Longing for the Mountain retreat (with room service)

thought that things are getting better
how wrong
when the battle heats up to boil like broth
for dead chickens and screaming monkeys
the call to arms rang all day
in every ding dang dong dung
noisy purposelee wanto dig streets of singapure
buzy bobbee bochap for poetry only hot ok on moneeey
tell you no talking about demokrazee wait kena pantak kaya guyu then you jaga
go and art conference DaWu good ah know who is papa mama go back kampong
forget the long long mountain lah
how correct?
NOT?

Just before heading for Hong Kong Art Basel I received the good news from Performance Studies International that I had been chosen to receive this year’s PSi Artist/Scholar/Activist Award 2014 to be presented in the next gathering of international performance studies afficionandos in Shanghai come July 4 to 8/2014 at the Shanghai Theatre Academy.
Unfortunately my tour de force with the good support of *Helina Chan, gallerist of vision and dare, and her wonderful staff of iPreciation Gallery, having presented one of the most favoured booths in this year’s busy and bustling Art Basel in Hong Kong, was scarred by a bizarre incident of being knocked out cold for a good 30 minutes during a quick leap to take a leak in the men’s room at the City University of Hong Kong after the end of forum on the theme of Art and Value, a subject that is of utmost import in my view that I had often wanted to address myself and had even proposed to speak at Art Basel Hong Kong concerning this subject matter. Well after all the big hoo haah i for want for peace of mind took a trip out to Belfast although my true destination should have been Cyprus instead.
However to cut a long story short I was not going to explain all and everything here but just to let me say one time that state of things todate, in short and quick sharp fashion.
1) I didn’t really know what was the cause of my blackout and I did not say for sure there was assault, although I did suspected it due to the many bumps on my head. Recently I asked some doctors while consulting them for other reasons. They all said it could have been or probably was due to my own low blood pressure that caused it. They all advised that men with low blood pressure have tendency to have the blood pressure lowering even further when they piss standing up. But what about the bumps in a row? It could be I was trying to get up and falling again and again.
2) I only said various things about the arrest of my friend in the song that I posted on the morning before i left my hotel room. But almost all the newspapers and news reported wrongly that I made the statements casting doubts on the legality of his arrest and suspect on the justice system of China at the forum itself. Whereas the only statements I said at the forum were made in general terms, just to ask if not acknowledge the fact that artists may sometimes make works more in tune with a change in our judgement of social values whereas outdated legal systems or laws of the past may till today be upheld in societies unwilling to update them in parallel with changes in our time and current human consciousness.
3) I did not bring my guitar to play at the art fair but was going to play in the evening at a friend’s pub. I made some indications of being stopped by my gallerist only in mischief as I thought she had been a little too concerned as if I was really going to play there when she saw me with instrument. (Sigh…I was just tired with others suspicions that are showing a mistrust in my ability to judge what is correct action)
4)The fact that I had no memory of anyone touching me or even assaulting me hence I should not even suspect it was a violent assault by any one at all, and now I accept the explanation from the doctors I spoke with.That it was a case of blacking out due to my low blood pressure and to be more careful and try to pee while sitting and try to avoid the standing urinals when traveling alone.
5) So I owe it to Cyprus that I tried too late to get a flight there and could only make it to Belfast which was not going to happen without the invitation to Cyprus. But well it was a rain check I had to cash since long time ago and it was goo surprise to even touch base with good old Andre Stitt unexpectedly he was at dinner the first evening I arrived. And to get to know Shiro’s mother was a bonus.

6) It meant I would not be able to go to Shanghai that I had wanted to but was fatigued to do so. Ray Langenbach made a speech in my place at the conference showing some video on my 24 hours buried to my waist in my back garden when I was living with my buddies in Seletar Army Camp on No.8 Oxford Street.

Nychthemer 2 Performance 24 hours X 2 duration November 8-9-1997 8 Oxford Street, Singapore

Nychthemer 2
Performance 24 hours X 2 duration
November 8-9-1997
8 Oxford Street, Singapore

Anyway I must say the twist of fate helped gave me much time and food for thought and reflection concerning my role as an artist in the somewhat orderly yet messy state of affairs in a rigid social engineered systematic development driven so called success story of dear dear Singapore.

For one thing the friends I come to value all showered their care for me not only by words but showed up in person with concern by dropping by to have eye to eye meetings and a good meal together that did fulfill a certainty of changing my attitude for neglecting the priority in food and sleep in my daily undertakings. At the same time I slowed down to the point of failure of what I promised and found that it would not kill me as much as my own physical need for food and rest would. But I begged to be given a chance to fulfill my promises with longer time frames and god alone knows a bigger budget would surely help.

Yes. But that I will describe in the next blog as i am need of a lay down at least some hours…

Shiro and his mother.

Shiro and his mother.

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Dead Art Daydream Action No.1

I am license
…Or why I think licensing performance art is not necessary.1384143_10151750351011989_386293260_n

I made 2014 New Year Resolution that I will not present performance art in Singapore under the compulsory need to apply for a license.

2014 is 20 years after the event of Artists General Assembly (A.G.A.). An event held at “5th Passage”, the artists’ run space in Parkway Parade Office block’s fifth storey between the lift lobby leading through a concourse both that opens out towards an adjacent spiral car-park building. The event was organized by artists from the collectives, 5th Passage and The Artists Village. Taking the inspiration of the 24 hours TIME show that was held on new year’s event of 31 January 1989 to 1 January 1990, at the original site of Lorong Gambas, the A.G.A. expanded the idea to that of an eight days event inviting contemporary artists who were embarking on cutting edge or contemporary practices in art making within the Singapore context to convene in exhibition, exchange and dialogue. The event was held together with self-motivated artists and responsible anarchy where we pitched together each other’s ability and when the sun rose on 1 January 1994 to the sounds of the trio, “Non-Sex”, led by under-rated musician Azmi Hassan that played their own take on “Shine on you crazy diamond”, it felt like the finale to a week long initiation rites to the Brave World we were all helping to create.

AGA brochureBut we had a shock of our lives when we got news of how the event was brought to attention on the front page of the tabloid which completely threw all our good intentions into that of suspicion and almost stereotyping our lot as rebellious enemy of the people. The  pandemonium added on as our inexperience at dealing with the media that seems to checked all our efforts to correct the negative image with slanted quotes and added to the confusion of artists as divided self-promoting individual egos. The recent exhibition of “Ghost: The Body At The Turn Of The Century” at the Sculpture Square curated by the courage and vision of it’s new director Alan Oei held at the end of last year, gave a plethora of the darker side of Singapore’s claim to fame as art centre of note this side of the Global Village. Amongst the stories most likely to be swept under any red carpets of shining Singapore Paradiso or the official utopian image of most propaganda media do is the work of the artist Loo Zihan. Loo changed his trajectory as a narrative documentary film maker into performance art, whose research for his Masters program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011  gave us the re-enactment of the infamous “Brother Cane”. As a follow up he presented ‘Artists’ General Assembly – The Langenbach Archive’ a comprehensive survey of the archive material from the said event of 1993-1994 that allows us to look back with care again and it gave us much food for thought. A small group of us gathered at its closing on 31 December 2013. I came away with mixed feelings, asking myself a bunch of questions that still left to be desired.

There are many things beyond one’s control, and although you and i may know the facts are plain as the light of day yet sometimes  we would still find it hard to say.  For my love to speak truths for the people, for this society is as pure as I may claim to be as Wahab’s honey and yet when offered them forth it still surely to find some tongues tasting them like the bitterest poison as if they were verses from hell. Thus i  find myself going over my quandary and setting them apart to two or three sets.

1) Questions I can make a decision now and carry them forth as that is my insignia for the battle of the present state of affairs, the ground for my negotiation, and to invite my friends to ride with me. Full battle speed, like Andre Stitt say: “Either you are on the bus or you are off”, i welcome all passengers, young and old, short term or long term, even my enemies! But “don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall…”

To make the resolution I considered for ten years. In the first place I did agree to it for a good ten years, at least since we did go into it with our eyes wide open when the proscription on the funding of performance art was lifted in 2003.

It had been ten years after it was first implemented by the National Arts Council. With Tommy Koh as the Chairman, that had cast a dark shadow on performance art. It resulted in it becoming almost forever spoken here like a dirty word or in the same breath as any other inexplicable actions most of them of derogatory leanings arousing adjectives veering towards wrong doing, trouble maker, stupidity and non-sensical rather than the possibility of poetry and philosophy.

In fact, the question of having gone ahead with accepting the requirements of grantees to play according to the rules of the game was asked to me by one of the speakers in our very own public forum during Future Of Imagination 2, held at the Sculpture Square.
My contention was that: after weighing the pros and cons, I still think that there were pros that far outweighs the cons.
Furthermore, we had been knocking on the doors of the arts council for the past ten years, since the traumatic aftermath of A.G.A. in 1994. Now that they open the door I must enter although it may not be comfortable.

But I had from the beginning sounded out the problematic list of do’s and don’ts on the licenses and have said so before. As with my first performance in the first “Future Of Imagination” series of international performance art event that I had initiated and organized, I had the license conditions read out loud while I made my actions.
If anyone had taken notes they would have immediately find many of them have been broken by me already, although they may not be breaking other more serious laws per se.
Here my contention was and still is, that if that were the case, then the only need for us organizers and artists to do is that to observe the law; and not necessarily a whole bunch of other regulations that are too indicative of impossible controls that can only hamper our freedom to create, without over looking our shoulders every step in fear of being an offender ever before doing a thing. As a performance artist, I find myself stumped in my flow of imagination every time I stop to consider its legality. And worse still to host international platform of ‘world class artists’ embarrassingly I apologetically ask them to forgive my shameful country whenever I invited them. For my only wish is to show their works of purest creation. To ask me to continue after ten years of tolerating such humiliation can only mean I am willingly agreeing to partake in the Republic’s hemlock laced cup of poison offered to Socrates but here seen as due procedural necessity of civil decorum.

2) Questions that for the moment we leave them on the shelf but we must not forget they are there. The road to freedom and justice is a long road. We may not yet arrive at victory in our life time, but so long as we keep asking them and not let the cobwebs of greed and selfishness cover them up into oblivion, our cause is not yet lost although we may have conceded the battle. To me grand failures do not count. They only count if they are important to be in the memory shelves to be fought again when the time is right otherwise throw them out. For they only collect dusts and that is just decorative masks, not the real face that will last.

Looking at the evidence, as far as licensing goes, the A.G.A. event was licensed too and it did not prevent this to happen because none of us knew then that any law would be broken. To me even when looking back at Josef Ng’s performance, there was no crime discernible. There was nothing either intended nor actually could be seen or unmistakably discerned by anyone who saw the live performance, or even the video documentation.

As I understand from readings the justice system is implemented to protect the citizen’s rights and I am just by asking questions hereby asking for these rights to be secured for me as an artist who practices art and just as any other individuals who swears allegiance to the flag and the nation.
From discussions with many including artists and organizers involved in the event what transpired seemed to be showing us a different understanding that perhaps there were other considerations that led to it’s eventual notoriety, or even ‘clamming down’.
1) there was the internal security question of performance art being a possible threat to public order.
2) there was a need to slam down hard as the performance not only questions the news reportage of the punishment on gay behavior but also seem to advocate protest.
3) it was to keep at bey the propagation and proliferation of homosexual behaviour in Singapore.

Being a patriot schooled and imbued with the Rafflesian spirit, even though I call myself a born again hippie, I like to think that all these are mistaken conjectures that arose merely because those of us who are concerned citizens have looked closely at the evidence if not even seen the actual performance itself and cannot see any evidence in the presentation to have anywhere come close to something we categorically call pornography or an obscene action not even one that is erotic in a artistic way. The only close to fault if any, was that of the words being said by the artist himself to the effect that he was going to cut his pubic hair and after which it was done without any direct revelation of such an action. The artist then went to stand facing a far end wall from the space where the majority of the audience was. He showed a little of his buttock as he lowered them apparently to cut the pubic hair. He then turned around to walk back up towards the audience and put some of the hair down on the floor over some tofu. Then nervously looked around randomly and asked for a cigarette, as he probably was looking for a way to end the ritual. After a few puffs, in the silent tension he put the burning cigarette out on the square of his left shoulder saying the words: “Perhaps a silent protest is not enough.”

