Minor spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the play: I talk about plot points in some detail.
Several years ago, I was in Yangon for an intensive Burmese language course. This was before their watershed general elections in 2015, the first in decades, and before the simmering, seething tinderbox in Rakhine state would implode and precipitate the ongoing Rohingya refugee crisis. Myanmar’s always had border trouble, with pockets of civil war spiking and ebbing in the decades since independence in 1948 as minority groups vied for power. The country is pocked with internally displaced person (IDP) camps, and I’ve often seen my Myanmar friends post up photos of their protests against the use violence and sexual assault within these camps on social media.
A charming, funny aid worker sat down next to me in the classroom, and we started talking about what led us to participate in this language course. I told her about my Burmese husband, who’s in the non-profit tech sector and often works with humanitarian groups. She told me, oh, actually, my husband’s of Karen ethnicity, and I speak fluent Karen, but not Burmese. Then she added, actually, he’s with the Karen National Union (which is a political organisation with an armed wing, the Karen National Liberation Army), and the reason I could make it to Yangon this fortnight is because they’ve recently signed a ceasefire with Myanmar, and my husband’s helping with the negotiations. I didn’t quite know what to say. She showed me pictures of her husband and their children, grinning excitedly at the camera.
I thought about this brief interaction a fair amount after stumbling out of Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, possibly the best work I’ve seen by Checkpoint Theatre co-founder Huzir Sulaiman, a Malaysian playwright whom Singapore has subsequently also claimed as her own. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner begins with the sheer magnitude of the horrors of conflict, and a massive trauma on a collective scale – then sets it together with the horrific story of one woman’s encounter with an institution meant to stand for our collective humanity. In the weeks since encountering this performance at the Singapore International Festival of Arts, I’ve felt it lodged in my heart, stuck in my throat, a kind of resistant splinter that works its way deeper into your flesh the more you try to tease it out.
We’re in what feels like an overtly temporary space, the rust-coloured, corrugated insides of a shipping container, perhaps, or some kind of prefabricated office. We’re never told which region we’re in, but assembled within this refugee camp is a loose, transnational collection of humanitarian workers, their accents moving between Southeast Asia, Oceania, the United States, and the United Kingdom. They’re from the Organisation for Emergency Assistance (the OEA, a kind of United Nations or Peace Corps fictional composite), and they’re never identified by their countries, but it’s made clear that they’re all from developed ones, including Singapore – a country that has historically never accepted refugees (except for the one time) even as it attempts to compensate for this uncompassionate stance by being exceptionally emphatic about how it provides “humanitarian assistance” in other ways.
Who are the people drawn to being “mercenaries or missionaries”, as the play puts it, or are they just plain “mad”? From the macho security dude from the American south to the “white horse” daughter of a significant humanitarian leader, the group embodies the various tropes of the humanitarian worker: there’s also the Brit who’s a stickler for rules and perpetually managing bureaucracy, and the pragmatic Southeast Asian who understands the lubricating power of soft corruption that will, in fact, help you get the job done in certain contexts. The play understands that it’s using archetypes to sketch out an environment foreign to most of its Singaporean audience (and arguably to most of its international audience). And while I initially chafed at this shorthand, I soon began to realise that every decision, even the seemingly mundane, or the seemingly stereotypical, fit into a larger interlocking picture, and set in motion a twin set of narratives that collide later on with the kind of force that removes the breath from your body.
The characters begin to gain flesh as you’re given glimpses of their snatched phonecalls and private conversations. You begin to understand the weight of a decision to redeploy certain security forces, or the use of blackmail for a seemingly innocuous logistics transaction. The play at first seems to hinge on an insurgent attack on the refugee camp and the kidnapping of the (white) man in charge of the humanitarian team, moving between naturalistic flashbacks and the present day marked by surreal interludes of stylized movement – the way we try to piece together the fragments of our memory after a traumatic event, the way we try to keep ourselves to the before and the after, the way we avoid what happens in-between. I wondered about these stylized gestures at first, but they quickly made sense to me when the play takes a turn and you realise it’s not just about a man held hostage. It’s about how we find ourselves held hostage by the very institutions that have pledged themselves to our humanity, and you wonder how you’ve become a dehumanised cog in the machine all the same. The linchpin of the play is the fallout from a sexual assault – never revealed gratuitously, but told to us through symbolic movement, the gestural language that director Claire Wong has slowly and gradually acquainted us with so that we’re fluent in its vocabulary when the time comes. This includes every click of a pen and every flap of a clipboard – underlining the contracts we sign on paper or on the tongue, and the consent we give and withdraw.
It may seem easy for a commercial corporation in a peace-time environment to make decisions about excommunicating sexual predators and perpetrators – but what happens when you’re in a volatile war context where you need every pair of boots on the ground you can muster, where you need to make life-or-death executive decisions, and where and the only person who can negotiate with hostile militia or is worth a ransom is… the white male perpetrator? Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner makes us sit with the awful discomfort of these impossible decisions and compromises.
In the conversations I’ve had with other artsgoers and audience members after experiencing this performance, there’s been a persistent line of critique – that the work glosses over the refugee experience and the difficulty of that particular story to tell when it comes to the most marginal and marginalised of communities. There has been powerful, incisive work about the refugee crisis our generation is confronting, including the critically acclaimed The Jungle (about the infamous camp in Calais) at the Young Vic, or Ahmed Tobasi’s moving autobiographical story as a Palestinian refugee in the Jenin camp on the West Bank, And Here I Am. But this isn’t my critique of Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner, because I think it does exist in the larger constellation of performance around these concerns. It doesn’t pretend to be a work about refugees; its purpose is the nomadic network of unsung and deeply flawed intermediaries. A privileged transnational group of people, but an overlooked one no less.
