Workers Count Too and continues campaigning the rights of migrant workers today.

But it is of no necessity that conversation needs to arrive at any decision, resolution or consensus. Its use value is intrinsic. Through conversation, we don’t need to reach any collective agreement on whether a work is good or bad, rapturous or repulsive. Instead, we can reside in a state of indeterminacy which entails giving space for irreconcilable disagreements in a manner informed by intuition of the most cultivated form. It all probably sounds pretty abstract and lofty at this point, but only because it presently resides in the province of imagination. But there is nevertheless a need to imagine, for it is imagination which propels change.

Censorship is an intellectual slaveholder. Moving towards regulation marks progressive change. But tinkering with institutional apparatus can only bring us so far. The toughest questions on art can only be adequately addressed on a personal level. Conversation thus must be driven by individuals, not bureaucracies. It can happen anywhere, anytime and with anyone as long as there is the will to make talk.

More than 1000 people have signed the petition to make censorship history. Read the position paper and add your signature today at http://sites.google.com/site/artsengagesg/.

Epic Poem of Orang Lauts

K. Rajagopal in Epic Poem of Malaya

K. Rajagopal in Epic Poem of Malaya

History will almost always be a triumphal account. To historicise is to create meaning and identity from the mute facticity of the universe and the “national history” that emerges will usually be one that serves the political and economic imperatives of the nascent government. The originaries of the history of Singapore, in particular, have been shifting over the years in an almost arbitrary fashion. Official accounts of history are apparently delving deeper into the pre-Raffles Singapore, almost in anticipation of uncovering new mythical connections to the economic powerhouses of today. But whether Singapore emerged singularly from that sanctified landing site of Stamford Raffles or from more distant lands across the seas, it seems that a particular thread of communal history would be perpetually obscured. The Orang Laut community occupies this obliterated historical space, often either mentioned as the pre-historical “sleepy fishing village” or forgotten altogether. Perhaps they were far too nomadic for their tracks to be traced. But it is more plausible to conclude that they simply had no place within the scripted narrative of our national history.

Yes, Epic Poem of Malaya is a work about the Orang Lauts. It really has very little to do with the Chua Mia Tee painting it takes its title from, or the leftist, nationalist ideologies espoused by the Equator Art Society where Chua was from. The directors, spell#7’s Paul Rae and Kaylene Tan do attempt to justify their decisions, claiming that they are presenting a history alternative to that which is articulated by the central character in the painting, or in other words, reinventing the “epic poem” of Malaya. But still, it is hard not to feel disappointed by the tokenistic use of such an iconic piece of Singapore art history. It could really have been any other painting. But what is perhaps most problematic in the use of Chua’s painting for a narrative about Orang Lauts is the foregrounding of a particular alternative history at the expense of another. The production runs the risk of taking for granted the fact that Chua’s painting itself is the embodiment of an unfulfilled history, that of a collective Malayan identity. This forsaking of one alternative for another is arguably inimical to the play’s original aspirations.

Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), Chua Mia Tee, Oil on canvas

Epic Poem of Malaya (1955), Chua Mia Tee, Oil on canvas

Perhaps it is really just the gag reflex of the art student in me acting up. If you take away this rather troubling premise of the play, the material on offer covers astounding thematic and emotional breadth and depth, compellingly delivered by a competent cast.

The play unfolds like a dramatised reading of a story put together by Zai Kuning based on his travels around the Riau Archipelago. It is accompanied by an evocative soundscape created and performed live by Zai himself. We hear the life story of a young Chinese man from mainland Singapore who marries into the Orang Laut community. We witness his initial culture shock, his attempts at assimilation, his discovery of his parentage (which reveals his birth mother as an Orang Laut) and eventually his transformation into the communal leader that defends his community. But the survival of his community is threatened by the shifting currents of social and political change. The various nationalist movements within the region and the subsequent demarcations of national territorial boundaries eventually led to the eviction of the Orang Lauts, also known as sea people, from the sea that is their home. Their crisis is existential: What does it mean to be an Orang Laut? Are we nothing more than “sea monkeys” to be banished? Where is our place within this brave new world of nation-states?

