Hamlet as bad comedy

in anticipation:

By Loo Zihan
Sunday 19 February 2012, 8pm
The Substation Theatre
Admission: $19 / SOLD OUT
Rating: R18
This event is part of the M1 Fringe Festival 2012: Art & Faith

there will be stupidity
there will be wrong actions
there will be setbacks
there will be maladies
and self indulgences
and if we are lucky some old classic acts of god
unforeseen chaotic shakes as reminder that fuel status
to overcome regular support when needed

breathe in ……….out ……in……..out

The only problem I see with the presentation of “Cane” on this Sunday is that the people involved have such strong sense of justice, fair play and serious propriety that they are not even letting one person in without a ticket. As many had requested privileged entry based on friendship, scholarship, sponsorship, kinship, keenship, association of academic or political and other professional interest that will be of advantage to the production itself and no way will they budge a nano inch. And I totally agree to its observation of fairness in order not to upset anyone of them but it is a big mistake not to allow just one more person in: me! Haha!..only kidding.

That is probably on most people’s mind that approved of Loo Zihan’s courageous stake at playing a role I consider of utmost urgency and crucial timing. For those who consider this to be a worthy work of art also find it just as important to be there to witness it. For good works need a good audience and we who were slow to react to news release can only pray that Zihan be blessed with an audience of serious intentions with conscious and critical objectivity as much as he appear to be in his daring decision to assume the difficult challenge. It is necessary that artists inevitably partake in order to reconcile the neglected if not invisible contradictions and tensions prevalent in our seemingly harmonious society. Why would anyone put himself in a position of such torment that most would dismiss as false ambition, distorted direction or egoistic vanity? It seems to be finding one taking up the role of Hamlet only to find playing it to an audience that saw it as bad comedy. Delivering all the vexatious lines of human tragic dilemma only to be misunderstood as ill-timed punch lines of unfunny jokes.

I find it hard sometimes to understand how so many who I consider would be very in touch or in tune with the scene are showing disapproval. The negative reactions began when the performance was announced in late October last year that resulted in the tickets being fully sold out the same day. Perhaps the sleek marketing and timely publicity the organizers choreographed so perfectly consternated the performance artists being mostly from disparate individualistic visual arts poor cousins to the theatre companies. The success smack not only of shameless commercialism if not complicit partners of state propaganda but perhaps such emotionally charged opposing views may also be due to envy for we have yet to learn to accept the marketing trends and only find the media as monsters of ignorance and servants of state propaganda.

For those who have struggled in upholding the much misunderstood form of performance art through the years of exclusion from funding and ostracized pariah-hood the news not only aroused memories of trauma but also unjustified discrimination and reversed glory to a rookie who snatched victory without deserving it or claiming the fruits of labor or reaping the harvest without lifting a finger to sow the seeds.

At the same time eye witnesses present on the actual infamous event that the original performance took place in 1993, would have difficulty to have faith in the authenticity of such business like management to have any possibility of re-enactment. The event had a playfully grand name, “Artists General Assembly” often called A.G.A. pronounced like agar agar the sweet black grass jelly, a favourite local thirst quencher in our tropical heat and as an acronym sounded like A.G.M. a call for artists of all disciplines to congregate for 8 days in annual discussion, exchange and collaboration, but not only meeting but something grander; an assembly from Christmas Day to New Year’s Day. It was a trajectory from the 24 hour TIME show mooted by Tang Da Wu, the last event held in the farm site of the original Artists Village in Sembawang before we got evicted.

It was put together by self-willed artists working together despite differences of temperament. The artistic directors of 5th Passage, Suzanne Victor and Susie Lingham steered artists into the corridors of corporations by infiltrating the 5 th storey passageway between the lift well and the multi-story car park of Parkway Parade Shopping Center. They were quiet motivators who brought us together, without knowing helped us to co-operate and spontaneously manifesting responsible anarchy for the sake of art. In extending the 24 hour event to embrace the new year, Suzanne and Susie brought the idea forward and led us further for the 8 days into working and asking for more serious approaches and exploring new directions in art and culture in the hope re-generation of community. There were not only visual artists, but innovators and practitioners from music, theater, dance, poetry, literature, and unfortunately probably the secret police too.