This, to me, is a story about caregivers who must maintain a kind of impossible stoicism to get through relentless air strikes and the endless threat of death by disease, conflict, starvation. I wasn’t a fan of some of the performances or character interpretations, but that felt substantially less important to me. An aid worker from Indonesia told a group of us, during a post-show discussion, that she was taken aback by how astonishingly accurate the work was (I really am in awe of the research that went into this). Her only wish was that the national staff – the invaluable local fixers and intermediaries and translators who keep any international aid work running – had been given more visibility in the play, where they were relegated to lines in a conversation. At the same time I’m also wary of a kind of exploitative desire to see marginal bodies and lives revealed and divulged to us on stage, at worst akin to poverty porn. The feminist ethnographer Elizabeth Enslin, quoting her colleague Judith Stacey, cautions us:
Engagement with people for the purpose of writing ethnography invariably leads to a certain amount of betrayal and manipulation. “The lives, loves, and tragedies that fieldwork informants share with a researcher are ultimately data-grist for the ethnographic mill, a mill that has a truly grinding power”.
Enslin, Elizabeth. (1994). “Beyond Writing: Feminist Practice and the Limitations of Ethnography” in Cultural Anthropology, 9(4), pp. 537-658.
And sure, this play does focus on a group that isn’t particularly marginal: they’re a largely white, largely first world, largely well-educated, largely at-least-middle-class motley crew of staffers. But they’re also grappling with the same concerns and convictions around care and compassion, and what’s revealed is that aid work isn’t a kind of glorified white saviour narrative, but that this work also entails the drudgery of stultifying email exchanges to wrangle a tiny bit more funding, an endless parade of signatures and forms from the head office, and other minutiae around toilets, celebrity visits, lorries. I’m reminded of the extraordinary ordinariness of my aid worker language school classmate – who as a first impression came across as any other white NGO staff member who’s part of the constantly-shifting “expatriate” (read: white, first world, educated, etc) community in Yangon, who rotate through three-year postings, arriving from Afghanistan and then leaving for Washington DC. And yet she’s connected to the insanity and impossibility of a world where anything could be set alight, where she’s doing the best she can for the family and the people she’s found a home with. Displaced Persons’ Welcome Dinner is an homage to this intersection of the institutional, the impossible, the intimate…
Playwright: Huzir Sulaiman
Director: Claire Wong
Cast: Dawn Cheong, Emil Marwa, Rayanna Dibs, Cheryl Chitty Tan, Brendon Fernandez, Jo Tan, Daisy Irani, Yazid Jalil
Musical performers: .gif (Chew Wei Shan, Nurudin Sadali) and Anthea Julia Chua
Two weeks ago, Xiao Ting, Casidhe and I went to see Eng Kai Er’s posing questions, a performance piece set in a life drawing class. posing questions was organised and curated by Yang Yilin as part of her Art History Capstone at Yale-NUS College, titled “Long Live the Nude!: the production of the nude in twentieth century Singapore”.
After encountering and participating in the work, which you can see excerpts of here (cw: nudity), we decided to pose each other questions.
Corrie poses questions to Casidhe:
• How would you describe your relationship with your body? How about your nude body in a public context, real or imagined? (e.g. changing in locker rooms, public baths/onsen, gym showers, when swimming, life modelling, in performance, etc.)
• What was your experience of simultaneously taking in the movements and poses of Kai’s body, listening to her recorded voice, feeling the charcoal under your fingers, drawing the shapes and lines of her body – and reconciling this process with your own body? What prevented you from volunteering as a life model during the performance?
It was very polarizing. I eased into the calmness and serenity of it later on, but seeing as it was my first time doing life drawing I was still largely taken aback by the state of Kai’s nudity. Oh wow. It was nothing I hadn’t expected, but I still needed time to slowly become used to the rawness of her naked body, to compel myself to look and not turn away, and engage in the act of drawing. I feel a little bad saying this, because it was the nudity I was struggling with, the idea, as opposed to any identifiable part of Kai’s body. I’m not comfortable. I struggled with the nakedness and not the body, if that makes sense. But this is ok. This will get better. In this sense, I was exceptionally glad that we were given the option to draw her, I think I would be far more uncomfortable if simply made to gaze at her. Without the mediation of the process of artistic creation, I feel like things could’ve veered toward the voyeuristic. Stop and breathe.
I found myself, at the beginning, unconsciously self-censoring. Looking back at what I had drawn, I realized I began with her hands, her feet, her face. I drew curves meant to represent her breasts, the roundness of her butt, the stray hairs around her vagina, but avoided adding detail to it. A representation of it is fine. It’s all a representation anyway… But Kai’s comfort with her own body, alongside the combined atmosphere of her voice narrating her honest and heartfelt account of what it was to occupy such a space – to find pride in it whilst negotiating things like pain and exhaustion – was infectious.
She twists her body into multiple poses: but what I have of each is fleeting. I study her hands, her shoulders, her bent knees, each isolated part of her body taking up a huge fraction of the canvas. I can’t really draw, but I do my best to create some semblance of what’s in front of me.
Then things got playful. Kai, in the background, would talk about a particularly annoying uncle who belittled her profession, her boundary of working and not-working signified through a robe, and the difficulties of staying in pose for minutes to hours. She became not just a body but a person, someone familiar, someone worth empathizing with rather than simply an aesthetic object. We were doing the opposite of what the artist does: acquainting ourselves with the model.
Hahahaha Kai’s pretty funny. I don’t think it could do this though, I
don’t have that kind of stamina.
Like a word
being unfrozen by thinking, the act of drawing began to counteract my deeply-held
notions, and the small pauses between poses grew from respite from an
uncomfortable situation to a moment of careful recollection, like a breath of
rumination. I was still unlikely to be able to do something like this, but I
sat more and more comfortably in the seat of the ‘artist’ and the viewer. As
Kai jumped deftly up to a space overlooking the audience and began to draw us,
I felt like her equal. There were no complex power structures here, no social
compulsion to be anonymous on her part as a live model, and no demands to
actively create on mine. The soft request to volunteer as a life model was an
invitation to self-enlightenment, not a chastisement for a lack of bravery. We
all have our reasons. And as I sat there, absorbing the atmosphere, Kai’s carefreeness,
her stories, and my own mind slowly thawing, I felt as though each audience
member was taking steps of their own. Some were farther along than others, some
were taking baby steps, but we were all compelled to progress in a space where
our inhibitions are challenged with a gentle force. As the discomfort grew
less, the enjoyment of the moment, the change, the dance and performance of the
live model becoming alive (a la Galatea) became a lightness in which we
simmered, a slow-dissipating but all-encompassing, permeating lightness of
• When is nudity transgressive, when is it comfortable, and when is it intimate?