There is a poignant and nostalgic authenticity to the story as much as there is urgency. The later parts of the play are particularly gripping, as current issues of cultural displacement, community, identity, memory and place begin to surface.

The standout sequences of the play are the moments of reckoning, when the Orang Lauts and the mainlanders collide head on and the disparities between them take on an ontological nature. They are confused by the notion of religion, befuddled by its dogma and the necessity of identifying one as “Christian” or “Muslim”. They are similarly shocked when they realise they have unknowingly intruded into foreign territorial borders. What does it mean to be a citizen of Singapore? What does it mean to be a citizen? Such official markers of identity are incomprehensible to the Orang Lauts whose identity is tied more to a sense of place than to a prescribed label. In fact, they candidly confess to use the Singaporean identity only as a passport that enables them to go anywhere. The construct of the nation-state, as an artifice governed by constitutional laws and geographical demarcations is a phantom to a community of nomads who inhabit a world without rules, institutions or borders. Their only faith is towards nature which is based upon intuition instead of dogma.

The range of issues tackled by the play is undeniably very broad, but the two and a half hour long play could have been shorter with tighter writing. In fact, the first hour of the play is particularly tedious to go through. For a work that essentially involves reading, reading and more reading, the only indicators of movement from one narrative beat to the next are the subtle shifts in the speaking tone and the music. It is undeniably a performance that demands a lot from its audience as everything can easily become an indiscernible drone when one unconsciously drifts away from the stage.

But perhaps this drifting and the subsequent attempt at bringing ourselves back into the narrative adds another layer of meaning and charm to the work. The play is really storytelling at its most rustic and primitive. It invokes the age-old tradition of the oral narrative, transmitted from individual to individual in a manner that often involves an element of mutual trust. It demands reciprocity between the storyteller and his listener.

I used to have very little appreciation for the genre of dramatised reading (which the work, strictly speaking, does not fall within), but Epic Poem did make me realise that such works are more than just redundant attempts at theatricalising the relatively banal act of reading. What they create is a relationship that needs to be actively sustained within the communal space of the theatre. Furthermore, the abstract nature of images that are transmitted aurally frees up room for the audience’s imaginations to wander as we delve within our personal repository of images in response to these aural stimuli.

Tony Yeow in Epic Poem of Malaya

Tony Yeow in Epic Poem of Malaya

For this, much credit has to go to the excellent performances and generally engaging and purposeful sound design. The varied dispositions of the four performers, as well as their diversity in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, impart a vivid texture and fluidity to the narrative. Janice Koh’s more assertive persona lends the story a certain feisty energy. Meanwhile, K. Rajagopal’s smooth, effortless and polished style works brilliantly in bringing out the lyricism of Zai’s prose. The most satisfying performances come from Siti K. Zainal and Tony Yeow. Zainal, who is the youngest in the cast, speaks her words with a raw and moving authenticity. As for Yeow, I must really say that no one can triumph over an old man when it comes to playing narrator. Yeow, who is largely seated throughout the play, delivers his lines with a steady, measured pace, with each word always carefully loaded with meaning and emotion. Towards the second half of the play, as the number of characters and contesting viewpoints multiplies, the performers gradually move from narration towards role-play, creating a new form of dynamism in their interactions.

All these are enhanced by the atmospheric and diaphanous sound by Zai, which moves across a diverse range of musical styles. The rueful and rustic quality of the music created by the strings succinctly conveys melancholia and wanderlust. The percussion instruments are often used in unorthodox ways to create an otherworldly sound that uncovers a whole new terrain of tension. This tension arises from the fear towards the alien, reflecting the fundamental incomprehension that the Orang Lauts had to grapple with amidst the sweeping changes of the regional landscape. Unfortunately, Zai’s unorthodoxy can get quite out of hand. For one, I certainly did not appreciate the incessant and disruptive slamming of the cymbals which felt like a gratuitous demonstration of postmodern angst. Not only was it awfully painful on the ears, it also appeared out-of-place with the more restrained aesthetics of the play.

Perhaps one of the most troubling aspects of the production is the poor visuality, which is particularly strange for a play putatively based on a painting. In fact, the visual elements appear so much like sporadic insertions that they seem to reflect a critical indecision on the part of the directors in choosing between minimalism and theatricality. Consequently, the stage movements and props often appear arbitrary and distracting. The lighting is similarly anemic, lacking the audacity and distinctiveness to match up with Zai’s soundscape.