Clearly such actions all have nothing obscene about it and  would even add that even IF the artist had cut his pubic hair in full frontal view I would still not find any of these sequences of actions anywhere close to obscene or pornographic actions. However what some have explained to me is that the law says the act of cutting pubic hair is obscene in itself hence it is not necessarily have to be seen.
However should we not reconsider some changes after all if really the law on obscenity was supposedly meant to protect public decency and by all means some of us find it obscene by just thinking of it. But I believe ours is to be a sophisticated society that should be serving us all and not only those of lesser tolerance to actions deemed less commonly seen as normal. Especially when performance art is now accepted officially and the fact that it could be re-enacted by Loo Zihan in a theater ticketed event all the more added more reasons for us to review and to recast it again.
Otherwise I shall remain an artist of shame for I carry in my heart an allegiance I had pledged to a society that I believed in the possibility of a system of justice that protects us all. That includes creative thinking individuals who speak up for the suffering of others in poetic actions, in provocative actions that may include the unusual use of the body, situations in public interactions or agitate in purposeful confrontations but still allowing, nay, in fact demanding each and all in the audience to decide with responsibility what is the correct course of action, but in fairness let the artist be free.  What Josef Ng did in 1994 was indeed just that. He courageously spoke up for the suffering of others by innovative re-inventing the new language of performance art with sensitive responses to local contexts. We punished him, and also the artist Iris Tan, who merely took the blame as she was handling the admin work. The way I see it today, I am equally responsible and I am equally guilty for their crimes if at all any crime was committed. I am proud of Josef Ng for what he gave us and Iris Tan who suffered humbly, quietly, a duty-bound giving us her name and time as a service to art and artists, forgoing her own chance to also be directly practicing as one. (I know Iris well, she was glad to contribute her hair to my A.G.A. cupboard installation but I remember hearing her talk to us working on our installation where I could detect a subtle envy beneath her humorous words of encouragement and praises to our work. She sacrificed her own artistic inclinations cause somebody needs to do the paper work and she got charged and found guilty for it and no one even bothered to call her after)

And no I don’t blame the government. I don’t blame the P.A.P. and don’t mention my mother but I blame my country. Yes I am still ashamed of my country. And this country includes you and me. A country who put good art and artists on trial and make them criminals. And now after 20 years say let’s move on!, the world has changed.

Not yet changed as it should if you ask me!!
But it should.

AGA Opening

Open Letter to the Nation of Josef Ng’s

3 Generations


He lives in Shanghai now
and he’s doing fineHe is a man of dignity and understands
about art and money better than most of you and me
i met him in the Shanghai gallery that he runs recently.
A stately gallery on the bund with a team of well educated ladies fluent in at least two languages
Well done Josef!! but
i can’t say if he is happy but he’s doing fine
in fact more than fine
cause he knows where to draw the line
the lines that draws blood
the lines of power and judge
the lines that speak from the artist’s heart
the lines that break the law and mother’s heart

“hey lee wen “, he gave me a line i will never forget,
“tell them i am fine,
i may have broken the law
but i did no wrong.”

he is fine dear
my dear nation of Singapore
a nation of fines
we lost a man of honour and sensitivity
an artist whose actions shook minds and hearts
asked questions of care and concern
intelligence and fair comment
with actions performed with unrehearsed theatre
of spontaneity in authentic plainness
real life in situ no need for skill nor dramatic art
what did we do to him?
it was 1994
enough enough
let us redress this error for ever more
he did no wrong
an individual of rare courage so strong

he dared to speak his mind while in silent apathy others watched on
did he really break the law?
must there be judgement based on the parallel of equations liken to math and algebra?
for are we not human homo emotional and, sapiens who knows what is what and what is not
what we saw were actions that knowingly knocked on questions hard and sore
surely not even a hint on erotic score?
surely non of obsessesion of flesh nor eros call?
surely the law is more than words on a page of thy holy queen long past their prime over our nation’s land and door?
surely we have come this far in higher consciousness and expressing our humane need to be of even higher heartfelt passion for our fellow beings even strangers in pain and suffering.?
surely Josef Ng’s actions were those that shook us for only our passionate return to those in need of redemption
when did he go wrong ?
where is the flaw?
it is now 20 years and 300 odd from when the queen gave nay pressed upon us that law
and surely had application not towards such a noble ritual that came forth on an eventful night of celebration

