120, a new work created for the National Museum of Singapore, was a museum tour, birthday party, short film event, artefact display and futuristic spectacle all rolled into one. Given that it was conceived in celebration of the 120th anniversary of the National Museum, 120's eagerness to please was understandable. The National Museum, aiming to distinguish itself from its more staid brethren, has been positioning itself as an exciting lifestyle venue, incorporating movie-screenings and a new watering hole on its premises. TheatreWorks' ambitious concept for 120 fit right into this spirit of reinvention.
120's strong point was its combining of theatre and museum tours to create an entirely new museum-going experience. The main concept was that of a dramatised guided tour, led by "Super Personal Audio Visual Aids (PAVAs) of the Future", who would take on different roles and identities to bring forth the essence of the Museum. This worked well with the National Museum's focus on the oral tradition of storytelling. Employing actors as storytellers added a spark. Hossan Leong, taking my group through the post-war period to the 1970s, was a natural at engaging his audience. After covering the requisite topics of Singapore's early development, he threw in his own comic material to poke gentle fun at Singaporeans, Confucius, the Courtesy Lion, Tagalog accents, and other features of Singapore society. As always, his jokes highlighted pertinent social trends while tickling our funny bones. Aidli Alin Mosbit's soliloquy on the socio-anthropological history of the chilli was enthralling and spicy, much like her subject matter. The chilli lecture captured experiences of chilli-loving cultures from the Malay Archipelago to the ancient Aztecs, reminding us obliquely of the spice trade upon which Singapore's port was founded.
As a commissioned work, one had to wonder how 120 contributed to the public's appreciation for our nation's story. In this regard, the scripts were by and large engaging and historically relevant. 120 gave equal voice to large political events and personal histories. Less prominent characters, such as David Marshall and Constance Goh (who first introduced prophylactics into 1950s Singapore), were featured rather than the usual Cabinet members. A droll speech on David Marshall and Lim Tien Hock, politicians from our independence era, made the slightest suggestion of a government-biased history. Another section called Cacophony featured speeches from our colonial administrators, as well as lesser-heard voices like Eunos Abdullah. Although the sources were as everyday as a Straits Times article, Eunos' (played by a Super PAVA) exhortations for the Malay community to stop being fatalistic and to work harder had resonances of more famous speakers like Munshi Abdullah, or even modern-day politicians.
The weak link in 120 was its conclusion, a showy display of 120 artefacts, each one from a year in the National Museum's past. I was somewhat surprised at the lack of rigour to this display. The items did not seem to have been chosen for any particular reason other than their date of acquisition (which, may I add, does not always correspond to their age). 120 pieces acquired between 1887 and 2007 were neatly laid out on a long table, like a buffet. A mix of items was chosen, from an antique batik to a Thai divination book, to a Miu Miu dress. But while the display in its entirety was visually dazzling, the individual items were difficult to appreciate. The items were labelled with only their name and date, with no attempt at any in-depth description. The Super PAVAs had retired, and the handful of "real curators" standing by were over-stretched and often did not know much about the objects, many of which were loaned from other museums. Appreciation or even close inspection of many of the pieces was near impossible, because of the stringent reminders to keep half a metre away from the table, and the harsh fluorescent lighting originating from light tubes on the floor, which threw the artefacts into deep shadow. In such a setting, the delicate, time-worn details of the artefacts were barely visible. In contrast to the dedicated attention we received from the Super PAVAS, this was rather a surprise.
Which brings me to the futuristic theme of the event, a baffling one.
The fluorescent lighting and other careful details transformed the area
between the old Museum building and the new building into something
like a corridor from one of the Starships Enterprise. The tours did
not start until the 11 Super PAVAs, wearing astronaut suits in a spectrum
of colours, were ritually dressed in origami-inspired plastic coats
and headpieces made of foam sponge material. They were assisted by silent
assistants who were dressed in trenchcoats, plastic headgear and sunglasses.
It was all very The Matrix meets Star Trek. But while
the entire spectacle was aesthetically beautiful, it did not go beyond
spectacle. In contrast to the well-thought-out and well-executed museum
tours, one got the sense that more thought had gone into implementing
this theme than in its conception.
Ratings out of 5, based on
Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent /