It is Friday, October 1, 2010. I enter the Toronto Free Gallery ready for Survey from Singapore, an evening of performance art featuring Amanda Heng, Kai Lam and Lee Wen. I am walking in with a bit of knowledge, culled from the artist’s own statements and my past familiarity with their work: Amanda Heng’s interdisciplinary art practice, addressing clashes between Eastern and Western values, traditions and gender roles in Singapore; Kai Lam’s social commentary performances that are a response to what he calls Singapore’s urban pluralism; and Lee Wen’s art/life works, questioning the ideologies and value systems of their Southeast Asian context. I am walking in with this general knowledge, but, as I find a corner to settle in and enjoy the evening, I find myself letting all of that go in favour of just seeing. Of course, there is no such thing as “just seeing.” Every “seeing” happens within a complex of association, banality, and interpretation. Nonetheless, I try.
The silence is broken with a gentle ringing. Amanda Heng stands at one end of the gallery, holding a ceremonial bowl. She runs a wooden mallet round and round its rim. A gentle clear sound fills the space, reminiscent of a Buddhist temple. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, it grows in intensity. Then stillness. And again, silence. Focus. And a single, clear, “ding.”
A RITUAL BEGINNING
Heng moves to a table set up with a live feed projection against the gallery wall to her right. She places herself behind the table, gently, with purpose. Holding an orange up to the video camera she cuts it in half and places it face down on the table. Each action is intensified through the close-up of the live feed. In the darkened space of the gallery we can see the detail of the orange’s puckered skin as she inserts a stick of incense into it. She lights it. We are drawn into the magnified fire and then, slowly, the smoke. Into the detail of her hair against the smoke as it curls and rises. Into the materiality of her hand, projected to three or four feet in size. The grain of the image against the wall is seductive. Yet it is in the context of liveness that this seduction lives. It is the prosthetic invitation into the detail of the live action that I find so mesmerizing.
For ten minutes now Heng has been staring at the burning ember of the incense. The action has been nothing but a stare. Glancing at her body in space, I see very little. In the projected image, however, the incense burns, each millimeter of ash visible as it gathers, falls, and gathers again. Heng gives the action her full attention and, in turn, I give full attention to the details of her face, staring. The smell of incense fills the room. The materiality of the ash and smoke are rivaled only by the materiality of time passing. Heng’s action asks us – no, commands us – to stare, quietly, with her. We may disobey, but in the silence of the room there is nothing else to do but join her in the trance of the ash, with its slight glow, as it grows and falls. Flaccid. Mournful. Before the image, I am drawn into my own emotional landscape, drawn into a poetic commentary on the ravages of time.
Just then, the incense goes out and the gallery lights come up. I am slightly displaced by the bright whiteness of the space after such an intimate dimness. Heng hands out a set of 8 ½ x 11 sheets of paper to the audience members closest to her and asks each to do an action with her. With the first participant she engages in a kiss mediated by the clean white sheet, their breath – it looks like her sucking in and him blowing out – holding the sheet in place. Another uses an elbow. Another a forehead. From the divided attention of the live feed we are brought into a kind of consummate presence. From silence and severity – the solemnity of the burning ash – to the humour of an absurd encounter between performer and audience-turned-performer. Three sheets. Three people. And the action is over.
With the audience engaged and brought into the performance, Heng opens a mat, lays it, again ceremoniously, across the gallery floor, and takes out a small booklet. What the booklet is isn’t clear – at least from my vantage point. She takes off her glasses and reads to herself. The book is then placed on the mat along with a small tablecloth. She puts her hands together in prayer and bows. Slowly up and slowly down. Lips moving soundlessly, Heng kneels on the mat. Hands reaching out and moving forward, she prostrates herself. Then, in a slow yogic dance, she balances on her side. Then moves onto her back with hands overhead. And finally back to a frontal prayer with arms and legs up, balancing on her belly. Holding. Holding. A ritual prayer to what? We don’t know.
Throughout the performance we are brought in to her micro-movements. She lifts herself up and slowly gathers a series of objects, one by one from the table, and places them on the now consecrated floor. Ritual objects: another mat, a bolt of cloth, a bowl, a knife. And then, interspersed with these objects, a set of mundane objects: red boots, a bag out of which she takes a scarf, a bottle of water, a wallet, a shawl, a pair gloves, an umbrella. A performance art still-life. Sitting before the bowl – which looks, from here, as if it is filled with water – Heng picks up an ink brush and begins making what seems like calligraphic shapes in the air, but for all I know she is writing in English. Either way, the action is beautiful. Slow. Detailed.
