>[names changed to protect the innocent]: trans-media cockroach by TNS
>reviewed by matthew lyon
>date: 8 sep 2000
>>>>>sex, flies and videotape
If you stare at a blank wall for long enough, you will see eternity. The latest edition of TNS' [names changed to protect the innocent] programme, bafflingly entitled "trans-media cockroach", made you look at that wall. Hard.
>LET'S WALK by Amanda Heng
I don't know, it's happened twice now. You go down the stairs to the black box at Marine Parade CC hoping for a warm welcome and they don't want you there. "Go back up again," they tell you, "and follow the performers." Last time it was Jonathan Lim who chaperoned us to a local drain, and this time Amanda Heng said "Let's Walk" and we followed. Have they no concern for my ageing legs?
We ended up at the hawker centre outside Parkway Parade, where the unpredictable Heng proceeded to perform small acts of inappropriate graciousness. First, she spread clean and crisply ironed pink tablecloths over the dirty tables at which the customers were sitting. Then she bought several tables food from one of the stalls.
Obviously in a generous mood, she encouraged one man to put on surgical gloves and cut a hole in both her T-shirt and a bloody bandage underneath it, thus revealing a wad of $5 notes and a slightly illegal nipple.
On the way back, nipple to the wind, several rolls of red carpet were laid down for anyone to walk on and for cars at a pedestrian crossing to drive across, and then, within about forty-five minutes of our departure, we were back in the black box, the performance over.
Except that, with such things, it's never really over until you've talked about it - until you've unravelled the delicate, shimmering threads of statement, question and implication that make up the weave of this tapestry of ideas. The audience who stayed on to the feedback session afterwards were plainly eager to do this. I plainly wasn't.
You see, I'm all in favour of deconstruction if there's something to knock down in the first place, but when all you're looking at is a pretty façade, I don't quite see the point. Sure, Heng's work put forward ideas, but they were not the kind anyone's going to write a treatise on. She seemed to recognize this, as her comments at the feedback session were refreshingly devoid of the impenetrable verbal meanderings generally associated with this species of artist. For example:
Q: "Why did you use the red carpets?"
A: "I think we all deserve red carpets."
Q: "Why did you give us back our money?"
A: "Art should be free."
Such straight talking perhaps disappointed an audience hungry for academic discourse. This discourse would have been misapplied, however, and Heng was correct to curtail it as, intellectually speaking, the performance here was no more probing than an O-level exam paper saying "Everyone deserves a red carpet: discuss" - it just had a slightly bigger impact. No, as far as the issues each little act raised went, your average student could knock up a pretty good answer for his prelims, and the true points of interest lay elsewhere.
The real food for thought came in being a member of a paying audience invited to watch the reactions of a wholly accidental one. Whereas you were not a voyeur for watching Heng, nipple or not, you were one for spying on the shoppers suspiciously avoiding the red carpet or the hawker stall diners preferring the covered tables to the grimy, naked ones. It was just like watching Candid Camera with the film crew in plain sight - you were watching people under strange situations who knew they were being watched. It wasn't particularly deeper than the TV show and it was certainly less amusing, but it was a lot more real and immediate and slightly more novel. Interesting, but hardly revelatory.
>>'If you stare at
a blank wall for long enough, you will see eternity.'
PALE TESTAMENT by Heman Chong
Video art: give yourself a camcorder, a tiny budget and no storyline of any kind - what are you going to produce? What themes are you going to deal with?
Well, your number one choice has got to be Mundanity, because then you can film the most everyday things you can think of (random security guards, hawker centres, cheap hotel rooms) and you don't have to worry about expensive locations or temperamental actors.
In at number two, you've got Obsession. This one frees you to film the same thing for hours on end or over and over again. You may choose to capture a teabag dunked and redunked like a soggy piston, or a shirt fetishist, folding, caressing and abusing his cloth idol. You can stretch the moment forever and it never need break.
Close behind in third place, let's go for dislocation. Who cares where I am or what I'm shooting? Yesterday was a café in Tampines, today is a rubbish dump in Chua Chu Kang and tomorrow I'm off to the moon: anything and everything in quick, non-linear succession is just more grist to the mill.
Of course, I'm being insultingly reductive about an increasingly respected art form, but what are stereotypes for if not to indulge sarcastic reviewers? Especially when the stereotype is so readily applicable to the work at hand. With 'Pale Testament', Heman Chong aka NoSleepRequired* retrod the footsteps of a thousand arty lensmen before him, adding nothing substantially new to the genre.
