Performance Art in Singapore

The exhibition, At Home Abroad, at 8Q sam featured six contemporary Singaporean artists whose art practices are largely or partially based abroad: Choy Ka Fai, Jason Lim, Ming Wong, Sookoon Ang, and Zulkifle Mahmod. I was surprised in the first gallery with the work of Jason Lim as Jason Lim is a performance artist. Jason Lim’s performance the “last drop” was about space, balance and water. It was documented in the exhibition with videos and the remains of a performance. Jason Lim’s performance consisted of various ways of pouring water. His attempts to catch a drop poured from a glass in the same glass were captivating.

Most of the other artists in the exhibition also had performance art elements to the art. Zulkifle Mahmod created electronic soundscapes with natural samples in both recordings and live site-specific performances. Ming Wong performs in an art video re-enacting and playing every male and female role in a Fassbinder film. Choy Ka Fai is a performer as well as, a visual artist. She performs as a guide and narrator in her video installation about public housing flats in Singapore. This would not be remarkable in most other countries but is in Singapore because of the 1994 controversy, that gives performance art a historical charge that is unique to Singapore.

Performance art emerged from neo-Dadaism, like Allan Karprow’s happenings and Fluxus, and merged with the extreme logic of the avant-garde art in the late 1960s. Performance art focused on the body and the then current political issue of breaking social taboos. American artist Vito Acconci plucked his hair and inflicted painful injuries on himself. In Australia artist Stelarc suspended his body using multiple hooks. And the extremes of the Viennese Actionism that concentrated on breaking taboos.

This trend in performance art continued until at the height of the punk rock movement. When it appeared that all the taboo breaking goals had been accomplished and Sid Vicious was doing Acconci’s masochistic act for the masses. A more elegant and technologically savvy form of performance art started to emerge, like Laurie Anderson in America. And in Australia Stelarc engaged with technology and prosthetic limbs. And all of the Singaporean artists in the At Home Abroad exhibition with their use of video and other digital technology.

Art history is not a neat time-line, art trends generally do not occur in different places simultaneously and local conditions will influence these trends. So the history of performance art in Singapore is different to this broad over-view. In 1994 in Singapore a major controversy erupted following the New Years Day performances by Joseph Ng, who cut off his pubic hair and Shannon Tham, who vomited into a bucket. This already outdated Acconci influenced performance and the subsequent controversy led to a ban of government funding of performance art in Singapore. Extensively documented by Lee Weng Choy in “Chronology of a controversy” (1996). The ban on performance art in the 90s reinforced international perceptions of Singapore as an extremely rigid and controlled state.

In December 2003 the Substation art space hosted a performance art event, Future of Imagination, curated by Lee Wen, the first performance art event that was funded by the Singapore National Arts Council in ten years. As the pendulum of taste swings in the opposite direction with equal force Singapore now has an International Performance Art Event at Sculpture Square; The Future of Imagination is now in its 5th year.

About Mark Holsworth

Arts administrator, artist, musician, philosopher and writer. Writes Black Mark - Melbourne Art and Culture Critic. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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