I’ve emerged from the one-week bubble that was the Bangkok International Film Festival and it looks like I’ve missed some pretty exciting stuff: Singapore Arts Fest’s new director General Manager Low Kee Hong (Congratulations and do keep introducing more mind-bending performances please!) and the arts community’s reaction to the recent appointment of the Censorship Review Committee members – which doesn’t include a single one from a list that the group submitted before (Tsk tsk!)
And then, of course, there’s Mother Nature getting all cranky. Didn’t feel the tremors in Bangkok but I’ve heard it was pretty strong in Singapore. Not to mention the more tragic results of the tsunami and typhoons.
Quick plug here for all the Good Samaritans in the arts community: there are drop-off points for donations in cash and kind for the victims in the Philippines at Lucky Plaza. Thank you.
So anyway, I’m back. And what better way to plunge right back into the thick of things than with a visual arts exhibition and theatre performance all rolled into one.
These Children Are Dead is the second offering by Play Den Productions, after Salusuah – which will apparently have a run in Hong Kong too – and before two more works this year.
Let’s start with coincidence.
This Saturday, there’s a talk at the National Library on the Nanyang Style, where speakers will be talking about how the art movement has influenced their artistic practises. Among them: Ng Yi-Sheng will be talking about his musical Georgette (after Georgette Chen) and Ho Tzu Nyen on his TV docu series 4×4: Episodes on Singapore Art.
It starts at 230pm at the Possibility Room at Level 5 but you’ll have to register here and look for SG101. It’s the second part of a series of talks on Nanyang Art, following one last Saturday.
Why am I bringing this up? It’s because I was quite tickled by one line in the play.
Referring to local art historians, Nora Samosir’s character (a curator named, er, Nora Samosir) quipped: “You can’t get them to shut up about Nanyang artists.”
But in this particular show, the spotlight isn’t on Nanyang artists.
Rather, you’re introduced to one Huang Wei, a “None-yang” artist. Guffaw.
It’s an interesting set-up. There’s an exhibit of Huang’s paintings at one of the rooms in the Arts House. At some point, you’re ushered into the Play Den where Samosir holds a proper lecture (slide projector and all) on six of Huang’s paintings of children and the artist’s place in the Singapore art history.
Here’s one of his works that’s exhibited at the “gallery”.
Now I know what your next question is: Who the hell is Huang Wei?
The easy, deadpan answer is that he’s the JD Salinger of the post-War Singapore art scene.
No one knows about him because that part of art history has been monopolized by the so-called Nanyang artists comprising of biggies like Chen, Chen Wen Hsi, Cheong Soo Pieng and Liu Kang.
Through curator Nora’s lecture and the play’s programme notes, we get a picture of the man.
He was born in 1914, the son of a studio photographer who had his own studio, Southern Star, and whose clients consisted of Singapore’s elites. Their shophouse was in Armenian Street, opposite what’s now The Substation.
Huang attended Anglo Chinese School, received the Lim Boon Keng Gold Medal for Art and started painting in his 30s. Unlike his contemporaries, who were enamoured by Matisse and Picasso, he was drawn more towards Caravaggio.
At some point, he stops painting and purportedly disappears from the face of the earth – until Samosir unearths some of his works in Joo Chiat, which are restored with the help of visual artist Alan Oei.
I’m having a bit of trouble talking about this layered production because bringing up certain aspects will certainly spoil the fun.
But suffice it to say that These Children Are Dead, directed by Ken Ikeda, works as theatre.
We haven’t come across a curator as quirky as Samosir, who spaces out in the middle of a sentence or eagerly shares anecdotes about her niece; and playwright Kaylene Tan’s lyrical text and Casey Lim’s faint, eerie soundscapes of children’s voices remind you you’re still witnessing a performance.
But the piece is also credible as a serious art lecture for beginners: its discussion on Huang’s creative processes (the effects of the various layers of paint used to create a certain visual impact or well, why some of the kids don’t have hands); how it situates the artist within history (including a subtle but pointed Insider/Outsider comparison between the Singapore-born Huang and the China-trained Nanyang artists); and finally, revealing Huang’s choice of subject matter as not just a matter of personal preference but as a metaphor for a nation in a state of flux. Or “born-ing” as Samosir’s “niece” puts it.
But for this RAT, the best part of the play is at the very end, when Samosir walks out of the room, leaving you gazing at the paintings. And all six of them gazing back at you.
If it takes a play to get people to actually look at and ponder over a painting, then I say the kids are alright.
(It runs until Oct 10 at Play Den, The Arts House, at $28 a pop. Ticket purchasing details here.)