Not that this is necessary, nor necessarily desirable. Allow me to digress. Have you all seen Sam Mendes' 'American Beauty'? Oh, you simply must - after all, it got Best Picture and the Academy is never wrong. Well, anyway, there's a bit in it where the geeky, video-arty, boy-next-door drug dealer (played by Wes Bentley) shows his squeeze the "most beautiful thing" he's ever filmed. It turns out to be a plastic bag caught by the wind and blown around, never quite escaping from the invisible prison of the air currents. Audience opinion was divided on this issue, as I recall, but there was a substantial number of people who agreed that yes, it was beautiful. And if you were one of them, you'll like 'Pale Testament'.
I suppose you could try and engage the work intellectually, but with such disparate images, you would end up inventing more meaning than you could observe. Indeed, Chong partially admits this: "It might seem random when you first see it, probably because you really need time with the images to make out patterns within the chaos," he says. Be this true or not (and it rather seemed to me the piece was trying to escape from meaning), it goes almost without saying that your average punter does not have time to spend on repeat viewings. No, instead, relax, sit back and concentrate on the aesthetics. There was something hypnotic about "Pale Testament". It had the kind of subtle magnetism that pulls a floating needle vaguely northwards - not enough to captivate, but more than enough to entice.
Here are the nuts and bolts of it: Three thematically connected/unconnected videos were projected simultaneously onto giant screens constructed of gridlocked A3 paper. The resulting perfectly clean, imperfectly regular surface (you could see the lines and tiny shadows where the sheets joined) proved an excellent canvas for the play of light and image. The visual attraction was greatly enhanced by Chong Li-Chuan's pulsatingly ambient soundtrack, so that the sound and pictures went together like chalk and more chalk.
I can't say I'm convinced by the level of artistry behind 'Pale Testament'. Give a 12-year-old a videocam and a damn good sonic artist and I wonder if the same random results would be achieved. And there seems something very suspicious to me about an artist who wants to disappear from his work, as Chong does (apparently, he wants to hand the piece over to others to rework and re-edit until his original contribution is erased - the actor in the wings; the painter with the blank canvas). But these accusations will be forever levelled by the lowbrow against high and experimental art (or by craftsmen against poseurs, depending on which side of the debate you stand), and perhaps in this case, it is simply better to watch, listen and sink gently in.
>TO AH KONG AND AH MA… WITH LOVE by Darren Chiam
Darren Chiam is a very talented performer with extremely strange tastes. They would seem to include cockroaches and flies in plastic bottles, human furniture and, most importantly, complete obedience. Helped out by Ivan Goh (of whom exactly the same could be said), he produced an hour of (loosely termed) theatre which aimed to push the boundaries of the artist/audience relationship.
The audience, like it or not, were expected to dance on command, squat and pretend to be toilets, be force-fed chicken curry and to comply with any other of the performers' capricious and unpredictable whims.
Essentially it was bullying. I suppose it's as valid a theatrical experiment as any but, breaking as it did that most basic precept of performance, respect for the audience, it at least required some kind of warning as to its confrontational nature. None was given in the programme, and to those people who had had enough of bullying at school, it must have simply seemed offensive. Adequate preparation was the key here, and Chiam had lost his scout's kit.
It's also an experiment with rather predictable results: most people will half-heartedly comply with instructions after initial unwillingness; some will do so with a little more enthusiasm, and some will refuse to participate or just walk out.
You got the feeling that the performers gained a lot more from their work than the audience did. They retained all the power and did not wield it lightly and, like an incompetent teacher, they demanded respect without giving anything in return. This was not due to any incompetence on their parts: it was a conscious decision, but a very controversial one. For example, a scene which could have been an amusing spoof on the repetitiveness of a certain kind of public speaker was dragged out so unpleasantly long that it became a test of our obedience to keep listening and responding. Goh, in the limelight, was the only one allowed enjoyment. I was reminded of someone famous once saying that all art is masturbation. Maybe he had a point.
I suspect that Chiam and Goh succeeded admirably in what they were trying to do, and for that I give them credit. Credit is also due for the fact that, when they deigned to perform, they were really very good; but this kind of performance is never going to appeal to any more than a small niche audience. And although [names changed] is definitely the correct platform for 'To Ah Kong', a little more care in audience selection was still required.
*What is it with this aka thing? From now on I shall be known as Matthew Lyon aka GrapefruitHatboxTrilogy