that our nation has arrived with the future
possible sons and daughters of hundred flowers
nay, a  hundred sunflowers on one trunk
shall we not embrace what may be our rightful fortune of brightness
and cheerful pleasure yet to come
if only our hearts were open
that we should receive such genuine touch of risky edges of precocious flashes
instead of fearful thundering guns and canes
heavy insistence of absent intentions
to take aim and blame upon
Josef Ng
He is an artist
He is now a director of an art gallery in China
a human being with inquiry and responsibility
he is an important son of Singapore
with him i wish
with the future generation i pray
with the present optimism i want
to live on this land this home this nation
my nation in pride to walk in stride
with integrity and say i do yes i do
live in a fine country and people

maju lah!

Lee Wen
3 August 2013

An Apology, Congratulations & a Caution

Susie & Susann

I apologize and I do care to be gentle really and do meant every ounce those somewhat angry derring dos that don’ts when I apologize, that I cannot help but feeling bad really whenever I harangued about the fake success facade the Singapore we come from to others who look at this little island as model of progress and goodness know what else. Whenever our tears are seen as those of crocs inhuman, and ours an unhappy hardened stoned hearted people without any hard earned sentiments of historical moments except for some staged entertainment of bourgeois kitsch symbols of the usual uncouth power and awful hypnotic fireworks sometimes mistaken to be the symbols of high civilization. It don’t fool the likes of us to see them of similar destructive origins – powdered blasts that Dr. Nobel in all earnestness to right his flawed invention seeking peaceful utility draws more blood than all poetic prose of the Nobel laureates can do in today’s internet surfers of psuedo-literates.

How real efforts by well intentioned grassroots and citizen inspired artists of consciousness like yourselves and the humble 5th Passage collective so easily gets seemingly swept away by the hard hand of authoritarian systems of social engineering professing to be democratic processes of justice.

Our work never ceased even after that isn’t anyone going to tell me we did wrong and get away with it. I had been saying that since day one and if not heard before I would like to reiterate and reclaim that even if it was not registered as such before. Got to let you know I treasure your work as sourjourners of strong leadership that is underplayed in the aftermath of the sensational media and other lesser beings of our ignorant community.

My good fortune was to be participating in the company of well adjusted women warriors of such strong will they reminded me so much of your work with 5 th Passage. I was in Guangzhou at the invitation of Times Museum organization and curator Bjlana Citric. The project went well ad I was good till the day i got to do a forum on how we got to do the IARC.  I could not hold back my tears but traded the anger so adolescent the unleavened idiot artist kind. Instead of claiming the joys of victory and allowing a few steps of goodwill forgiven errors, I gave a dark tone of sad funeral remarks that I oh so regretted as it felt not only sad but as if I really died on stage and every one came for a birthday party not knowing it was in fact the funeral of the party clown.

Anyway I was just trying to put all the negative vibes behind me now with a visit to the hot bath (public ofuro) and sat right under the waterfall effect on the crown of my head for two good cycles of zapped Zen under stars and fall when I think I got a da da moment of satori that screamed: “hey we won!” yes we won, because of you both Susie and Suzann in all earnest deserve my congratulations! Yes also my apologies! For how wrong we were to you that in all the dissertations and spoken debates we forgot your story. We spoke about the rights of the artist, the source of originality and re-enactments and the authenticity and the documentation etc.. but not once did we understood how you stood by us in earnest support, silently observed and suffered neglect. Your space got shut down, your programs forgotten, your artists dispersed and your names dissappeared from theses, journals and from discussions. My heart goes out to you both and in fact I like to say you did it your way and the most elegantly deservedly to the victory that is yours to claim.

Our battle done but only one that leads to more and in hope shall our young ones partake with as much courage, if only we will be trusted ones to help them run. For our situation is short of walking a tightrope that non of us thought would be such precariousness that looked like we won and yet not really for the game is exhausting as we find it on an uneven playing field our struggling slowly winding down expecting the young to take up reins.

I must admit my pessimism turned around and not only got a picked up from the Guangzhou gig and now the good news of Susie Lingham’s sppointment to be Singapore Art Museum’s director added to the knowledge that Susann Victor will be preparing for her solo exhibition at Singapore Art Museum. With this note I must say in glee that for some time now I have been calling out that “Art is Dead”, and even announced myself to be writng and singing the diary of a dead artist if we pay heed to the hype of mega shows as if they were promises of entry into the gates of heaven on earth. Hence my congratulations comes with a caution.