In posing questions, it often feels as though nudity is all of these things simultaneously. In a post-show discussion, curator Yang Yilin and Kai discussed how they framed the performance around a live / figure drawing session so spectators would know to expect nudity. It would be unethical, one audience member stated, to suddenly incorporate full-on nudity without some suggestion of its presence, especially to a Singaporean audience, a sentiment I fully agreed with.
But we also
talked about how such a work might be received by a general public. The work’s
audience is rather niche, and most in attendance already have a longstanding if
not significant acquaintance with nudity, and seeing as I had such a reaction
even with an idea of what to expect, I wonder what the Singaporean audience
might make of this. Would they be willing to interrogate their own conceptions
about tradition and art? It seems unlikely, considering fairly recent events
(2016’s M1 Fringe Festival comes to mind). Singaporeans who lean heavily toward
convention and tradition always tend to gravitate toward the argument of
necessity: “a work of art can be good without nudity, so why include it? It’s
not necessary.” But these so obviously miss the point, that it’s not about
whether or not one can do without it but the possibilities of works by
utilizing it. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that it’s transgressive when
unexpected, but the question arises of how to prime one to begin the process of
opening oneself, especially when traditions against such practices are so
And finally, I
think comfort and intimacy come hand in hand when it comes to nudity. During
the discussion, Kai talked about how a friend of hers, having posed / done a
session as a live model, stated that she felt closer to Kai, who took the
position of the artist. She said something along the lines of “we’re closer
now, because you’ve seen me naked!”. In some ways, the perception of clothing /
being clothed as a kind of social construct reinforces this: to be nude is to
be vulnerable, and vulnerability presupposes a level of intimacy and
comfortability with whom you are sharing it with. This is one of the key
dynamics Kai plays with: the notion of being completely vulnerable, yet perhaps
not entirely intimate, to a group of strangers, like entering into an
imbalanced contract sealed with her trust. However, unlike in a cold, clinical
live drawing session, here there is both comfort and intimacy, as the heat of
Kai’s emotional warmth paints our canvases, and our products are of little
importance. I think what is also asserted here is that what matters is the
process of mutual comfort, and all the while as conventions are questioned,
both within myself and without, of the positionality of the model and the
responsibility of the artist, of boundaries drawn and boundaries crossed, I
leave with many senses, the most palpable of which is familiarity. Kai has
generously given part of herself to instill within us an interrogation of
From afar, to
the passing observer, the art studio must seem cold, but within shuttered
windows and a circle of easels, there is a collective warmth, as though it were
emanating from a crackling campfire on a quiet night, illuminating our paths.
Xiao Ting poses questions to Corrie:
following cassandra falke’s excerpt on the coffee cup, the material world is filled with pregnant possibilities, and the human body is arguably one of most saturated sub/object. how did you feel when you saw kai’s naked body?
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen Kai perform nude; I’ve traced the contours of her body through works such as Xavier Le Roy’s Retrospective and also her short piece at soft/WALL/studs, Consent Consent Consent. So perhaps the feeling was one of familiarity, of wondering how else she might situate nudity and nakedness and our encounter with it. I’ve been thinking a lot about material contact and how encounters are co-constitutive. In Strange Encounters, Sara Ahmed argues that we constitute the subject prior to our encounter with it, that the “stranger” or “strange things” are only strange because we have already constituted them as strange before the meeting takes place.
What I enjoy is when the surprise of the encounter that exceeds what we expect of it – how you put it so beautifully, the pregnant possibility of the corporeal. When I see Kai, I see her through several veils… I see her as an artist I deeply admire who doesn’t inhabit her body as a shell but is her body, every scything arc and tuft of hair and ripple of muscle and how the architecture of her skeleton is also, in a way, an architecture of emotion and energy, how we are held together not just by our skin but by everything knitting us together underneath. It made me think of how, when we were attempting to sketch her during one part of the work, she began to move and wiggle and jiggle and I began to add extra strokes around her torso to indicate how she was moving and ended up with a kind of long-exposure image, the way you see someone captured as a blur in the still of a photograph such that they become a smudge of colour and flesh. I think that is the saturation I felt, the inability to reduce her to an image on paper. Perhaps we should think of every person as a possibility.
in that pain brings the body to the peak of awareness, where the noxious surfaces attention (to the point of being blinded from overstimulus), are there points in which kai’s narration about pain shifted your relationship with pain (and a related question, what is your relationship with pain)?
When Kai was talking about pain, about the agony of that six-hour pose and her own conflicted determination to hold the pose when she could have taken breaks, of that undercurrent of masochism, I found myself transported to the vipassana silent meditation retreat I did last year. I spent ten days in a kind of profound quiet, a profound being in my body. We would meditate for about ten hours a day, and on the fourth day we were introduced to what they called a “hard sitting”, where you sit cross-legged without moving for about one to two hours, your back straight, your neck stacked on your spine and every vertebrae reaching down towards the earth, your legs folded under yourself. Xiao Ting, I felt pain. I felt pain like I had rarely felt. I was pouring with sweat, I could feel it trickling down my neck and between my breasts and pooling on the thin cushion beneath me. I could barely stand when the bell struck and the session ended. I was in tears. Parts of my body were numb, and I was almost delirious with pain and anxiety. Part of the notion of meditation is to be able to welcome and observe the sensations you feel throughout your body without being averse to the pain but also without craving comfort.
And part of meditation is being able to be with pain. The baseline of life is often pain, and it’s rarely physical pain. You learn observe your emotional pain through observing your physical pain, because your mind and body are not separate – they are the same thing. I could feel the topography of my pain through the cartography of hers. We have had different pains, Kai and I, but in pain I think I alight upon a kind of unbearable clarity, whether it’s the workings of my body that I will never understand or the indecipherable mechanics of my heart. When Kai models for life, is she being with a kind of analogous pain, an unspeakable pain that comes with sitting the history of the body and the stubbornness of the body, that we choose to see this pain and encounter this pain instead of burying this pain where we hope it will never be found? Is this what it feels like to press our fingers into the dark purpling wounds of our personal histories? I see my pain and I sit with it not for six hours but for sixteen years, the suffusive pleasure of the pain of picking at a scab that isn’t ready. I want to understand my pain but my pain ensures that I cannot, will not. All I can do is acknowledge it and know that this is how it will feel, that it will throb and fade and return and return and return.
in watching another body, we are distant from each other. we are each holding our own wooden boards, easels. when do you feel closest (and what is the nature of this closeness) and furthest from kai and yourself?
