Essay commissioned by and published in conjunction with Islands Time-Based Art Festival (ITBA) at Singapore Art Week 2022
I was introduced to performance art in the late 1980s. In Singapore, this was a time when The Artists’ Village and the Trimurti collective were part of what was seen to be amongst the ‘Avant Garde’, ‘les enfants terrible’. As paintings continue to dominate the mainstream, performance and installation art had become a subject of curiosity and experimentation amongst many artists. It spawned countless passionate exchanges at artists’ coffee shop sessions.
I was young then and had been involved in amateur theatre for a few years. I enrolled at the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts in 1992 and was myself eager to explore and employ performance as an approach in art making. Everyone in the scene, including my own art school tutors seemed to grapple and tried desperately to make sense of it. Most performance art events were the privy of ‘insiders’ and attended by fellow artists and art students. They usually took place outside the confines of museums, in open spaces, found spaces, makeshift spaces, unwanted spaces and very rarely in commercial art galleries. These events had a working-class feel about them, something that suited me.
There were no protocols or spectator conventions to speak of or follow. Performance art then certainly reverberated a somewhat foreign cacophony. It arrived like an ambush onto the scene. It had nothing of a local history to speak of. Critics consistently accused our performance artists of appropriating something ‘un-Asian’, something ‘unsuitable’ that should not be imported from the ‘west’ where it belongs.
Here, as a practice, performance art signaled a new movement, a decisive juncture, and echoed a strong ‘anti-establishment’, ‘anti-traditional’ resolve. It was not theatre, not much was usually scripted or rehearsed. Its artists were not trained thespians and did not have a list of repertoires on hand. Yet, even if the artform felt incomprehensible to many, its artists all seemed to relish in the fact that they were part of a history in the making.
Back then, to step into a performance art event is to perilously tread on the edge of something potentially explosive. Even in open, public spaces, a passerby who engages with a ‘live’ performance is one who inadvertently commits as witness to transient yet possibly controversial maneuvers. I personally have witnessed performances that were halted mid-way, requiring ambulance and even police interventions. Sometimes, attending one felt as if I was complicit to a crime. At an event I participated in in Thailand, a performer fell into coma; in Malaysia, various uniformed agencies arrived to prevent the commencement of the night’s proceedings; and in Singapore, I had escorted an artist to the hospital for an injury that led to an amputation of one of his digits.
Anxiety levels could spike extremely high, particularly if one is involved in the curating and organising of such events. Administratively, there were ‘entertainment’ licenses from the police to get approval for, cash deposits to stake as bond for that license, artists’ temperament to manage and undesired press members to identify and fend off. I often also cringed at the thought of actions involving self-harm; moments when an artist might pull a reluctant spectator into the act or get clobbered by a disagreeing public. Clobbered artists? Yes, in Singapore, I have witnessed that as well. If anything, nudity and protest actions were the most common and mild of them all.
In 1962, Yoko Ono scripted Cut Piece. It has been performed twice in 1964, once in Kyoto and later in Tokyo. It was then reprised once in 1965 in New York, twice in 1966 in London and once more later in 2003 in Paris. Each of these well-known performances involved the artist sitting on a stage in her best dress. Then, randomly selected audience members were invited on stage to cut pieces of her dress. They were also allowed to keep these cuts.
No one applauded Teching Hsieh’s one-year Cage Piece (1978-1979) performance. In that year, he was confined to a wooden cage, with a wash basin, lights, a pail, and a single bed. The artist also refrained from speaking, reading, writing, listening to radio, or watching TV. Robert Projansky, a lawyer, was responsible for notarising the entire performance and ensured that the artist did not leave his cage at any time. Meanwhile, a friend delivered food, removed waste, and took a single photograph of the artist daily. The public were allowed to view this year-long performance once or twice a month.
In the piece To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain performed in 1995, two professional surveyors measured and validated five naked artist bodies that added 1-meter to the height of Miaofeng Mountain in northwest Beijing. The performance, led by artist Zhang Huan, was photographed by several other artists who were in attendance. Without a public to speak of, these photographs became proof and key to the legacy of the collective action.
Since the Happenings of Allan Kaprow in the 1960s, performance art has given birth to countless festivals around the world. It now features regularly as ‘public program’ in art institutions and formal, large-scaled exhibitions such as biennales and international art fairs. Over time, its proponents appear to have been given more room and respect. Like painters and sculptors, performance artists can now also be commissioned to produce a site and occasion specific performance artwork. At Performa Biennial in New York and Do Disturb at Palais de Tokyo in Paris, the performance program is listed in advance, marketed and tickets to attend these events are sold to public. Sets of instructions to orchestrate and restage performative works can now be acquired. Tatlin’s Whisper #5 by Cuban artist Tania Brugera for example, was acquired by the Tate Modern in London. Like Brugera, Tino Seghal, recipient of the Golden Lion at the 55th Venice Biennale have staged performances by proxy. In short, performance art is now an undeniable part of the artworld mainstream.
Like many things in the world these days, performance art has evolved (or devolved) into the void of spectacles. What was once the anti-capitalist stomping grounds of cynics is now the dancefloor of Thespis, the Greek stage performer and author of tragedy and playacting. We may recognise a performance when it is culled from the artists’ list of repertoires and like watching Marina Abramovich perform ‘live’ for the 100th time, we may not mind. We sit ceremoniously and stay respectful lest we trespass the sanctity and genius of creation. We in Singapore are civil. We clap as the artists bow, but what does our applause signify of the art, artists, ourselves, our community, and our institutions? We have world class infrastructures, highly educated curators, generous state funding, accredited art colleges, a biennale, festivals, and art fairs. Our experiences are unique to the rhythm of our land. We keep all dialogues to ourselves.
In a letter to his father after a performance in Paris in dated 3 July 1778, the composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote, “I prayed to God that it might go well, for all is to His greater honor and glory; and ecce, the symphony began, Raaff was standing beside me, and just in the middle of the allegro a passage occurred which I felt sure must please, and there was a burst of applause; but as I knew at the time I wrote it what effect it was sure to produce, I brought it in once more at the close, and then rose shouts of "Da capo!" The andante was also liked, but the last allegro still more so. Having observed that all last as well as first allegros here begin together with all the other instruments, and generally unisono, mine commenced with only two violins, piano for the first eight bars, followed instantly by a forte; the audience, as I expected, called out "hush!" at the soft beginning, and the instant the forte was heard began to clap their hands.”
Mozart loved the clap.
We are now in January 2022, 28 years since the uproar of Josef Ng’s Brother Cane performance at the Artists’ General Assembly event organised by 5th Passage Gallery at Parkway Parade Shopping Centre. It has been 18 years since Singapore’s state ban on funding for performance art is lifted. 18 and 28, those are significant numbers and lengths of time to have had any sort of reflection and resolution for. Maybe only a few of us could still sense the dark cloud of Brother Cane that continue to hang over our heads. Perhaps, many others do not have a care for it. We all need and want to move ahead. Younger generations of artists have since emerged in Singapore. But what then is to be made of subsequent developments in performance art as Singapore is said to have skipped or lost a generation due to the ban? Maybe there really isn’t a generation to speak of. The educated habit of mapping formal ‘generations’ of art and artists is an exercise in futility anyways.
In the name of national security, social unity, and art, we shall continue to clap, even if we do not comprehend why we do.
Dec 2021, Singapore
 Honestly, I wish they had told this to the lauded Nanyang impressionist painters too…  No 107, The Project Gutenberg EBook of The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Vol. 1, March 2004, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/5307/5307-h/5307-h.htm#link2H_4_0004, accessed 19 Dec 2021