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An Interview with Suzann Victor: 'Still Waters' Then & Now

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An Interview with Suzann Victor: 'Still Waters' Then & Now
Image courtesy of Singapore Tyler Print Institute

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival takes place later this January, and is curated around the theme Still Waters. Taken from the title of Suzann Victor’s seminal, site-responsive performance at the Singapore Art Museum in 1997, Still Waters was one of the first few Performance Art works that “tackled the issues surrounding the proscription of government funding for the art form”. 

Fringe 2019, together with Still Waters, seeks to highlight how more than 20 years on, Victor’s 1997 work still instigates questions and tensions that remain about the politics of art, the body, and public space in Singapore.

As a pre-Festival engagement, Sean Tobin joins Suzann Victor for a talk entitled Estrangement and Reconciliation: A Talk with Suzann Victor, where they will explore and trace her artistic career thus far. The Artling speaks to Victor ahead of this Festival, finding out more on her stance on the de facto ban on Performance Art in Singapore, her motivations towards Still Waters, and what we can expect from her practice in the future:

STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | drain, glass dams, water | Photo: Jason Lim

This year’s M1 Fringe Festival’s theme takes after your groundbreaking seminal work titled Still Waters, a performative installation surrounding the notion of space in the Singapore Art Museum in 1997. How will some of the principal themes surrounding your initial work be assimilated in the context of 2019? Will it?


More than a “notion of space,” Still Waters 1997 is an act of social practice steeped with professional and creative risk in the form of a performance that uses water and the very architecture of the Singapore Art Museum to critique itself, particularly, the institution’s human-centered role as a state-invested interface between her position as an authority of regional contemporary art in tension with the state of the arts in Singapore at the time - three years after becoming the first democracy in the art world to impose a de facto ban on an entire art form - performance art - a genre that for all intents and purposes remains valid and pervasive in cultural production since the 20th century. Having said that, the descriptor “notion of space” can be in service to Still Waters’ contestation of the government’s extreme attempts to contain and constrain artistic, socio-cultural and intellectual space by way of my performance in a water-filled drain whilst this ban was still in effect, and hence illegal, but which also drew a counter-performance by the audience, whose bodies had to turn away from the state-sanctioned art within the museum and instead, face the artist immersed in a drain of water located at the very margins of the museum architecture in view of the street.

Of the many cavernous and intimate spaces within the colonial architecture of the then newly assigned Singapore Art Museum, retrofitted to raise the visibility and prestige of hosting and displaying art, Still Waters (Between Estrangement and Reconciliation) 1997 specifically identified this original but neglected architectural feature – the humble drain that snaked around the entire perimeter of the second floor – so as to re-configure it as a dissenting counter-site hosted by the Museum itself in the aftermath of the media-manipulated controversy around 5th Passage’s 1994 presentation1 of artist Josef Ng’s performance at its Parkway Parade premises (and which led to the heavy-handed exclusionary punishment meted out on artists and performance art mentioned).

In brief, Still Waters addresses the urgency of contesting State censorship of art, the body as a subject and a tool of expression by using the very art form that was banned – performance art – to do so. Here, the artist executed an actual infiltration of the very portal for art, the Singapore Art Museum, by inverting its humble second-floor drain into a receptacle for water, that when immersed with the artist’s body, overflowed to seep threateningly into the pristine art-filled but moisture and humidity-free museum environment during the performance.

Likewise, the productions selected by Sean Tobin, Artistic Director for the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival resonate with the earnestness with which Still Waters addresses and redresses the unquestionable relevance and importance of art and cultural production as a means to respond to public crisis and turbulent times with the view of the provisional nature of boundaries (individual, communal or national), and in traversing them, to bring to a head and into public view issues of abjection - elided, hidden or obscured histories or identities, individual sovereignty, oppression, the liminal and the fugitive. The Festival offers powerful works by luminaries of the local and international theatre world such as Nabilah Said & Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Hanane Hajj Ali, Zihan Loo, Sharon Frese, Irfan Kasban & Ng Yi-Sheng and New Perspectives to name a few, and I look forward very much to taking in the breadth and depth of these productions.

STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | drain, glass dams, water | Photo: Jason Lim

You will also be in conversation with Sean Tobin, Artistic Director of the M1 Fringe Festival, talking about your journey as an artist; 5th Passage will no doubt be brought into the conversation. Would you say your sentiment towards Performance Art in Singapore has changed since then?

One of the hallmarks, and therefore, the power of Performance Art is its ungraspability (to borrow a term by Ray Langenbach) as a consequence of its live format and hence, I continue to think that it is one of the most powerful ways of engaging an audience or a public.

As for the artist, it is a medium that challenges one’s ability to be resourceful, to think on the run, to strategize, adapt and improvise by the fact that performance is a stripping back of art making to the barest of form and execution, drawing the audience into the truth/s of the present moment, and hence, this power should be readily tapped and fully accessible to artists in Singapore in response to its history as we know it.

However, this historical moment is a loss of innocence – not just for the artists but a disservice to the public as well since reading art and making art has become displaced or even distorted by a hyper-conscious awareness of where boundaries are, thus engendering varying degrees of self- censorship so much so that it becomes about performing around known boundaries in a way that questions authenticity or genuine intentions.

STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | drain, glass dams, water | Photo: Jason Lim

It’s been more than 20 years since Still Waters, and yet it continues to maintain relevance pertaining to themes of body, politics, and space. You were also one of the first artists to contest the infamous de facto ban on Performance Art. What were your motivations in executing this?

The overwhelming but silenced scream of innocence within, the loss of innocence in one’s precious and tender self, the loss of place (participation in society) and space (5th Passage), the public humiliation of being dragged through the high courts with our manager Iris Tan, the intimidating process of police interrogation, appearing in the media and the Singapore parliament as abject criminals, the embarrassment of being accused of promoting obscenity, the suffering and bewilderment of our families, the undeserved rejection by colleagues, friends and communities, the unconscionable entrapment by the media, the knowledge that new boundaries will always be invented to keep out what society (the government) deems as threatening and abject, but more troublingly, the shape-shifting nature of boundaries.

"To freeze performance art out of the public eye and cultural production is like trying to produce seasons of snow and ice in Singapore."

In detail, as the Museum seeks to control the humidity and moisture that threaten the precious art in its everyday operations by means of sophisticated monitoring equipment to the rudimentary drain that diverted tropical rainwaters away, the performance Still Waters reverses this control by inverting the very purpose of the drain – firstly by blocking its drainage holes and secondly, using customized glass dams and the Museum’s glass walls to build up a collection of moisture - a body of water - to stage the performance as the imposition of the presence of water - the very threat of potential abjection / chaos to the Museum environment.

Neither truly part of the Museum architecture nor actually distinct from it, the drain and its abject fluid content, like performance art, are meticulously quarantined from “legitimate” art within by its continuous glass walls. In striving to hermetically seal the Museum from “corrosive” and “polluting” elements in this way, actual or perceived, the institution has had to carefully choreograph the conflicting tensions of serving the State’s conservative and paternalistic gaze whilst “collecting” the dissenting voices of artists encoded in the art objects it collects regionally, a commitment that it proclaims as the “largest known international collection of 20th century Southeast Asian art.”

A leftover remnant from the post-colonial elite’s recodification of colonialist architecture into powerhouses for art (and commerce) in an Asian city, the drain as the liminal yet powerful transitional zone, is also a conduit for the most transformative of materials – water. Attempts to control the flows of water – symbolic in its transitory physical states, precipitation cycles, gas, mists and steam, moisture and invisible humidity, rain and sunshowers, the visibility of clouds, streams that cannot help but collectively flow into the ocean, only to return to the sky, is but one system amongst vast interlocking systems of energies.

"I think that being “acceptable” is the death knell of artmaking"

Repurposing the drain’s evacuating function into its antithesis, a receptacle for the immersion of the artist’s body in water produces a site of possible chaos as water overflowed and seeped into the building, mirroring how the State seeks to control the flow of concept, critique, and intentionality in performance art. As the Museum architecture strives to keep moisture and water at bay, even as Still Waters introduces it into the precious museum environment as risk, so too the State seeks to keep performance art out of public discourse and in exile. To freeze performance art out of the public eye and cultural production is like trying to produce seasons of snow and ice in Singapore.

STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | drain, glass dams, water | Photo: Jason Lim

In your opinion, do you see this aforementioned de facto ban as one that artists should continue to contest? Or is art in Singaporean society able to fulfill itself through other more ‘acceptable’ forms of artistic execution within this sociopolitical climate?
 

I think that being “acceptable” is the death knell of artmaking.

Of course, any form of censorship should be questioned and henceforth contested or challenged. Having said that, such forms of limitations can challenge one’s imagination and ability to think outside the box one is placed in which can be a source of profound creativity. But this is not a justification of censorship, far from it.

I believe that art is always seeking to transcend its own limitations, and by its very nature, requires taking creative risks that can amount to the transgressive.

STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | drain, glass dams, water | Screen grab: Courtesy of Modern Love, Lasalle College of the Arts.

What’s next for Suzann Victor? What are you currently working on that we can soon expect to see?

I am further developing a series of works A Thousand Skies and Rising Sun that I produced during a set of special residencies that the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum created for me to present a cultural response to Fukuoka city from a Southeast Asian artist’s perspective in 2017 & 2018. In these works, thousands of plastic magnifying lenses are assembled into a soft architecture that when erected into nomadic outdoor pavilion or a large-scale screening device, perceptually altered the way we view the surrounding environment. I will further develop this amazing material to create a new series that engages celestial bodies to make artworks with an ecological or environmental sensibility. Here, the Sun will be materializing its own self-portrait by harvesting and focussing its beams with hundreds of these lenses. The resulting artwork also becomes a cartographic charting of the sun’s travel through the sky with each iteration being co-dependent upon geographical location, seasonal change, azimuth in relation to the positioning of lenses etc

STILL WATERS (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1997, ARX 5, Singapore Art Museum, Site-responsive performance | drain, glass dams, water | Photo: Jason Lim

Lastly, Performance Art is important because...

Performance Art is important because it is executed without any “safety net”, its immediacy reveals and allows us to see through to its integrity, inducing rawness and honesty on the part of the audience.

 

Click here for more information on Estrangement and Reconciliation: A Talk with Suzann Victor as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival


Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.


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