I know we’ve both been reading Hélène Cixous, devouring her, and I’ve been reading the first of her series of 1990 lectures—Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing—about what it means to write something into life or write yourself into death, to confess yourself without absolving yourself, to be at the scene of your own crime of writing, all the people you’ve killed, out of love, to write your reader into your text or write your pain out of it.
The portrait is in the portrait, the book is in the book, and the last circle of this process tells us: be careful, if someone paints what happens to the model? What relation does the painter have to the model? (A banal yet indispensable question.) All painters’ models ask it. […] It’s the story of the person who gives life; it’s the model who gives life whereas we think it’s the painter. The painter is the one who takes the model’s life.
Hélène Cixous, “The School of the Dead”
To create is the impossible act, isn’t it? Whether it’s writing something or drawing something I feel as though we are always already parasitical on some kind of existence that is not our own. We cannot bear to be so close and we create something to fend off what we cannot face. I draw Kai’s beautiful body and shimmering, shuddering beneath that image I see my own, my imperfect own, scarred by flaws I see that no one else can. My wooden easel—my writing is the shell, the moveable home I carry on my back to keep everything else at bay. I am so close and so far, and I feel this with every performance I encounter, that I am drawn in and thrown out in writing. I am closest and farthest in the attempt to reassemble the work on the page. Perhaps we have taken Kai’s life not once but twice, in drawing her and in writing about her, to fix her here. But I love the quivering resistance of performance and of bodies to remain bounded by whatever we try to capture them in. Close to the end of the performance, Kai dances with Mr. Bones, a skeleton she’s found on campus. She reaches into the hollow of his chest, the spread-eagle of his ribs; she reaches into his skull. They perform a duet no human would be capable of dancing without dying. But somehow she is dancing it with me. Her hand is in my chest, wrapping around my heart; her hand in my skull, making me write.
Casidhe poses questions to Xiao Ting:
If I recall correctly I think it was your first time live drawing as well (?), what was that experience like for you? Did it alter any preconceived notions or ideas toward live drawing or nudity in art? Did you at any point feel self-conscious, and was there any incongruence between your body and mind whilst experiencing the work?
When she took off her coat, I anticipated a sharp draw of breath, force of intimacy. Instead, I felt immensely comfortable. Her clothes, with or without, changes nothing for me. I see her the same, and I watch her perform the same, a bubbling child-like prance. My hands moved alongside the contours of Kai’s body, my sight lines, and there emerged the image of a human. Unintentional and lucid. So no, I did not, at any point, feel self-conscious. But now I’m wondering why. With bodies (my own included), I think the predominant sentiment has always been curiosity, and I think I brought that along with me to Posing Questions. She is a master of the poses, of her body in this context, and she has shifted the gaze back to us, unyielding but non-violent. I didn’t have any preconceived notions (or I had consciously blocked them out, as I do when I encounter something unfamiliar), so nothing was altered.
Throughout the work Kai zooms into themes of pain and sex. If you’re comfortable to share, what is your personal relationship with pain and/or physical, bodily desire? Did you feel akin to Kai on occasions, and was there something inherently relatable with the way she approached pain with regards to the self? What kind of emotional responses did her discussion of such matters incite?
I enjoy the process of learning another body’s language. But lately, sex bores me unless both parties are genuinely present. The body stifles itself to perform like a corpse, fixed and without thought, without feeling. With someone who is in tune with their body, even a brush of their hand brings me shivers. In which case perhaps what I enjoy is not sex, but a closing of distance. It is proximity that enthralls me, rather than mere bodily contact. The moment before possession. I think of Louise Glück’s The Doorway—“before the appearance of the gift, /before possession”. I think of Cassandra Falke’s The Phenomenology of Love and Reading, how we bend the world to fit our attention span, our capacity for saturation. Pain, likewise, is a moment of overstimulation, where the body is unable to conceive of the noxious. But pain need not be noxious, it need not be unpleasant too—in my capstone project, I delved deep into pain, and a line from Elaine Scarry’s The Body In Pain stayed with me throughout. She writes, “The body, this intensely—and sometimes, as in pain, obscenely—alive tissue is also the thing that allows anyone to be one day dead.”
Akin is a curious word—I do feel a kind of kinship with Kai when I first met her, and the kinship allows a fluid exchange of energy whenever I encounter her person, her art. The ease with which she wields her body is comforting, and reminds me of how I approach pain with my body. I take it, go through it, as naturally as the next breath. Almost as if my body is merely a conduit, and I am not within it. Kai’s vulnerability is not fragile, it is robust and confident. A slight sense of awe, I think and feel, when I witnessed her performing.
I think Kai said something along the lines of “I’m always performing”. Do you see the positionality of the live model problematic in the context of its restrictions, or do you see them as possessing some agency? Did anything strike you as interesting in the presentation? Perhaps a moment of significance? Talk about it in any manner. (:
I have a friend who will not participate in a live drawing session if the model has a penis. Something about the strangeness of another anatomy, she says. How do we encounter another body unlike ours? What is it about its foreignness makes us want to turn away? I always want to look, to see, at anything that captures my attention, so I can only understand her repulsion (is this the right word? This is the word I have) in theory. I was enraptured during the entire performance, the presence that Kai holds is undeniable. So was her voice, the music. I think objectification as problematic has been said and theorised to death. I am getting sick of it; I think of Kristeva, of what she says about the abject, that beyond the boundaries of sub/objecthood is a ruptured, altered perception. What comes to mind when I think of Kai’s performance now is this:
What happiness for us who are omitted, brushed aside at the scene of inheritances; we inspire ourselves and we expire without running out of breath, we are everywhere! From now on, who, if we say so, can say no to us? We’ve come back from always.
Hélène Cixous, “The Laugh of the Medusa”
There is a conflation of objecthood and omission on my part here, but I leave the associations and logical jumps for you to make. When she climbed to the top of the room, a soft laughter escaped my belly and there, a dominion that doesn’t seek to trample. A dominion that merely desires another perspective, fresh air. Perhaps a part of me doesn’t mind being an object, if that means I am free to exercise my agency without scrutiny. Subjects are granted autonomy, selfhoods, only to be taken away. This is what I feel sometimes when people look at me too intensely. A precarity that tells me I fear being seen as a person because then I can be diminished. Objects cannot be diminished because they are already no longer. Maybe I am digressing but you said I could write whatever I wanted, so to be uselessly sincere, I tell you that it is 12.07am, cusp of 19 April. I am a few minutes late in sending you my answers. Can the live model be late (which suggests movement, an arrival, which suggests an eventual departure), or is the live model doomed to be static (always-already arrived and so may never depart)? In the three or six hours of live modelling, the model’s thoughts and interiority escapes the sight of those who want to capture their body in charcoal lines. In those few hours, minutes, the live model’s body is studied for their materiality, nothing more, nothing less. It is only in the after, the before, that the tension of bare skin behind a cloth robe brings to attention we are usually covered. As if we constantly have something to hide.
It’s noon and oppressively hot and my shadow’s hiding beneath me from the sun. I’m making my way to the Tampines Round Market & Food Centre (“pasar bulat”), which is just a fifteen-minute busride from my home, but I feel like a complete tourist in this food centre despite the fact that it’s in the district just next door to mine. It’s funny how the neighbourhood food centres we frequent – their architecture, their layout, the hawkers who know us as regulars and can tell us our orders before we do – start to become the exemplars that we hold up in comparison with others. Here I’m searching for where I can buy a cold drink, but also scanning the crowd for anything vaguely performative because I’m not sure what to expect. No one else here is expecting anything, it feels like, they’re digging into nasi lemak and vegetarian bee hoon and chiding children and gingerly wiping down tables. The pasar bulat is a morning market that almost completely empties out after lunchtime; Fengshan Food Centre (home turf for me!) comes alive in the evening and late into the night. In the open arena at the centre of the pasar bulat is a clothesline of diaphanous tulle costumes threaded through with everyday objects from the food centre: egg cartons, chopsticks, plastic bags, spoons; waving gently in the hot breeze.
I skirt the open arena to find a seat in the crowd, and as I’m carrying around my teh c bing siu dai I’m confronted by the enormous posters and standees emblazoned with the National Arts Council logo to make it absolutely clear that this is a state-organized community project to have “Arts in your Neighbourhood!” (“more like Arts in your Face!”, a practitioner tells me later).
It’s almost impossible to see the dancers at first – they emerge from from all corners of the market pushing little trolleys woven with tiny glittering fairy lights, picking their way through the lunchtime crowd, grinning at rapt children. They put on their costumes and they’re transformed into what feels like the food centre’s playful, colourful guardian spirits, weaving through clusters of tables and initiating short games and exchanges of gestures with the audience. Almost everyone reciprocates, beaming when they’re approached, getting used to the idea of the performance and these bedecked performers. Oh wait! Now it’s a variety show – one of the performers grabs the microphone and announces they’ll be doing a lucky draw based on table numbers, and now the crowd is excited, waving their hands in the air when they’ve won. The uncle I’m sharing a table with is disappointed that his table is 120, not the winning 121 (“only one number different!” he exclaims). The creative team tells me later that when they walked through the market for evening rehearsals they would hear multiple radios simultaneously broadcasting the 4D results for the day. There’s a culture of soft betting here, whether it’s the number lottery or the horse races, and this a cheeky acknowledgement of that habit.
Then the dancers begin drifting into the round arena, performing gestures and movements that feel like they’ve been derived from the repetitions of physical labour they’ve observed around the market, and carry a sort of kinesthetic empathy – someone pushing a trolley of dirty dishes to be washed, or reaching for something hung on a hook, or lunging forward on their knees. Their bodies seem to age, visibly and quickly, in front of us. A disembodied voice begins to read out the names of all the stalls in the market. They slowly hang up their costumes, stack up their trolleys in a wobbly pile. The dancers gather in a circle, huddling round and patting each other gently on the back. One by one, they recede, walking back to the empty clothesline, until only one dancer is left, patting himself. Then he, too, returns to the line of waiting performers. Then they disappear into the crowd. I read it as a commentary on the vanishing craft of food production, a generation of hawkers without successors retiring one by one, a sort of endless cycle of repetitions – making thousands of copies of the same kind of dish over years and years – until the cycles run out.
I think the state’s emphasis on the community-building function of the arts isn’t something to recoil from, particularly if it’s a meaningful, long-term project that is well-conceived and gives that community a stake in how it is engaged, how it articulates its needs and how those needs are fulfilled. My concern is when a well-intentioned community project gains its instrumental trappings and starts to feel like a token corporate social responsibility project where impact is measured in terms of “how many passers-by are clapping” (are they not impacted if they aren’t clapping?) or “how many surveys are filled out” (someone offered a survey to Haizad, ignorant of the fact that he was the artistic director of P7:1SMA) or “can you make your movements less abstract if not the public cannot understand” (which really belittles the “public’s” interpretive skills) or adamant assertions about which particular community in Tampines needs engaging with (and how). I suppose with commissions come compromises, and P7:1SMA – as I understand it, and among other things – wanted to develop their relationship with the stallholders here, to echo their invisible labour in bright, visible ways, wanted to have their performers enter and leave the chaos and colour of the market quietly and unobtrusively, without the state elbowing its way into the preface and post-script of the work.
How does one measure “community engagement”? And when the term “community” is bandied around here, why does it feel like it’s the kind of community that requires an “artistic education” because of a supposed lack of cultural capital? I get that the state wants to play benevolent match-maker between artist and community sometimes, but I wonder if an arranged marriage is always the way to go. P7:1SMA does their best with this relationship – even if their founders stay on the opposite end of the island and had never been to this market before rehearsals began – and the team immediately took to the space, befriending stallholders and taking in as much as they could of their environment so they could respond sensitively to it. They called these rehearsals “activations”. Perhaps the way to permeate a community, the way the artist moves from outsider to insider, isn’t with fireworks and loudspeakers – but quietly, gently, not in a loud quick and intimidating burst but over a gradual period of time. And what happens when artists leave? How does one settle into a community and then immediately uproot after? I think of Drama Box’s long-term projects in Chong Pang and Telok Blangah for their series on end-of-life care, Both Sides, Now. They’ve become a fixture in the neighbourhood over the past few years, so that conversations that have only just begun to unfurl don’t retreat back into silence once the performances depart and the initial excitement fades. These activations can’t be abruptly abandoned, and commissioned community projects need to take into account the labour involved in maintaining these relationships – because a performance might end, but life doesn’t.
