Inside Story

Published on 21 July 2015

Singapore: Inside Out, a creative showcase touring a clutch of cities, turned out to be much more than just another travelling arts exhibition, says our writer/actress on the scene.

TEXT BY JO TAN

Actor Lim Yu Beng is moved. As part of a test audience who attended a rehearsal for Singapore: Inside Out (SG:IO), he was captivated by the creative forces — all wonderfully homegrown — at work.

Lim’s reaction to SG:IO, part of the SG50 celebrations, is among the best I’ve come across. Its official description, ‘An international creative showcase that brings together Singaporean artists across a spectrum of disciplines, brought to you by the Singapore Tourism Board’, brings to mind a manicured variety show.

But while there’s certainly variety, it’s less manicured than you might expect. The travelling SG:IO takes place in a structure — an art piece in itself — designed by artist/architect Randy Chan from (for the most part) unfinished-looking scaffolding, to reflect how Singapore is constantly being constructed and reconstructed. The structure, which pops up in urban spaces in Beijing, London and New York before returning to Singapore year’s end, comprises various areas, each used by one or more artist to showcase his/her work.

SINGAPORE SHINES The Singapore: Inside Out compound includes the Creative Cube (illuminated in this picture), one of the performance venues.

Arts Alive

It took me days to explore everything thoroughly. Areas where I spent some time included a space illustrated to look like a line drawing version of visual artist Speak Cryptic’s room, where the man himself constantly adds new illustrations and audience members are invited to bounce in, pick up provided art materials and add to the evolution. Another area I visited multiple times a day boasted Singapore-inspired candies (bak kwa chocolates, anyone?) by dessert artisan Janice Wong that could be picked from ceilings and walls.

Visitors to SG:IO can even meet the artists, which is where I come in. I’m one of five actors in the Actors’ Tour who guide audiences round the SG:IO areas, and en route, take on the characters of different artists like Speak Cryptic. We speak in the artists’ own words, often chock-full of Singlish, as assembled by playwright Joel Tan and directed by Tan Kheng Hua after lengthy interviews with the artists in question.

DRAWING YOU IN Visual artist Speak Cryptic fills a white space with illustrations of existing objects from his bedroom.

Says emerging wordsmith Tan, “I figured since a lot of Singaporean artists won’t be there with their artworks, I should find a way to represent them. Also, there’s this official story of the arts in Singapore, but I wanted to tell our stories a different way. I used several personal artists’ stories, about struggling with insecurity, how other people react to them… keeping it simple and honest, rather than an overarching sales pitch.”

Adds director/veteran actress Tan Kheng Hua, “As an artist myself, I was pretty surprised by how, what the different artists had to say about the difficulties they’re going through, spoke to me and moved me personally.”

Playwright Tan’s struggle against an ‘official story’ of Singapore is something almost all the SG:IO artists share. Visual artist Robert Zhao explains his installation ‘The Nature Shop’ thus: “It’s a tongue-in-cheek retail/exhibition space showing artefacts and tourist souvenirs from Singapore over the years — some real, some imaginary — which have never been presented to visitors as representative of Singapore, like sand from the giant sand dunes we use for reclaimed land.”

Vibrant Singapore

Lee Mun Wai, dancer, choreographer and Young Artist Award recipient, choreographed an SG:IO piece that sees dancers wandering through the narrower passages and courtyards of the main structure, sometimes just standing still with almost creepily cheesy smiles, sometimes struggling against something invisible.

He explains, “I want people who see my work to get a glimpse of the Singapore I am currently experiencing, not the Singapore that’s commonly marketed, that touristic view of the skyline replete with Marina Bay Sands and the Singapore Flyer. The people, the HDB void decks littered with junk mail, the increasingly noisy social sphere; that is the Singapore I am familiar with, and it’s much more vibrant.”

Lee is played by my co-actor John Cheah, a crossfit champion/national weighlifter/actor, in a monologue which details how Lee was initially a very bad dancer, but finally learnt to call the stage home. Lee’s dance itself is a collaboration using fashion designer Elyn Wong’s outfits, architect Chang Yong Ter’s structures, and music created by audiovisual collective Syndicate.

RIGHT MOVES Permission to Speak, Sir by Lee Mun Wai sees dancers from T.H.E Dance Company’s Second Company executing frantic choreography within The Singapore: Inside Out compound.

Teaming Up

A surprise collaboration during the Beijing tour, springing from various noisy shared suppers, occurred one day as actor Kaykay Nizam played Speak Cryptic in front of the latter’s booth. The duo decided to spice up the monologue by having Speak Cryptic join in on certain lines. That lasted throughout the run, and on the last day, they ended the speech by performing a little joget together. Even though some among the Beijing audience had no idea about Malay dance or even fully understood what the Singlish monologue was about, they burst into loud cheers.

Says twentysomething dramatist Tan, “I think we all went in thinking SG:IO had a fairly artificial, trade-show premise, trying to show these different artists in one ‘everything-also-have’ environment. But somehow, we had a lot of fun and got to know quite a lot of the other artists. There were natural collaborations, independent initiatives happening, a real sense of a Singaporean arts community. SG:IO had the effect of achieving what it set out to do.”

Pastry chef Wong Weikein, who assisted culinary star Janice Wong make up to 1,800 sweets on certain days for SG:IO, agrees. “I’ve met so many artists whom I think would be cool to collaborate with — it’s an up-and-coming trend for the chefs and various artists around the world to work as one to bring out a more complete art experience, with smells and flavours bringing out an emotion.”

HOMEGROWN FLAVOR Janice Wong’s room is filled with bak kwa-and kaya-filled lollipops to be plucked from the ceiling, while Robert Zhao’s ‘Nature Shop’ boasts artefacts that represent Singapore in a quirky way.

Home Crowd

SG:IO ended its London leg in June and is preparing to travel to New York in September. It’s heartening to note that it wasn’t just the artists who enjoyed the experience. An increasing number of visitors were happily adding to Speak Cryptic’s room, sitting in booths listening to Singaporean records and reading Singaporean books; staying till late to head-bang to live gigs by Syndicate, NADA or Charlie Lim.

For me, the nicest thing occurred when a couple stopped me after one of my performances as Elyn Wong, a fashion designer who continues to struggle with her decision to leave a lucrative advertising job and design an independent fashion label. The wife said, “Thank you. Our daughter wants to be an artist. I think we understand better now.” Another impressed visitor, Museum of London director Sharon Ament, praised the “breadth of artistic invention and intervention that’s happening in Singapore”.

Some of the artists fear the most challenging leg of the show is yet to come: Singapore. “We’re always most critical of the people we are closest to,” director Tan warns us. Lee remains cautiously optimistic. “Yes, a lot of Singaporeans do just see art as consumption — the investment value of a painting, or the status symbol attained when you wear a certain fashion label or watch a certain kind of show at a fancy theatre.

“But there are signs that pockets of people are starting to recognise a creative culture within society, and how Singaporean art is an avenue of expression to discuss our lives and surroundings. And if SG:IO can prove one thing, it’s that there are a lot of people dedicated to creative work in Singapore, whether or not we’re given the attention we deserve.”

CAUGHT IN THE ACT The Actors’ Tour takes place throughout the day with players like Kaykay Nizam getting into character; at night, gigs by Singapore musicians sizzle up the stage.

Singapore: Inside Out will be showcased in New York City 23-27 September followed by Singapore, 27 Nov-6 Dec.

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