The only visible attempt at maintaining a visual connection to the painting also comes across as rather pointless. It is delivered in the form of Kaylene Tan assuming the various positions and postures of the fourteen characters depicted in the painting throughout the play. As one who has just recently seen the original work, I must admit that this was actually done in quite an intriguing and clever way. (For instance, Tan brushes her shoulder repeatedly in a reference to the fly that is seen rested upon one of the listeners’ shoulder.) But essentially, there is very little purpose for her presence on the set. Most of the time, she appears like a meaningless ceremonial object or even a stage hand whose there to move the props!

While Epic Poem can hardly qualify as an outstanding piece of theatre, it is the emotional resonance and thematic depth of the material on offer that eventually persuade me of the production’s worth. The work is more valuable when seen as an immersive cultural experience. While the play may be unbearably overstretched for some, it is perhaps the very duration of the encounter that creates this sense of a journey that is at once epic and intimate.

Epic Poem of Malaya played at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 22 to 24 April 2010. An edited version of this essay was first published on The Flying Inkpot.

Beyond the Model

Goh Guat Kian (left) as Mrs Chua with Siti Khalijah (right) as Melly

Goh Guat Kian (left) as Mrs Chua with Siti Khalijah (right) as Melly

A violent rupture occurs in the midst of The Necessary Stage’s latest production, Model Citizens. The fissure is deep, unsightly and irreparable, cutting through the well-manicured landscape and shattering its cultivated harmony. As the audience, we are overwhelmed as the fissure widens and unearths a continual stream of emotional truths hitherto unarticulated.

The landscape in question indubitably refers to the projected image of a cultured, harmonious Singapore society carefully pruned by the hands of our skilled horticulturalists. And in the broadest sense, Model Citizens, written by Haresh Sharma and directed by Alvin Tan, is a play that addresses the paternalistic social planning undertaken by an interventionist state.

Or at least, that is how it appears to me most of the time. In fact, the clutter of socio-cultural issues examined by Model Citizens contains such range that is hard to pin down what the production is about exactly. The discussion spans a bewildering breath, covering issues such as language policy, class disparities, the plight of migrant workers as well as gender roles. In this light, the inclusion of the word, “citizens” in the title of the play actually comes across as misleading and limiting, for the discussion of citizenry and national identity only forms a part of the work. Instead, the operative word is “model”, which invokes the notions of moulds, prototypes and artificial projections of identity. The central issue of discussion is the tyranny of the model, which refers both to the models constructed and officialised by state-led campaigns and government policy as well as those which are disseminated by culture. Through an intimate examination of the lives of three women of different social statuses and ethnolinguistic backgrounds, Model Citizens unearths a terrain of complex emotions that arise from the tensions between individual wants and the promises and expectations of the collective.

The key event that sets the play into action is that stabbing of an MP at a Meet the People Session. But we never see the actual event as the emphasis is upon its ramifications upon the three women who are directly implicated. There is the Chinese-educated wife of the MP, Mrs Chua (Goh Guat Kian) who is more concerned about the media spotlight than her husband’s well-being. She is approached by Melly (Siti Khalijah), the Indonesian maid whose boyfriend, Zul is the man behind the stabbing. The play opens with Melly appealing to Mrs Chua’s compassion to help Zul out of jail. We are then introduced to Melly’s employer, Wendy (Karen Tan), a middle class, English-speaking Peranakan woman. Here’s the bit that comes across as a little incredulous: apparently, Wendy places an unusually liberal amount of trust on Melly. For one, she allows and even encourages Melly to have an active social life and does not stop her from having a boyfriend. In fact, Wendy eventually approaches Mrs Chua to appeal on Melly’s behalf and takes on the burden of finding solutions for Melly’s problems, despite the fact that she herself is on the verge of a nervous breakdown – a consequence of her son’s suicide six months ago.

Karen Tan (left) as Wendy with Melly

Karen Tan (left) as Wendy with Melly

Mrs Chua, Wendy and Melly

The completely distinct backgrounds of the three women provides an interesting premise which allows the disparities in their social upbringings, intellectual convictions and political leanings to be surfaced via the interactions between the three characters, in the process illuminating the issues examined.