In a way that lets us know that the action is almost complete, Heng folds the cloth that has been the ground for her calligraphy action, stacks the bolts of cloth over each other, and slowly rolls them up from left to right. Lifting the mass like a dead body she walks across the room and suddenly smacks it against the wall. Thwack. Thwack. Thwack. The audience moves away, reminded of performance art’s ever-present threat: get in my way and you may be collateral damage.
With a deep breath, Heng finishes the performance the way she began, with a ritual sounding – mallet against bowl. This time, however, she performs it walking across the room instead of standing still. With this action closing and cleansing the space, she turns to us and gently utters the first words that I have heard from her: “Thank you for your time.”
We’ve had a small break during which the meditative quality of Heng’s performance has lingered. Meanwhile, I notice that the projector has been moved onto the floor at one end of the gallery, while the next artist, Kai, has quietly begun to set up his space. First he places lengths of wood against the wall. To this he adds a hammer, a license plate, some weeds in a small cup, a small lion statue, something in a bag, a motley pile of books, and a few other odds and ends that I can’t quite make out. He does this surreptitiously, while the audience is milling, glasses of wine in hand, socializing. Suddenly a loud POP grabs our attention. It seems to have come from a large bottle of something that might be Sprite or Tonic Water, but exactly how is unclear. Kai hammers some nails into the wall at the far side of the gallery, hangs up his coat, rips it purposefully, and catapults the soda bottle across the floor. All our attention now on him, he matter-of-factly takes each of the materials that he had placed against the gallery wall and repositions them in the middle of the space. I see now that there are also two picture frames, a small dish, and something that looks like chopsticks. He grabs the weeds and dumps them on the floor – a floor that is no longer a floor for us but has become a canvas for these objects.
Kai moves through the materials with an intensity that seems less ceremonial than driven. He stuffs some paper in a glass. Folds some paper. Takes it out. Folds it again. Stuffs it again – the action seems meaning-ful but use-less. There is a portrait on one piece of paper; another is ripped into two pieces. Kai reaches for the lion. Placing it in the center of the space he shakes the soda bottle into a frothy frenzy and rolls it across floor again. It hisses. He steps on the license plate, plays with a squeaky floorboard and then stops to make music with the two sounds. Floorboard and license plate. Squeak clack. Clack squeak. Engrossed in the process of working with the materials he creates a painting with objects in space… a concert of unconventional objects… an installation in the mundane. Any larger narrative – if there is one – is hidden behind the opacity and seeming randomness of the objects and actions. Instead, he asks us to simply go with him, accumulating detail and visual images, without knowing where they are going.
Kai shakes the bottle and throws it. The audience jumps. He repeats the action, more and more vigorously, teasing us with the threat of violence – whether in the form of the bottle ricocheting off the wall and into our midst or of its bursting and spraying us all. At one point he pretends to kick it into the audience, football style, but catches himself at the last minute, smiling mischievously. His actions are getting quicker – if that’s possible – and more animated. “Somebody got a light?” he asks. “Can I borrow a light?” An audience member hands him a lighter and he proceeds to light what looks like a wick placed on the top of the soda bottle and stick a rolled up piece of paper in a hole in the floor as the wick goes out with a hissing sound. The audience jumps but nothing happens. After a pause he breaks the butt off one cigarette, then a second, and offers one to someone in the audience. While smoking he holds the bottle up to the ears of the audience members seated closest to him. “Do you hear?” he asks. The bottle now spurting, he pours some liquid into small bowl, mixes something that looks like charcoal, and spreads it on his face. With an exaggerated smile he paints himself a mustache. Then, taking something – chocolate? – out of his pocket, he chews it, transforming his smile into a black mess. I can smell the cigarette smoke.
His improvisatory actions recall something of Amanda Heng’s performance, but where her actions were long, concentrated and reverent, his have the edge of mania. He does what looks like calligraphy with a brush on a ripped photocopy. Pours ink onto a stub of something dark. Goes over the calligraphy with an ink stick. Puts the photocopied sheets into frames and displays the framed pieces. Then, taking a tube of white paint out of his pocket, he squishes it onto his hand and covers the logo on his cap – a logo I didn’t even notice until he erased it. Rubbing white across his lips, he eats more of the chocolate. Black teeth. White mouth. He takes his cap off and paints on it: “I heart dalai” and puts it back on. He stands, in black-face, holding up the two pictures, smiling disturbingly.
