Performance resurrected

Alwin Reamillo

Silent Logistics by Julie Andree T and Dominic Gagnon, Chapel Gallery

Silent Logistics by Julie Andree T and Dominic Gagnon, Chapel Gallery

I embarked on a short visit to Manila in late November from Perth, a prelude to a project called the life and wandering times of arnulfo tikb-ang, a performance work-in-progess. The purpose of the visit was to track and bring together people I had not seen for many years—people who worked closely with my father, a piano-maker, who passed away 20 years ago. Taking my video documentation and recorded conversations along with old photographs, personal objects and mementos from the past, I packed my gear in the middle of a familiar, raging typhoon and embarked on a flight to Singapore for Future of Imagination 2.

Coordinated and directed by Lee Wen and Jason Lim, Future of Imagination, initially staged at the Substation in 2003, was re-launched as Singapore’s first international performance art event in December 2004. This ambitious 5 day event aimed to provide an expanded platform for the revival of performance art. It was an inspiring undertaking, a creative collaboration made possible by the generosity of the local artist community and its growing support network of students and volunteers.

Bringing together artists from 14 countries in Europe, North America and South East Asia, FOI2 was a welcome opportunity for local audiences to experience and actively engage with a diversity of practices of live and time-based art. It was also a community celebration, a milestone marking the lifting of an effective ban on performance art through the no-funding policy of the state—the punitive action imposed by the National Arts Council for 10 years following an overblown and sensationalised attack by the conservative press on the pubic-hair snipping performance by Joseph Ng in 1994.

Staged in Chapel Gallery at Sculpture Square, a late 19th century Methodist church, there couldn’t be a more fitting venue for the resurrection of faith in this marginalised artform. In his welcome, Lee Wen improvised an illustration of the state of cultural affairs in Singapore with regards to live art. Holding a benevolent looking, soft white-haired grandma doll in his right hand and a rather cheeky looking red devil with a hammer in the other he randomly picks victims from the congregation, pounds his prey on the head, recoils and squeezes the wheezing, mocking doll against his cheek. The devil takes on many victims from the assembly, each one submissively accepting its blows. A religious style rant follows about an archaic obscenity law in the Penal Code designed “to protect the man on the street”, on which the restrictions on performance are based. Just who is this man? Lee backs off, jokingly blaming the chapel for his behaviour. Nervous laughter. Opening night was a curiously ambivalent but intensely engaging affair, an occasion for jubilation, but the policing of performance persists.

In background: Lee Wen, Jason Lim

Lee collaborates with Jason Lim on a symbolic hair-shaving, an historical rewind, refreshing the audience’s memory of the infamous pubic-hair-snipping incident. With an electric clipper they take turns to shave each other’s heads while 3 teenage performers dance to high-octane hip hop, the sound of the clipper powerfully amplified. Then Lim burns joss sticks in a trance-like, body purification ritual, running the bundle over his body, with only the groin escaping the burning tips. Lee takes a bird from a cage, hobbles it with a string, tying leg to neck. The bird frantically flutters, heads up towards the beams overhead and falls exhausted to the floor. Lim shaves his exposed body forcing the clippers into his skin. An angry young woman emerges from the audience with scissors and cuts the string. The performance is aborted. Lee Wen regains his composure and asks the woman to complete the removal of the string before she releases the bird outside. It was a disconcerting and poignant moment as I too was dislodged from my own role—I had been asked earlier by the artist to assist in cutting the string, on cue, just before this intervention occurred. What was the performance about now? I was aware that it had a very personal meaning for Wen about the suicide of a very close friend a month earlier, something more than the issue of censorship and ‘the man on the street.’ More accusations dogged the artist that night, prompting him to post an open email to explain and contextualise the work.

Ironically, no one intervenes as Lim’s skin reddens from his aggressive shaving but the collective relief is palpable when the clipper is turned off. He stretches out on the floor like a model in a photo session, applies waxing strips and rips the remaining hair from his body. The performance ends.

While the opening performance focused on issues of censorship, freedom of expression and state power, Silent Logistics explored the dynamics of power between individuals in personal relationships. Performing a series of repetitive actions, Canadian partners Julie Andree T and Dominic Gagnon defined the central area of the chapel as a temporal stage, cordoning it with elastic lines stretched mid-level between walls. The domestic setting included kitchen objects, a water-filled plastic bucket, a glass mixing bowl, a brown paper bag, flour, a tray of eggs and 3 durian fruits, the smell distinctly reminding us of the season, 2 more buckets, newspaper strewn under the table, and an empty chair nearby. In sustained silence, the protagonists mirror the other’s gestures, position their mouths against the elastic line and walk towards each other. The illusion of the squared-off area is broken as the lines stretch and literally form a cross. The performers lean forward and fall together, shoulder to shoulder—the stretched cross-line presenting an illusion of two bodies suspended in space.

A series of actions, including being slapped while holding eggs in the mouth, is followed by the man covering his head in pink slush from a bucket while the woman splits open the durian fruit and cups the flesh under her shirt, dramatically enlarging her breasts before immersing her head in the pink liquid. The pair return to their opening positions, the elastic line in their mouths, and suddenly and aggressively lunge at each other with an intense animal cry. The display gradually becomes a sustained, passionate kiss, with the two pink heads amazingly morphing as a single entity, reminding us of Magritte’s iconic surrealist painting The Lovers, with the sludge substituting for the cloth. They slowly manouver a release from the locked kiss and pivot their heads in opposite directions while remaining balanced together, the crossed lines still in tight tension. They slip and fall. A cigarette is lit. The act is consumated. The intensity of this piece draws its power from the multitude of metaphors animated in this temporal space.

