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“posing questions” by Eng Kai Er

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 being.

• 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 deeply rooted.

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 ourselves.

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.

“Tableau vivant / teaching aids / toe to toe”

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.

“I have a very intimate relationship with pain” is a line from posing questions.

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.

Kai posing with Mr. Bones’ skull.

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.