With a pause to indicate, perhaps, that we are winding towards the end of the performance, Kai turns the projector on. At the far end of the gallery we see a fish swimming around in circles. To the right of the projection, he holds the first picture frame to the wall and hammers through it. He then holds the second one on top of the first and hammers through both of them. The noise is deafening. With the lion standing in the middle of the room, he puts black, blue and red paint on his palm, places his hand to the wall, and creates a trail reminiscent of Ana Mendieta’s 1974 “Body Tracks (Blood Sign #2)”.
Without warning he smashes the two framed pictures, glass flying. He picks up the lion, turns to the audience, and says, “This lion is a tourist symbol.” Then grabbing an Ontario license plate Kai, hammer in hand, smashes it around and around the lion like some bizarre metalwork blanket. Lion encased and returned to the middle of the space, Kai plays with a small puppet, beheading it and then erecting a yardstick with black flag. Suddenly the images he is playing with have gathered a political edge. He hangs his hat on the wall and addresses the audience: “Yours to Discover,” he says. The audience chuckles, recognizing the ubiquitous Ontario license plate motto.
The tension broken, Lam ends his performance with a story: he tells us of a Native People’s museum he visited in Quebec City. He tells us the story of the Singapore Lion and compares the two as symbols of post-colonial oppression. While telling us these stories, he makes a small slide instrument from a single string and a couple pieces of wood. Playing it as he talks I am thrown back into the ritualistic space of Heng’s performance, but only just. And, all the while, the materials and symbols that he has just spent the better part of an hour playing with surround us. Finished, Kai bows and leaves us in the wreckage.
The final performance of the night is by Lee Wen. Unlike the previous two, the set-up for this one is bare and stage-like: a guitar, a music stand, a few pieces of sheet music, a tall stool and a small bag. On the wall there is a Singapore tourist logo, which can’t help, at this point, but echo what we have just experienced at the hands of Kai Lam: a strange, fragmented political commentary. The logo reads: “Uniquely Hip… Singapore.”
Lee enters, dressed all in black. He sits on the stool and addresses the audience: This is called the Anyhow Blues because I believe in the Anyhow Aesthetic of Art Making. In Singapore when we don’t know how to do something we say do it Anyhow. So this is the Anyhow Blues.
He picks up the guitar and plays. The song is a three or four chord campfire-style bluesy song. As it draws to a close Lee looks up. “Did that bring a smile to your face?” he asks, and the audience laughs. A convivial communitarian laugh. The tone has been set. With barely a pause Lee announces the next song: “Art Is Dead.” This one is a little more urgent. A protest song. Art… is… dead. Dead… is… art. I am reminded of one of Yoko Ono’s songs from Double Fantasy. This has a similarly inscrutable cynicism mixed with unabashed earnestness.
And now a sad song.
I was going to sing about the dark clouds of Toronto, because yesterday was really dark…and then, this morning, I wake up to see the sun is shining. Lee launches into a ballad about the sun. We have gone from blues to protest to weather without knowing why or where the performance is going. We wait; we listen.
By the way, my name is “too late a hippy.” He puts down his guitar and takes off his scarf.
I decided… a few years back when I started this project… to become a born-again hippy.
He points to the “Uniquely Hip” slogan.
I decided to become a born-again hippy because I saw this slogan in the tourist office, and it reminded me of what it was like in Singapore in the 70s and the 60s. It was the time of the Vietnam War, and the state was getting a bit paranoid with these “hippy cultures,” these “subcultures.”
Lee takes off his jacket.
So it was a different “hip.”
He takes off his watch.
What happened was there was a lot of censorship and paranoia. So if you had long hair, you had to cut your hair.
He takes a pair of Sarong-style pants out of a bag.
They would cut your hair at the airport. And songs were banned because they were promoting, what do you call it? Habits of drug culture.
He takes off his pants. He takes off one sock, then the other, holds up the pants and asks Is this hippy enough? We all laugh. These are actually Thai farmer’s pants. I forgot my sarong. I forgot my slippers too. As he ties the oversized pants around his slight frame he grabs a book from the same bag.