The interactions between Mrs Chua, a stalwart of Chinese culture and alumnus of Nantah and Wendy, who belongs to the emerging substrata of the English-speaking Chinese middle class, reveals insights with regard to Singapore’s language policy. As it appears, the state’s interventionist strategies, as seen in the closure of Nantah and the official endorsement of English in the eighties has resulted in a segmentation, not only in terms of the way society is organised but also in the way individuals begin to consider one another in terms of categories perpetuated by such policies.

There is much hilarity during the initial interactions, particularly with Mrs Chua struggling to communicate in half-baked English to the eloquent and bilingual Wendy. Notably, when the former reveals that she was previously a teacher, the latter immediately assumes that she teaches Mandarin. But Wendy is wrong: Mrs Chua taught Science and was particularly exasperated when one day she was told that she had to translate all her lessons into English within three months. With her characteristic quizzical expression, she asks Wendy in Mandarin, “How do I say ‘Force equals mass times acceleration’ in English?” It is the little amusing moments like these which reveal how Mrs Chua and Wendy conceive of their society and world in utterly disparate ways. To Wendy, Mandarin is a subject to be learnt and not a language that facilitates the primal human function of communication.

However, it is later during a vitriolic verbal duel between Mrs Chua and Wendy that we truly see such disparities widen to take the form of dangerous fault lines, when the enlightened, English-speaking humanist in Wendy goes into a head-on confrontation with the narrow-minded, arrogant Chinese conservative who is still oblivious to her imminent displacement in society. The rupture occurs when Wendy realises the futility of enlisting Mrs Chua’s sympathy towards helping Melly and Zul. At that point, Wendy stops conversing in Mandarin to Mrs Chua’s immediate anxiety. She demands, “Why are you speaking in English?”. “Because I can,” is the retort. It unruffles Mrs Chua completely and in retaliation, she begins to brandish her privileged social status as a hollow demonstration of her power. An interesting irony that happens here is that English, the language of the dominant and powerful is wielded here by the socially inferior, which only serves to reinforce Mrs Chua’s insecurity.

It must be said that by herself, Mrs Chua is a terrifically loaded character. And it helps that she is played by the delightful and exuberant Goh, who excels in bringing across the multiple sides of the character, delivering both infectious physical comedy and nuanced emotional portraiture. There is a particularly memorable sequence in which the overwhelmed wife expresses her resentment against how the models of responsible citizenry have been erratically changing over the years according to Singapore’s evolving economic pragmatics.

Mrs Chua: …You wanted me to speak English. You wanted me to stop having anymore children. Two is enough you said. You changed the rules. You forced me to get sterilized. Now you want more children…

It is through Mrs Chua’s character that we truly see the tyranny of the model upon the individual. Beneath her animated, comical gestures is a genuinely tragic character. As the wife of a public figure, she is forced to live in his shadow as the politically correct “Mrs Chua”, playing the role of the supportive spouse and branded by the media as a “Loyal Pillar of Strength”. As the displaced graduate of Nantah in an English-speaking world, her personal aspirations and zeal for Chinese culture are suppressed by her alienation by society. She has been conditioned to accept and support every one of the demonstrative gestures of a state determined to construct and officialise models for all aspects of socially-responsible behaviour, from courtesy, daily speech to procreation. Next to Wendy, she appears an uncritical, empty vessel, completely incompetent of relating to Wendy’s more “enlightened” ways of doing things. In the same light, her understanding of the world is crudely segmented and reliant on base stereotypes. She is covertly racist and xenophobic, ever wary of foreign workers and “maids working in Geylang to earn more money”.

But Mrs Chua’s newfound autonomy in her husband’s absence awakens her resistance. She approves grant applications in his absence and pens a parliamentary speech for him, despite the fact that he has never given one. The speech ludicrously pushes to make Chinese compulsory for all Singaporeans, in a cheeky reference to the social reality that the nascent dominance of China is reversing the language policy to the benefit of individuals like Mrs Chua.