I had a really long conversation with Haizad (artistic director of P7:1SMA), Desmond (one of the District 18 performers) and Syarifuddin (their in-house documentarian) about the incredible detailing and reflection of the group’s creative process for this project, captured here in sensitive detail: https://www.p71sma.com/district18
The group had read my writing about last year’s Southernmost festival (http://www.southernmost2018.wordpress.com) and wanted to experiment with an embedded writer who had the quiet distance to reflect on how the project was unfolding. We’ve been having some preliminary discussions about a possible methodology for this kind of writing and will be in dialogue with each other throughout the rest of this year.
My husband accumulates things. When we first moved in together, I went through boxes and boxes of his stuff. Please, I said, you have to get rid of this shattered iPhone 3 with a cracked screen that’s been dead for five years. What is this box of random cables, sticky and bent from being taped together in awkward shapes? These clothes are stippled with mildew – when was the last time you wore them in sunlight? We sat on the floor and unpacked the bits of his life that had been boxed up and forgotten but he’d refused to let go of. Or perhaps they’d refused to let him go. Agatha sifts through the her mother Alice’s labyrinthine hoard – with infinitely more patience than I would have – each remembered object whispering its name next to stacks of bills and foreclosure notices. What stories can an assemblage of objects tell, all these “nameless, shapeless things?” Rarely has an invisible landscape felt so visible, so tangible to me. It took me some time to locate myself in the landscape of things the three of you were narrating, but once I’d arrived I felt as though I might turn some of these items over in my palm, smudge the dust off with my fingers, and put them back on a high shelf.
There was something so precise about the way the interlocking stories of these three women were pieced together, almost as if you were sculpting your own object, chiselling it out of the darkness and out of our collective imaginations. At first I mistook this choreographed precision for detachment, but then I realised you were excavating something incredibly fragile and tender from underneath it all, the way a surgeon might cut through a sheath of skin to get to that quivering, wet-slicked organ beneath.
As Alice’s hoarding disorder begins to chip away at the borders of her sense of self, and her objects begin to puppeteer her and dictate her every decision and gesture, I begin to wonder what it is that anchors us to our sense of reality, and if once that slips we fumble for what we can actually hold on to, like the marble sculpture of a head of a noblewoman with an oxidised tear stain from 1st to 3rd century CE. Then there’s the tangle of what we gift and what we sell and what we own and the sediment of sentiment that’s settled in each and every item that becomes harder to separate from what the item is. I wonder if that’s why we laugh during the auction at the objects on the block, at the absurdity of their unimaginable price but also at how what is priceless may change hands so easily within an absurd commercial machine; what is heavy with worth may be conjured out of something so lightly discarded – the crushed and twisted newspaper sculptures of Romulus and Remus and the pair of bronze Etruscan warriors. But we also inscribe the objects you’ve presented us with layers and layers of meaning, that these newspaper sculptures are also the feet and arms of a mother putting on makeup in a moment of vulnerability. Our relationships with objects are deeply marked, Provenancereminds me, quietly, and (unsentimental as I am!) reminds me of the investments I’ve made in each item I own – or once owned. And I think that’s probably why I loved that the black box was papered over with classifieds and obituaries – all these things for sale, about to be lost, set against all the people we’ve actually lost.
When I was an undergraduate, I enrolled in a puppetry and object theatre class. My 21-year-old self, trying to be clever, brought in a hand-held mirror and made it behave bashfully, shyly, in front of its audience. But every time I looked at that mirror after that workshop I wondered what it thought of itself. We’d explored the lives of so many things – a table fan, a small painting, a flashlight, a set of cutlery – working within the constraints of how little we actually owned as students. There’s a magic to how much you’ve constructed out of the simplest of objects, that a line of red string can be a framing device or a tangle of emotions or the strangling red tape of an institution. I gasped a little, together with many other people, when all of you raked up the newspaper covering the stage at the end – that’s how much we’d invested in it being there, how much life we’d given it.Maybe all this is why I let my husband keep that dead, cracked iPhone, which is still in the bottom of a box we haven’t unpacked in the five years we’ve been living in this apartment. He would have owned it in 2010, just when each of us had started our professional lives in our early 20s, when a smartphone was still a small marvel and a huge investment. Writing this I realise I’ve never asked him what it meant to him, and why it whispered to be kept. So I texted him.
Me, [03.11.18 13:01] this is random but Me, [03.11.18 13:01] why did you keep your dead iphone 3 Me, [03.11.18 13:01] like i’m just wondering out loud because i rmb telling you to throw it away Me, [03.11.18 13:01] do we still have it? Him, [03.11.18 13:08] Hmm I think I wanted to boot it up again with android Him, [03.11.18 13:08] But obviously I would never have to time to do it Me, [03.11.18 13:08] was it special to you haha Me, [03.11.18 13:08] i’m such an unsentimental person Him, [03.11.18 13:08] Hmm not special in that sense Him, [03.11.18 13:09] I just thought that I could give it a second life
I think what I’m trying to say about Provenance is – thank you for giving all our objects that second life.
I never could spell P7:1SMA on the first go – I always had to look it up – until right now, when I’ve just figured out (in typing it out several times) that it’s a playful textual prism, where the seven colours refract in reverse into one. I feel like I discovered your company in reverse, in the breathless conversations about the work you were doing when listening to Amin, Sze and Chloe discuss Joget(“Syimah’s piece, which for me was really an incredible pleasure to watch” […] “And then Haizad’s piece really blew my mind.”), or when copyediting Sze’s review of Ngopi. My first experience of your work was textual and verbal, a strange sensation of not having been there but wanting to be there, of having had to conjure up in my mind the aesthetics and the ferocious in-betweenness of a company that, as Sze put it, “goes far beyond the stereotyped collage of the fetishised ‘traditional’ and ‘contemporary’ vocabulary”. When I met the both of you at Need to Reply, and we discussed my review of Tiger of Malaya and the archive of the body, I thought, how strange to have encountered each other first through the disembodiment of text. And then another strange encounter, in which I come to see your most recent work, Belon, which is simultaneously your earliest experiment with “the contemporary” in 2015. I think what I appreciate about our mutual introduction is that it resists a linear chronology – perhaps in the same way P7:1SMA constantly upends notions of “what came before” and “what comes after”.