Josef Ng’s performance “Brother Cane” was one out of a week long event of various performances. There were many memorable works done but his was one that made us held our breath, raised goose pimples of compassionate concern for those discriminated against yet sanctioned by our laws. It called forth our passive souls to be activate beyond that of creative expression. A threshold we did not yet consider crossing but the actions of Josef Ng’s shook us into deep sympathy. We may have been innocent and naïve not to know the serious consequences and that the law of obscenity was transgressed but our concerns and passion were purely artistic ones and in fact laudable desires to help build and maintain a home for a society fragmented by the influx of globalized financed plastic culture of mass appeal prosletizing supermarket consumerism. The dialogue and discussions were initiated in the hope of re-aligning our new possibilities of engaging the community of diverse creative energies that were dispersing in different new directions.

As the sun rose on new year’s morning the distinct guitar wails of Azmi Hassan playing a rendition of Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the moon”. It sounded different, some notes went higher than the original. All you detractors of re-enactment and authenticity may doubt the originality of Azmi’s playing. But to me it was real enough to have achieved the immortality in my memory bank as the eight days A.G.A. brought us across universes and landed us on the dark side of the moon without knowing it.

Loo Zihan was 10 years old when we made that happened with the feminine impulses of two women who envisioned bringing together disparate, splintering artists together into one home and so that we may sing our own songs. Yes, we need sometimes to carry on by singing the same songs or return to the acts recorded in history even if we knew the time, the place, the people have changed. What had not yet changed and still remain needed to be addressed again and again. After all the investments made in this society into art education, infrastructures, mega art fairs and exhibitions, art collections have we not yet learn to differentiate art from smut? Do we trust the secret police report more than the art experts or social scientists and still suspect good intentions of artistic acts of building home and community engagement as violent destructive plots to instigate public disorder and organize chaos?

What Josef Ng did was a good work of performance art and not obscene and therefore should not be seen as criminal. If I may speak as an empirical observer what we saw certainly did not had the slightest notion of pornographic intentions. If we charge a man for obscenity knowing that the definition of obscenity was derived for the need to punish those who partake in acts of pornography that still goes on today. Whereby I bet even that secret police who squealed on us probably had seen and would very well be able to tell the difference. And yet punishment is meted out on one who is clearly not involved in pornography but a compassionate expression of humanity we must ask ourselves again and again what Josef Ng asked in his performance, Not because we want to be the same again, that would be nostalgia. Not because we wanted to gain in fame by riding on another’s name, that would be narcissistic and vain. Certainly not because we lack directions or originality, that would be self-defeat and in fact the only real crime here.

The Straits Times 23/11/93

12 men nabbed...The Straits Times 23/11/93

2 thoughts on “Hamlet as bad comedy

  1. Thanks for this. The real ‘crime’ is not that of obscenity, but of artists making performances as a form of ‘protest’. This was probably the reason why authorities were pressing for prosecution on the artist and organisers using ‘obscenity’ as a cause for punishment. Sad, unjust but true in a thoroughly paranoid city like ours.

  2. Thank you for your feedback. However my plea is that we call a spade a spade. To give legitimacy to art as something of value that it be not judged as obscene. Now that the same performance is being done under officially approved conditions, it is not even important that Loo Zihan will actually cut his pubic hair or not but that is presented and appreciated by an informed and willing audience. After months of collecting support documents to prove his act as legitimate art differentiated and divorced from that of pornographic obscenity, Josef Ng pleaded guilty under pressure unfortunately. Now that our society have grown after so many years of continued efforts and investments into promoting the appreciation and enjoyment of art in contemporary contexts, surely it is time we gave it another look and repeal the charges and judgement against him as well as the licensee administrator whose names we should petition to be cleared of the criminal records.

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