While Goh’s character has the most presence throughout the play, it is Siti Khalijah who delivers the most demanding role. What impresses me most is the way she is able to breathe such humanity into an underwritten and arguably detestable character. Melly is essentially the nightmare of the employer too liberal with her trust. While before Wendy, she is diligent, responsible and good-natured, behind her back, she is a morally repugnant sex worker who deceives her employer and boyfriend and administers her own abortion.

But through a heartbreaking and biting performance, Khalijah manages to present Melly as a confused victim who doesn’t really know what she wants or where she is headed to. At some points, she appears to be the typical migrant worker who is hoodwinked by the lure of a Singapore citizenship. But Zul was only ever a cleaner, and now he is a criminal. Why is she still pleading to marry a man who can never give her a future? Did her emotions get the better of her? But perhaps Melly is neither an impulsive emotionalist nor a vile, conniving schemer. Like Mrs Chua, she is a vessel to be filled and emptied by the promises and expectations of her immediate environment. Most poignantly, she is deluded by her circumstances to believe that she is capable of dealing with situations beyond her maturity and age. She attempts her own abortion with lackadaisical nonchalence as if it is a non-event. But when the pain comes, she is completely ripped apart.

Siti Khalijah gives the most heartbreaking performance as Melly.

Siti Khalijah gives the most heartbreaking performance as Melly.

Themes, or the Lack Thereof

My enthusiasm with the play is largely because the play resonates on a gut level, with credit going to powerful dialogue intensively delivered through absorbing performances. After all, it is my personal belief that the inherent power of theatre lies in its immediate affect, which makes it more forgivable if the arguments delivered lack the coherence and consistency of those in an argumentative essay. But if one were to laboriously dissect the play in terms of narrative and thematic presentation, the loopholes and inconsistencies appear too glaring to ignore. While on a visceral level, everything does seem to flow quite seamlessly, in reality, none of the characters actually influences each other in any explicit manner. The final decisions made by the characters at the end of the play, arguably result more from introspection than interaction – nor is the trajectory of their mental processes always detailed clearly. Melly and Mrs Chua eventually make the decision to leave Singapore to reclaim their own sense of identity, but the internal negotiations that lead to their decisions is not illustrated.

Thematically, I’ve tried quite hard to put together an overarching argument that covers the broad spectrum of issues discussed but my efforts have proven futile. The issues are really all over the place, which proves to be rather distracting if you are the kind of audience taken to active analysis and interpretation. The play also tends towards a more general existentialism towards its denouement, which deviates from its initial positioning as a piece of political theatre. But curiously, despite these inconsistencies, the play seems complete, contained and cogent, for even if there is no central thesis put across, there is a clear, collective feeling evoked. Just as how no single fibre runs the length of a piece of rope, Model Citizens is an exquisite piece of theatre that puts together an array of disparate issues and positions that constitute a collective psyche. It mirrors life as it is – unmediated, unstructured and unthematic.

There is however, one particular part of the production which I can’t fit in regardless of how I interpret the play as a whole. Despite the fact that Wendy appears to form the emotional core of the play, the relevance of her personal tragedy to the rest of the play, is at best, remote. While she does have to deal with her own share of tensions surrounding her role as a grieving mother, her tragedy is too much of a personal crisis which appears out of place when juxtaposed against the more societal predicaments of Mrs Chua and Melly. The fact that her deceased son is revealed to harbour anti-establishment dissent does little to connect her grief to socio-political realities of our time. By itself, there is emotional depth and sensitivity, but when stitched up with the rest of the play, it is the odd colour in the tapestry, initially imperceptible but annoyingly obtrusive over time.

As a piece of theatre, Model Citizens has both power and veracity. The sense of tension and resistance pulsates with a seething, palpable rhythm throughout the play. While its positions, issues and ideas are scattered all over the play, it is worth recognising that it has probably never set out to be a theatrical essay in the first place. What unfolds on stage is not a polished articulation of developed arguments, but a clarification and negotiation of the vague thoughts and emotions that lie latent within us. As these thoughts and emotions begin to resettle after the play, we relook at them with a greater sensitivity and purpose. And that, to me, is what theatre is all about.

Model Citizens played at The Necessary Stage Black Box from 3 to 14 March 2010. An edited version of this essay was first published on The Flying Inkpot.