My dance vocabulary is limited – and my vocabulary of Malay dance even more so – so I’m going to set aside those conventions for the moment (even as I do my best to learn more about them, as I encounter more of you and your work, and as that happens my responses to your work will deepen) and write to you what I felt of what I saw.
Weeks before the show takes place, I register for a ticket on Peatix. It’s the first time I’m asked to offer information that isn’t my name, or my contact details, or my credit card number. Instead I’m asked to respond to Mark Twain’s statement: “Balloon: thing to take meteoric observations and commit suicide with.” It’s a curious metaphor to tie a work to, this fragile object suspended between the extremes of usefulness and extinction. In the silent Stamford Arts Centre Black Box, a performer inhales and exhales into a black balloon as it grows stretched and taut and shiny. I’m inhaling and exhaling too, waiting for the distended skin of the balloon to rupture, for that tipping point between the joys (a big balloon!) and the inevitable traumas (a burst balloon!!!) of possessing something so temporary and delicate. The balloon explodes and I can feel my involuntary sharp intake of breath even as I’ve steeled myself against the shock, and then the performer squats down to pick up the the black rubber shreds strewn across the concrete floor of the stage – one of my favourite moments, to see him arrange the tiniest strips of the former balloon, the scattered corpse of its former self, gathered and laid out for us with the precision of a museum exhibit. The balloon, once quivering with breath and life, now dead, extinct, re-arranged for display.
This violent movement between the life and death of a balloon reminds me that this an older, earlier work that you’ve chosen to resurrect, and I wonder if this decision to bring it back for GTM 2018 is a kind of in memoriam, a remembrance of things past – or perhaps it’s a haunting, an exorcism of the spectre of tradition that hasn’t ever left. In fact, so many of the images that Belon presents seems to rest on a decision or a dilemma, a conflict between two opposing forces: full balloon/burst balloon; floating balloon/sinking balloon; black balloon/white balloon – slowly drifting into heavily symbolic territory: male/female; masculine/feminine; violence/tenderness; death/life; tradition/contemporary.
The entire production is inflected with questions around these binaries: the same male performer who’s assembled the shreds of the balloon now corrals his female counterparts, gripping them by the collars of their shirts and dresses (does tradition always exert violence over the contemporary?); two women enter, one with black balloons drifting around her feet, the other with translucent helium balloons hovering over her head, and they begin to move through lenggang movements, their bodies inscribing their gestures in markedly different ways (is tradition a ball and chain, a dead weight – or is it an anchor, a source of stability?); one of the women wears the balloons in her hair like a regal, royal headdress, the other ends up with the string of a floating balloon wrapped around her neck like a noose (is tradition a source of dignity – or will it always end in death?).
Binaries make me think of the Cartesian mind-body divide and all the times we resist this distinction, which I think is exactly the sort of in-between that P7:1SMA invites us to sit with. I’ve been reading Irfan Ahmad’s Religion as Critique, where he writes: ‘In Islamic philosophical tradition, the highly valued intellect or reason (ʿaql) is not an independent entity in its own right; it dwells in and constitutes the heart (Arabic: qalb; Urdu/Farsi: dil). […] According to Arabic dictionaries, qalb denotes “one’s innermost core, which includes both intellect and feelings” (Haj 2002, 350–52; Ramadan 2004, 14). In short, the Islamic notion of qalb is far more holistic and complex than the truncated reason of Cartesian cogito. Unlike the Enlightenment dualism between heart and reason, mind and body, intellect and affect, in Islam, the Arabic and Urdu term qalb encapsulates both intellect and feelings.’ I feel like Belon embodies this struggle to be two seemingly opposing things, to acknowledge a lineage but also create a new genealogy, when they’re both really part of the same continuum. In Belon there’s a self-consciousness, almost a clumsiness to the overt visual symbolism of the meeting of these two opposing forces. But knitting it together is the fierce and beating qalb of what P7:1SMA stands for. Why not have both, I almost feel the group say, why not be both.
All my best, and more, Corrie
Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and response after experiencing Belon.
Personally, I must share that diving into Belon after 2 years with a new sense of energy, give and take, trust between artists has been emotional. Emotional wreck as I start to miss simpler days and bonds earned in the last Belon process. Yet, this time around also emotionally uplifting as I recall Haizad strategically inviting us as collaborators to rethink and sharing his motivations to question Malay traditions, norms and also share a different philosophy.
For many years, as we observe our elderly Malay dance practitioners, we are still struggling to articulate our artistic practice. It always feels too simplified to mention that we are a dance company / practitioner rooted in the Malay form, traditions and histories. I believe that there is always something deeper in our artistic practice based tradition. In time to come, like you mentioned, we really want to develop our habits of mind about our individual artistic practice, arts-making as a process with interventions and support choreographic approach. We hope to have so much fuel to have many more conversations with everyone in our Arts ecosystem and always be inspired.
In addition, we are hopeful as we will be sharing Belon to NuArt Sculpture Park in Bandung this 14 to 17 Dec 2018.
My encounter with your spirits begins with a locked door. That’s part of the illicit thrill, I think, of standing on the threshold of a haunted place, and knowing you are not to enter. Not yet, at least, because it isn’t time. I’m leaning over the parapet and looking for you on your bicycle, a full canister of salt heavy in my bag and the heat heavy on my skin. You arrive, shimmering faintly with sweat, and squat by the foot of the glass door, its insides papered up, and turn the key. The door remains clamped shut. You push the hair from your face and try again, with a different key this time, and still the door rattles and shudders but does not yield. I worry that this is a journey wasted for you, that you’ll have to loop back on your bicycle in the sticky sunlight, but you shrug and say it’s okay, you must have brought the wrong key. And we leave the door and its secrets – soon to be unstuck, unsecreted – and I wonder what I will find when I come back the next day.