Unknowingly I find myself stepping into a pool of quicksand when I accepted the award of cultural medalion of honour and distiguishness, if I had any expectations of being honoured one must humble ourselves to the economies of scales that are of great disparity on the global scale in comparison that we fail to understand fully.

Image

kan pei!!

Art must have its own sovereigncy and yet it does play pawn or puppet sometimes to power and capital whereas the idealistic ones shall only be heard by the few angels of history to save us from the hell of the others. Be it the over centralisaton of power and decision making or distribution of funding our age of cynical individualism whilst upholding the flag of anarchy and individual responsibility at the end gets short changed as we learned that our resistance is only nullified by being officially sanctioned for acts officially administered approval by central authorities of the state. Already a day into Susie’s appointment and even though i am in Tokyo focusing my sights elsewhere I got the drifts of ugly suspicion that i would not bother to describe here but only say they probably are noises of the background hmmmm pretending to be part of a silent majority most of the time. Those who doubt due to ignorance rather than informed participation. That is why I wrote the “Diary of a Dead Artist” and sadness was not my motivation but indeed the call for liberation of gaining a national award under such centralized power structures i believe if we want to take Singapore seriously, (maybe?) surely shows that there is in need for some reconsiderations … if not sadness would surely follow just as night follows the day.

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.

Hamlet as bad comedy

in anticipation:

Cane
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

Cultural Exchange: Don’t Deny Us Our Capital

An open letter to L.A. Times, in response to Dustin Roasa’s report entitled: Cultural Exchange: Singapore embraces art to enhance its image”, Los Angeles Times, 4 December 2011[1]

Sir,
Allow me if you may to clarify some points in your brief article. Although giving an overview of recent cultural concerns it gave a slanted injustice to Singapore with cursory observations and over used clichés describing a society, which is more dynamic, and hip than reports highlighting sensational comparisons or lacking research allows. Singapore’s small but impassioned arts community is in the midst of rapid evolution and growth. Given that many in this busy over informed internet generation only read headlines and not bother to read the rest, your hateline (oops I mean)- headline is murderously clichéd and probably failed to capture any reader’s imagination outside of what they think they already know nor response either since it only perpetuates the misunderstanding that ours is cultural desert without art and artists but only now emerges and thrives as a result of state funding.

For a start artists and cultural workers have been working in this little place even long before anyone notices or the state apparatus begin to notice and begin to provide some financial support. Your article did not specify and implicitly gives wrong impressions that artists and cultural workers have little motivation than to follow the carrots dished out by the state. And have to cower to being complicit with politically subdued inhibitions. Furthermore although the investments were late in coming it is not as recent as you claimed. To also claim that all is done for mere cosmetics image would be too simplistic and dare I say even insulting to a sophisticated people albeit leaning towards materialistic and consumer habits than the noble aspirations of art and cultural engagements.

The first white paper and also official reports of public policies to develop the arts and culture in Singapore were published in 1989. A quick look at them showed it was an attempt at comprehensive engineering of the cultural scenario and making Singapore a Renaissance city. Although many of us have our qualms how this country is being governed many would not reject the intended support if not financially.

Many artists had tragic stories of ending in poverty such as early masters of traditional arts and crafts such as puppet masters, musicians and opera singers, etc. One prime example is the beloved actor, music composer, film director P.Ramlee whose successes was thwarted by foreign competition of our openly globalized situation. As even if small audiences the onslaught of global capitalism could not save them had always appreciated them.

The problem of arts funding and its call for more autonomy of the arts council is still being discussed. Many have contended that artists should reject funding due to its various conditions that amounts to censorship if not authoritative repression. However my reading is a wider one whereas I have accepted and would even ask for more financial support if necessary without nary doubting my rights. If my understanding is flawed I maybe standing on its edge of violation or complicity by continuing my work in conscious knowledge that in agreement to the clause “not to disparage or demean government bodies, public institutions or national leaders, and/or subvert the nation’s security or stability.” That would not mean we cannot pose policies or even leaders with questions or doubts as to their various possible imperfections or dissatisfactions, based on the fact that we as artists and citizens do have a right to express our anxieties living under the conditions and regulated state.