A number of works from the region were participatory and playful. Using different flavoured icy poles, China’s He Cheng Yao instructs participants through an interpreter to join her in an intimate game of sucking, later asking them to write a description of the experience, which is then projected onto a wall. The effect was relaxing, animated by teasing, physical humour and shared laughter. Yuan Mor’o (Philippines) offered ritualised walking on a narrow path in a maze-like floor mandala made from rice seeds before throwing a spherical object into the surrounding space. A similar strategy was deployed by emerging Singaporean artist Dennis Tan with his dust-collecting performance inside the chapel. This later developed into a participatory walk around the physical architecture of Sculpture Square, climbing and traversing surrounding sidewalks, footpaths, walls and the rooftop ledge. Ray Langenbach’s (Malaysia/USA) engaging work took the form of an illustrated academic lecture, in drag, on information systems as the apparatus of state hegemony and the way transgressions of performance art are assimilated back into the system. He demonstrated this by re-enacting Vincent Leow’s urine drinking action (a precursor of the 1994 Ng incident), in which Leow would ask the volunteers from the audience to go on stage and urinate in a plastic cup which he/they would later drink. This was a performative illustration of the feedback response to the body, a recontextualisation of performative, critical art practise within a politically conservative state.

Sakiko Yamaoka (Japan) performed a mesmerising 4 part action, a poetic meditation about the cycles of time, about permanence and change. Grains of salt crushed between her hands fell onto a mirror on the floor. In the repetitive passing of water between 2 vessels, a basin and a cardboard box, until the water finally disappers, the box is reduced to mushy pulp. A brown bag is cradled until it breaks open and pours out its contents—granules of seeds, beads, and marbles, scattering and colliding in all directions. The final segment was a poetic orchestration of previous elements with repetitive cycles of emptying, falling, crushing and retrieval as Sakiko climbs up and down a tall ladder, emptying her coat pockets of apples and descending to retrieve the fallen objects. The higher she goes the greater the battering until the apples too are reduced to pulp. The act of watching became a highly pleasurable experience, engaging all my senses in a heightened awareness of detail, colour, texture, movement.

I had a similar experience with the powerful durational work of Alastair Maclennan (Northern Ireland) who performed in the small windowless, air-conditioned space of the Lower Gallery. Two hospital beds are littered with animal body parts. Rows of heads, claws and feet from chickens, pigs, rabbits and fish as well as well as burnt limbs from plastic dolls are neatly arranged for forensic examination. Known for his early works commemorating people who have died from the political conflict in Northern Ireland, Maclennan invites us to reflect on the fragility of life and our own mortality. Clad in black balaclava, trenchcoat and a pile of 6 bowler hats on his head, the performer slowly moves like a masked shadow haunting the walls of this space, fixing a propped fishing rod, arranging upturned hats, filling them up with burnt debris. The overpowering smell of dead flesh is punctuated by the haunting squawking of animal cries. The audience was allowed to view the work between other performances in the chapel. Experiencing it at various intervals created a disconcerting perceptual dislocation as the earlier images were later recreated in the opposite corner of the space, the slow and suspended replay creating a state of temporal confusion.

Roddy Hunter’s (UK) Joy of Life was similarly structured in a gruelling 8 hour duration. While MacLennan used ‘mirror-objects’ as fixed markers via which the slow moving masked body navigates, Hunter employed life-size ‘mirror-image’ video projections of himself. Standing near one corner of the room (with the words “Joy of Life” spray-painted on his right), he faces a video camera, the shot projected to the opposite wall by the other corner, juxtaposed with the same words. The presence of a blinking camera makes it appear as if this is occurring in real time. Hunter slowly raises his arms at intervals, which also appears to be a time measuring device. But the projected image betrays our perception as it is not synchronised with the live action. Recorded earlier, it runs as a loop accompanied by the artist’s soliloquy about the future of the imagination.

Future of Imagination is a significant development in contemporary art practice not only in Singapore but also in the South East Asian region. While performance art has been around since the 1960s, its recent popularity may be attributed to the parallel socio-cultural and political climate of the region. A significant number of regional artists at FOI have also been actively engaged in the advocacy of political and social awareness in their respective countries regarding issues on human rights, the environment, AIDS and globalisation.

After reassembling and returning a borrowed piano and naming and finding a temporary home for Foi, the beautiful rooster who assisted me in my storytelling event, it was time to pack my gear and head back to Perth with inspiring memories and stories shared with new friends and with the many creative people who made Future of Imagination a profoundly rewarding and enriching experience.

Future of Imagination 2, An International Performance Event, curator-performers Lee Wen (Singapore/Japan), Jason Lim (Singapore), performers Alastair Maclennan (N. Ireland), Alwin Reamillo (Australia/Philippines), Andrée Weschler (Singapore/ France), Ben Denham (Australia), Cassandra Schultz (Singapore/ Australia), Dennis Tan (Singapore), Dominic Gagnon (Canada), He Cheng Yao (China), Irma Optimist (Finland), Iwan Wijono (Indonesia), Jeremy Hiah (Singapore), Julie Andrée T (Canada), Juliana Yasin (Singapore), kAI Lam (Singapore), Lynn Lu (Singapore) Marilyn Arsem (U.S.A.), Padungsak Kotchasumrong (Thailand), Ray Langenbach (U.S.A./Malaysia) Roddy Hunter (UK), Sakiko Yamaoka (Japan), Yuan Mor’o Ocampo (Philippines); Sculpture Square, Singapore, Dec 8-12, 2004, http://www.foi.sg/

RealTime issue #65 Feb-March 2005 pg. 33-

© Alwin Reamillo; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2005