The next day is opening day, and the door opens for me. The space invites me in. It is dark, and cool, and my eyes take a few seconds to readjust from the fluorescent glare of the corridor to the gauzy red glow within. I hear the sound of the fan first, how it’s oscillating from side to side, turning its neck and sending the sheets of cloth strung up across the space fluttering. Once I can see, I see the nodes and paths of salt you’ve marked out on the ground, taking care to step over these talismanic rivulets that ward off the darkness even as they welcome me into the dark.
“In Specters of Marx, Derrida asks us to turn away from dialectal compulsions and to think outside of the identity of a thing as the marker of truth. More specifically, truth is not found in the identity of the thing as the thing itself but through our interactions with that thing. For example, a box is not a box simply because others say it is, but it becomes a certain kind of box once we paint the walls black, hang lights in it, and start moving around inside. Therefore, perspective is shaped by interaction and how each interaction differs. However, to play hauntologically, as we imagine it, is not only to acknowledge that multiple perspectives exist, but to purposefully create spaces in our work where they might emerge and/or insert themselves. Derrida uses the term hospitality to describe this epistemology. He asks that our approach to a thing be hospitable, that we forego trying to pin the thing down, thereby reducing its complexity, but rather to let the thing be superfluous, ghostly. By readjusting our theoretical and practical orientation in our writing and performance practice through hauntology, performance studies scholars might turn away from the question and instead be haunted by both doing and writing about performance(s).”
(On the Haunting of Performance Studies, Benjamin D. Powell & Tracy Stephenson Shaffer, 2009)
I’m struck by the everyday-ness of your images, the ordinariness of them all, your eye on all the places we cut across and through and over, the places ignored and unthought-about, the places displaced by repetition and the paths we walk and re-walk each day. The images move and then they are still, every turn of the fan startling them, every one of your photographs a manifestation of that uncanny feeling that you’ve seen something in the corner of your eye, and you turn but it’s gone, but you are sure you saw something there. So many of these images: A cluster of balloons, the helium seeping out of them, sinking and hovering just a few centimetres above the ground of an underpass. That light flickering along your corridor as you come home in the night. The stacked chairs casting strange and monstrous shadows on a tarpaulin. The line of clothes, still, then billowing, on a line.
Death, haunting, mourning, remembrance. The Singaporean landscape feels marked and scored by each of these things – that there was something there that now is not, something that still snags on, nags at our peripheral vision. We are a city inhospitable to the ghost, but here you have allowed them a space to gleam and glimmer at their edges. I can’t quite make out the words of each story when I step through the door, but I find myself in a corner of the room, half-watching the images flicker and dissolve and reappear, half-listening to you collecting stories of hauntings and possessions and mysteries and encounters.
Writing this now I wish I’d had the time to return and to sit on the floor and listen to more than just one of the 60 stories you’ve collected that are being piped into various corners and edges of the room through different speakers, but then and there I feel as though I’m taking up space in the room for others who want to come in and linger, the narrow long room where we must navigate the lines of salt and the privacies of each other’s bodies and the watching spirits all around us. The conversations from each interview swirl about the room and I can’t always make out a specific narrative, but there’s something in the storytelling – isn’t there always, when there’s a ghost involved – the caution and the thrill in each voice, the sharpness of the personal encounter or the second-hand, vouched-for, absolutely-certain ghostly truth. We construct and re-construct our hauntings with every telling of them, each re-telling allowing the ghost to take shape while also smudging their edges. Our memories sharpen what we think we must remember but we never, ever remember what we think it is we are remembering. Our neurological processes of recall and retrieval contaminate all our memories, adjusting them and nudging them away from “what really happened” each time. As we conjure our ghosts we are also reconstituting them in our own image. What remains untouched is what we cannot remember: those precious few years before the ages of two or three that infant amnesia will erase – but also preserve forever.
And I think this is what I deeply appreciate about your reconstitution of our urbanity. You’ve summoned the ghosts we have lost, that we’ve renovated and demolished and constructed and built away. You’ve invited a dis-remembering, a telling-in-your-own-words, an unofficial narrative that resists the authoritative, the cracks and alleys and passageways that evade the representations of space marked out by our social engineers and urban planners. Isn’t that what a haunting is? To be able to linger in the spaces in-between, to be intimate and acquainted with impossible places, to pass through walls and bodies and leave no traces but also leave us profoundly moved. I imagine your ghost behind the camera, the flash, and then you are gone – but you go always to return.
Ila wrote back to me, and I’m reproducing the following excerpt of her email with her permission.
Just sharing the starting point of how the whole work was made, aside from what was shared in that little booklet. This was taken from The Resonance of Unseen Things by Susan Lepselter. […]
“In mainstream psychology, apophenia is called an “error of perception … the tendency to interpret random patterns as meaningful”. But the people I write about here cultivate apophenia, not as an “error,” but instead as a way to begin seeing those things that have become invisible. They foreground the naturalized patterns that normally go without saying. It is in one sense an endless bricolage, but rather than building something concrete from the “odds and ends” at hand, here the product is never finished; you select the part for the rush of its echo to another part. Here each found or revealed sign leads on to other resemblances, other openings. The people here pay close attention to parallels and resemblances between stories. And the parallels produce a feeling of, and an aesthetic sense of, resonance. And, I argue, the resonance itself becomes another story. The sense of uncanny resonance becomes an expressive modality, a vernacular theory, a way of seeing the world, an intimation of the way it all makes sense. It becomes both performance and theory, creating a sense of an occult design that might someday be apprehended below the jumbled surfaces of the ordinary. Accumulating and recursive images, and the felt connections between them, reveal how historical trauma gets lodged in the bright, broken bits of fantastic things.”
I thought a whole lot about resonance when I was making this work. In sound, resonance can be described as an echo (immediate), a delay (a slight shift in duration, where the source is still pretty clear) and a reverb (which is… reverb is created when soundwaves from any sound source reflect off surfaces in a room causing a large number of reflections to reach your ear so closely together that you can’t interpret them as individual delays) and filling up the space with these three elements with both the recordings and images, an attempt to create something that stays with a person without any specific reason why it does.