Peak performance

The performance art scene in Singapore gets a second wind

04:45 AM Aug 15, 2011
by Mayo Martin

A FEW weeks ago, musician Arif Ayab was busy wreaking havoc inside the Substation Theatre.

Together with fellow performer Jason Lee, he spent half an hour enthusiastically banging away on objects like cartons and mineral water bottles, creating quite a ruckus and leaving the stage looking like a war zone of half-destroyed detritus.

This wasn't a rock concert gone wild. It was a collaborative piece titled Born From The Wasted, which was part of the latest showcase under the Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak series of performance art.

"I'm not a painter. I can't draw or do installations. My background is in music. But this is a totally new form of expression for me," remarked the 34-year-old, who also goes by the name Reef.

Arif, who plays for the experimental rock band Under The Velvet Sky, wasn't the only performance art newbie that Thursday night. Co-performer Lee is a practising photographer. Elizabeth Lim, who performed a ritualistic piece inspired by the death of her great-grandmother, and Chand ChandraMohan, who "communed" with a huge lump of dough, are both Fine Arts students at Lasalle College of The Arts taking up painting.

The most senior of the lot was Justin Lee, who's known for his pop art paintings. His item: Distributing unpleasant-looking goo to audiences, made from burgers and fries dumped into a blender - taped to his head.

And they're all part of a quiet resurgence of performance art in Singapore.

Bad boy no more?

Justin Lee: Eat Fast Food Fast

This month alone sees a number of performance art events cropping up. The next RITES instalment, featuring Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Mike Chang and Marla Bendini, takes place this Friday at Emily Hill.

The latest edition of another performance art event, NOW!, takes place at the end of the month at Nanyang Technological University. At this year's Night Festival, performance artists will be holding impromptu performances at The Substation.

Even the ongoing group exhibition Imagine Malaysia at Valentine Willie Fine Art has been featuring a performance by Loo Zihan every Saturday afternoon.

It would seem like performance art is alive and kicking, shedding its reputation as the "bad boy" of the local art scene.

Much of the negative connotation had, of course, sprung from the well-chronicled events of 1994, when performance artist Josef Ng snipped his pubic hair in a protest piece during the Artists' General Assembly event organised by The Artists Village and 5th Passage Artists. The resulting media circus led to a de facto ban on the art form after the National Arts Council removed all funding privileges for nearly a decade, effectively making it a pariah in the art scene.

"There used to be this (negative) image, even in the arts community. But that label isn't valid anymore," said performance artist Kai Lam, who co-founded RITES with veteran performance artist Lee Wen.

Since the funding ban was lifted in 2003, performance art has emerged from the shadows with festivals like Future Of Imagination in 2003 and Fetterfield in 2006. The encouraging atmosphere also prompted the organisers of FOI to start RITES.

"We felt the recurrence of performance art was very limited and we needed more in terms of creating something constant in Singapore," said Lam.

RITES started as a bi-monthly event but has since become an ad hoc series. To date, there have been around 12 instalments. They've also initiated workshops on performance art in May and July of this year. And while there hasn't actually been a deluge of wannabe performance artists, who that do show up - like Arif and the rest of the gang that Thursday night - have been hooked.

Lim, 19, who did a personal piece called Timekeeper inspired by the death of her great-grandmother, had seen a particular performance by a Thai artist at one of the previous RITES.

"I was quite amazed because it was right in front of me and it was very raw."

Meanwhile, Jason Lee, 26, got more involved after volunteering for last year's FOI. "It's totally different from photography. It's been a challenge but I'm still learning."

It has even prompted Arif to sneak a bit of his "performance art" side into his band gigs with mixed reactions from his bandmates. "They're okay if I'm including sound-based elements, but when I told them I wanted to try putting an installation onstage they said to do it on my own time," he laughed.

Elizabeth Lim: Timekeeper

Unloading baggage

Still, senior practitioners admit it's becoming rather tiring having to peg the history of Singapore's performance art scene to the events of 1994, with the repercussions still hovering like a spectre they can't seem to get away from.

"(Performance art) is recognised (again) but there are still a lot of 'ifs', a lot of hang-ups to deal with. The funding policy has changed but (not) in terms of the law," said Lee Wen, who added that the legal debate on whether certain performances are considered art or plain obscenity is still a prickly one.

There are other roadblocks, too. With performance art still considered a lesser cousin to the more established forms like painting, students' exposure to it has been mainly through the occasional workshop by guest artists. And while they say attendance to events has been growing through the years, the lack of a recurring audience have made it a challenge to popularise.

"A lot of times, people think they understand performance art but actually they don't. Over the years, people come and then they don't come again. You really need to see a lot to learn the language. But a lot of times, people come and say: 'Okay, I know what it is' - and they don't come anymore."

Not that anyone is under any illusion of performance art becoming a populist art form. When we suggested that pop icons like Lady Gaga could very well be the new face of performance art, Lam agreed that there are certain connections but at the end of the day it's still different.

"It will remain a niche culture. Periodically, there will be people like her who will come out and present a kind of reference. But performance art as a form isn't simply about face value. It's about finding the truth in things," he said.

For now, it's simply about regaining a foothold in the local arts scene. And the "old guards" are optimistic.

Said Lee: "I think there's something different in terms of the innocence and it's very good to see that. It's always good to see new energy coming in."

(This article was originally published in TODAY on 15-August-2011.)


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