Open Letter to S.T.

in response to
“Why show Brother Cane again?”
The Brother Cane re-enactment should not be allowed. (Cane: Re-enactment Draws Debate: Life!. Feb.16).
Cutting pubic hair again? What is it trying to show?
There is absolutely no meaning in performing such an act. It is so silly, weird and crude.
Performance should be something that one can enjoy and not cringe with embarrassment when watched.” - Pek Li Sng
The Straits Times, February 18, 2012, page E8 (life! ;mailbag)
I was going to answer the quoted questions with just 4 words: “Because it is art.” although I would prefer to answer with 5 words: “Because it is good art.” But that would mean I need to write a longer letter and fear we do not have time and patience for it at this moment.I am bothering to take my precious time writing this letter in response to Pek Li Sng because I had an interesting hour yesterday talking to students on invitation at the School of the Arts (SOTA) and would like to share the experience in view of these questions. I was nervous and apprehensive and maybe 10 minutes late for the talk and walked into an auditorium of applauding students aged between 15 to 17.  The warm welcome took me by surprise. Apparently not all Singaporeans see performance artists negatively after all.

Giving them a run down of my work primarily working in performance art, squeezing in my personal philosophical take on approaching it from painting based on a comparative study between Chinese painting and Western art of self-portraiture. As quick and swift as a staggering man with Parkinson’s disease shaky fingers could managed the slides; I ended with my contention that performance art is equally valid in Asia, not merely a borrowed or imitation of Western opulence or outlandish individualism.

I worried on my way to the school how I should frame my 1 hour talk to such young students whose faces shone with innocence they glared back at me brighter than the fluorescent lights in the auditorium. With relief I self-consciously skipped my slides of nudity in some of my performances with the excuse of lack of time. But my worry of having not being able to communicate a complex subject that usually required longer time frames to get across less informed public or young audiences were laid to rest when I was inundated with intelligent questions I never quite expected in Singapore.

Performance art is a language of individualism but it is part of our history just as much in Asia as in the west. We may have come from a different side of the spectrum however we are on the common rainbow of human cultural evolution that is still going on and may only halt if we fail to take measures to overcome this crises ridden world by not heeding signs of straining needs of change and growth. The failure to allow changing behaviors due to evolving consciousness is  just as important as other more apparent contribution to our survival or to avoid impending extinction. Our culture in the east frowned on individualism favouring group oriented social behaviour. It is reflected in our language as idioms like “knock down the nail that stands out” or “a camel in a sheep’s pen” discourage uniqueness and overt display of any extra ordinary or non-conforming opinions and deviant behaviour. It may be good to ensure the interlacing social fabric to gain strength and intensity however it discourages leadership and creativity or even risk taking that are helpful if not utterly necessary for enterprises and entrepreneurship to grow and develop.

The studies in social sciences such as sociology, anthropology and psychology  show how the leaders in shifts of cultural behaviour were often seen in the beginning as anti-social disruptions to accepted norms but later may gain wider approval or even be installed as a new status quo that may then be again dethroned by later deviant directions seen as innovators for those who supported them. Our traditions today were once also deviating from previous social norms and need to shift with later generations either renewing them or updating them to changing social values.

Looking at the revamped educational directions in Singapore regenerated my hope. As our society seems more entranced by prestigious art from either well recognized internationally famous foreign stars or less expensive regional South-east Asian artists who are able to produce with comparative advantage due to lower costs of living. Even after gaining support the need to keep abreast with bureaucratic stringencies of licensing checks and censorship controls not to say contradictory pursuit and keeping track of the dissemination of arts funding drains our once organically inspired creativity and spontaneity.

Although I had often articulated the qualm that our much heralded plans of making Singapore a hub of art and culture lacked credibility unless the tertiary institutions showed more interest in serious study and research of art and cultural dimensions. The recent attempt in allowing young students to specialize in art and gain knowledge of performance art at a tender age of 16 is a huge leap of faith from where we came from in the late 1980’s with the oft misunderstood initial raw performances of Tang Da Wu, Amanda Heng, Zai Kuning and Tang Mun Kit during the gung ho days of the Artists Village in Jalan Ulu Sembawang.  The eviction gave impetus to homeless artists to seek  co-operating with various who had resources in using urban spaces. Mean time the younger artists emerged like Josef Ng who brought new energies that gave new perspectives and scathing daring untested strategies.

The event at 5th Passage was another step up the evolutionary process as the young women heading it Suzanne Victor and Susie Lingham had enterprisingly connected with management of Parkway Parade to use a space under-utilised yet easily accessible to city dwellers. They were able to connect with managers of businesses to help the experimenting iconoclastic artists doing what would usually seen as “silly, weird and crude” to be accepted and discussed in fact served as research what the academia did not offer. Due to the outcry of a misguided cultural officialdom our efforts at creating an event to regain community in the contemporary time of artists heading towards fragmentation in disparated individualistic directions for individualism that is not necessarily detrimental to our society were judged unfairly as a threat to internal security. It was 1994 just twenty odd years ago.

After my talk at S.O.T.A., I spent another hour fielding enthusiastic young thinkers asking mature sincere questions beyond the short heavy handed closed questions or statements of Peh Li Sng. Such short but crisp utterance smacks of authoritative intolerance that shows our intention to be a cultural hub of sophistication need some loosening up if not more soulful interventions beyond that of monetary investments. Instead of condemning such laudable work not only of the artists but the organizers of the event we should take pride that artists expressed themselves in Singapore in unique relevance with compassionate sensitivity and well studied research to express human emotions of pain and suffering in sympathy to fellow human beings in our society whether past or present.  Under the production of a festival organized by The Necessary Stage continuing the pioneering efforts of 5th Passage in urban strategies, using corporate finesse to re-instill community in a fragmenting society, Loo Zhi-han performs tomorrow in a new rendition with his personal take revolving his life based on meticulous research. Within it he is re-enacting Josef Ng’s performance of ground shaking historical interest that it reverberates in us so strongly 20 years later.

We have gained a new consciousness that many other countries took longer to attain if not still struggling with out-dated ideas. This moment is one of Singapore’s unique cultural historical milestones. To some this may be profanities best unheard and buried however for those who follow cultural turns in history with objective scrutiny may instead find it a sacred qualified blessing. That is why we want to see ‘Brother Cane’ performed again and again for we have learnt to see that his was an act worthy of art. We have learnt to appreciate performance and would not cringe with embarrassment even if pubic hair was seen and cut for we only care to empathize with higher levels of compassion.


4 thoughts on “Open Letter to S.T.

  1. Not only is it art, it is history. And this performance is a fascinating meeting of the twain. Art exists in three times simultaneously. The time it is made. The time it is about, The time it is performed. SOTA students have the opportunity to discuss all three frames.

  2. To me, one thing bugs me. Do we ultimately HAVE to thank Straits Times as the agent provocateur behind all this? Why? Cos ST is but a choice-less platform. So, what kind of platform in art is that, when it’s a choiceless one?

    • I have to agree and disagree. We use our time by making choices. Many suspected the letter posted being a plant. I took it seriously because they apparently represented views that opposes the open road that we advocate to take in order to move on. Even among the arts community are different opinions how we live a creative life under the quagmire of contradictory regulations and support system with binding ties. As long as the conduit of negotiation is open where art platforms as art not just market and power there is a chance our cause may still go on and I would not mind to some domestication within this nation and try to make this my home.

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