Whilst you correctly quoted my words, you misread my emotions as that of bemusement and delight. I cannot explain but I believe if you had rubbed shoulders with more sensitivity many of us who have to overcome living in societies full of rules and regulations maintaining order in social decorum tend to lighten our inner anxieties with smiles and laughter instead of tears and anger. It was not in delight when I asked, “Have I become an approved radical?” I was actually saying it with a painful confession of disbelief as it is based on the recent essay in the Singapore Art Museum catalog of a recent exhibition. [2]

It is sad that from time to time we hear of our society’s paranoid conservatives who do dictate the implementation shameful acts of bureaucratic censorship. However we do have some small victories in bringing in more challenging critical artists in artists’ initiatives albeit under licensing procedures which have loosen up somewhat. Though it is still something I do in fact wished would be abolished.

Valentine Willie is correct in saying that controlled environments makes second-rate art and many artists find it liberating when working outside. Perhaps that is why our representations at Venice Biennale or other foreign international exhibitions have seen our artists excelling beyond their local presentations. I must congratulate Valentine Willie for his courage in presenting three years in a row one of the most well received annual exhibitions in Singapore during the time of our national day celebrating our independence. [3] Perhaps he saw some hope that these “second rate art” may lead the way and pray more independent curators should come forward with similar courage and not let us be wallowing in the waters of papa state and get mistook as playing puppet as tragic cosmetic adornment of the state.

I would take issue with Stephanie Fong that the hardware is there from the billions spent and that the software needs catching up. Artists are still struggling for low costs spaces in the exorbitant rise of real estates now more than ever. How much is spent on that and who gets them? Not those who need but those who can pay. Rather the software is already there and its all we got waiting and deserve all the billions you are ready to give instead of all that military and other bureaus of a paranoid state machinery if you compare where the pie goes to most your writing just overlook what image change would be really need to be done if its about that.

The hero of the day of course are the likes of Lorenzo Rudolf who is what this crazy world is doing to art and culture and probably leading us to the hell that the so called art world is going if we are not already there. By equating art and artists only in terms of profit and loss and not real cultural capital we are violating our last bastions of sanity if not spirituality.

We are not a cultural desert and never were one except to the greedy entrepreneurs of art as market as art or those who only see the world through controversy and sensationalism. Singapore has been around and has a history for as long as U.S. although not as its current constitutional state and national formation. As long as human beings live together in social groups, there will be art and culture. Some of these traditions still exists and handed down although facing extinction. Singapore although maybe a midget in size is not all that different from the giant, U.S.A., a country where Disneyland is home and one of the most executions by the death penalty in the world occurs next to China) That ours is a society that dares to put our future at risks beyond our imagination just for the sake of monetary gains but forget that our transactions daily is merely that of living as a human body seeking a release from mundane hardware (sometimes nice to spend billions on sleek architecture but gimme a hut in the woods anytime), elevating our consciousness if not just provide good fun that carries the value of meaning for hearts and minds. I don’t think its crazy to take risks with artists pushing boundaries of manifesting our consciousness even if they violated any decorum and norms relating to race, politics, religion or sex but you go figure it out how much money we need to do that. But after coming in person half way across the world and just to say such old news of a government who boasts of economic success now embraces art because billions are spent on hardware etc, give me a break! I am an artist not a medalist and I may be wrong but not stupid and neither are you. There is more than meets the eye but please don’t deny us our history our culture and our dignity. That we are not the cliches that you hear and reiterate without sensitivity.


[1] Dustin Roasa, Cultural Exchange: Singapore embraces art to enhance its image, Los Angeles Times, 4 December 2011. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-culture-singapore-20111204,0,5464931.story

[2] Susie Lingham, “A Quota On Expression: Visions, Vexations, & Vanishings” p.55 to 70, Negotiating Home, History and Nation: Two decades of contemporary art in Southeast Asia 1991 – 2011, Singapore Art Museum ISBN 978-981-08-8104-7

[3] Valentine Willie Fine Art, Singapore Survey, 2009, 2010, 2011 http://www.vwfa.net/singaporesurvey2010
http://www.vwfa.net/singaporesurvey2011