One thing that is happening now in Singapore is a big controversy surrounding the publishing of a book. The book is called “Once a Jolly Hangman.”
Leaning the book against the guitar stand, Lee tells us about the way that it exposes Singapore’s uneven enforcement of the death penalty for even minor drug trafficking and how the Singaporean government has arrested the author on defamation charges. The book isn’t actually banned, he tells us, but not many people want to sell it for fear of government reprisal.
He takes off his shirt.
I think people should speak up. There are too many of these defamation charges in Singapore.
He puts on a brightly coloured tie-dye and the room erupts in laughter.
Perfect shirt, no? I don’t mean to spoil the party, he says. But somebody once said that singing a song is like saying a prayer. I’d like to do this for people who have been sentenced and killed…
He takes out a candle, lights it, puts it on the floor, and picks up the guitar.
…because it is unfair. The Singapore government is one of the biggest supporters of the Myanmar government, where the Golden Triangle is, where they produce heroin. And they are laundering their money in Singapore banks. And the government sentences people who are just mules. And I don’t understand why we let it happen. A lot of them are very young. Ignorant.
He starts another song.
…Out on Highway 69 they hung the men while still alive… Out on Highway 69 they hung the men until they died…
This time when the song ends the room is silent. No convivial laughing. Just a chill unease as the candle burns.
It’s hard to sing another song. I will just ask, maybe, for a minute of silence. After a minute Lee stands up, thanks us for listening and offers a small bow.
The crowd disperses and mingles while the three performances intertwine, painting a picture of Singapore, performance art-style: Heng’s performance drawing me into the textured detail of an unknown religion, performed through a mixed set of Western and Eastern objects made sacred through performance… Kai drawing me into the space between travel memoir and the public musings of the stranger, abroad, telling tales of his homeland and the culture clash of his present experience… Lee inviting me to nostalgically recall the political and artistic impetus of the 1960s, and reflect, in turn, on politics today.
I have experienced an evening in three acts – each act blending ritual with political commentary, and each act offering this socio-political commentary through enigmatic actions. I have been privy to the actions of three Singaporean artists who are not in Singapore, each in their own way performing a problematic relationship to a repressive government. I have been drawn into a micro-political mode of attention operating through subtle gesture and porous relations between performer and audience, and have witnessed the mixing of ritually symbolic with mundane objects that have moved us through associations echoing from one performance to another. Three overlapping voices have emerged, tonight, weaving an inconsistent, heterogeneous, and yet resonant national tapestry.
There is a link to be made, here, between the materiality of the performing body and the materiality of reading and writing about performance. This link is one that Roland Barthes, borrowing from Julia Kristeva, calls the geno-text’s priority over the pheno-text (a distinction drawn from genetic discourse that speaks to those aspects that at once exceed and inhabit signification, transmitting at an affective level). In this context, however, I might rewrite the distinction as one in which the geno-act takes precedence over the pheno-act. This “geno-act” offers an analysis (literally, a loosening up) of the materiality of the to-be-seen-ness in action-art that takes precedence over the content analysis central to much writing about performance, and brings it, instead, into the space of detailed excess, of ritual.
Indeed, during these performances, and in the situated practice of writing about them, I fing myself inescapably drawn into a certain space of looking – one attentive to what Barthes might call the “grain” of each performance. While Barthes’ term refers to an aural and not a visual encounter, his engagement with what he calls the grain of the voice gets at the materiality of action-based performance in a manner consonant with what I have been drawn into here: a material and temporal detail linked to the embodied experience of viewing; a visual grain that points less to the overtly signifying aspects of a performance encounter than to its ephemeral materiality. This materiality, this grain, is one that, further, speaks to the task of writing about action-art as a practice that does not transcribe the truth of the event, but that, rather, offers an unrepentantly inhabited description – one that, itself, functions as a ritual mode of looking. In Survey from Singapore, the function of ritual – somewhere between the secular and the sacred – has been harnessed and shown to be inherently political in nature. A political that, pace Ranciere, inhabits the very heart of the aesthetic.
Natalie Loveless is an artist, teacher and writer. She recently completed a PhD from the University of California, Santa Cruz, entitled Acts of Pedagogy: Feminism, Psychoanalysis, Art and Ethics. She is a visiting assistant professor in the Visual Arts Department of the University of Western Ontario and is on the editorial board of TOTAL ART the journal of new performance.