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SIFA 2015: Margaret Leng Tan’s wondrous Cabinet Of Curiosities

Margaret Leng Tan performs in Cabinet Of Curiosities at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Photo: Kong Chong Yew.
Margaret Leng Tan performs in Cabinet Of Curiosities at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Photo: Kong Chong Yew.
Margaret Leng Tan performs in Cabinet Of Curiosities at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. Photo: Kong Chong Yew.

SIFA 2015: Margaret Leng Tan’s wondrous Cabinet Of Curiosities

SINGAPORE — Last year’s edition of SIFA was graced by a magical Peter Pan musical, with its scene-stealing Tinker Bell. This year, Singapore’s very own tinker belle was in town to provide her own distinctive magic in the whimsical Cabinet Of Curiosities.

But forget magic wands, the legendary US-based toy pianist, avant-garde artist and John Cage buddy Margaret Leng Tan employed her trademark toy pianos (including a toy pipe organ!), a grand piano, masks, a teapot, a music box, wind-up toys and lots of bells and whistles — very literally in her case.

At the age of 70, her charming playfulness was on full display in this music-meets-theatre-meets-performance art solo concert comprising five works that included a brand new festival commission.

From the moment she began to simultaneously play on two toy pianos at the start of David Gordon’s Diclavis Enorma (which she later combined with playback loops — or maybe even a pre-recorded piece), it was evident we weren’t going to stay put in one “place”.

The Arabian Nights vibe of Gordon’s piece (with its double harmonic scales) would give way to one of the most unique Beatles cover I’d ever heard: Alvin Lucier’s Nothing Is Real (Strawberry Fields Forever) was essentially a slowed down performance of the main melody line, which Tan captured on a tape recorder — and later played back using a teapot as a speaker. It was the sound of music itself as the proverbial genie in the bottle, which she manipulated by opening and closing the lid.

There was actual tea in the next piece, the Alice In Wonderland-inspired Hatta by James Joslin, which involved making (and drinking) tea at some point. In a nod to the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, Tan reenacted a game of chess, with two toy pianos in conversation and the dragging and slamming of the chess pieces on the mic’d up board contributing to the sounds.

The first half wrapped up in Asia: Taking its cue from a Chinese love poem written in 1155 by Lu You, Wrong, Wrong, Wrong! was a Chinese opera-style performance done the Margaret Leng Tan way — and, well, it was just right.

In the end, all roads led to the circus. After the quirky bite-sized works of the first half came the multimedia piece Curios by Phyllis Chen. Supported by stop-motion video works (including that of a bunch of toys on their way to a circus performance — a coincidental nod to SIFA’s circus show Cabanons this coming week), the earlier out-of-this-world references — the mad hatters, magic carpets and strawberry fields —converged inside Tan’s metaphorical tent (or cabinet). Wearing a host of masks — and a red clown nose at one point — she took on the role of the musical jester.

Historically, there’s a tinge of Orientalism in the very idea behind “cabinets of curiosities”, which are collections of different objects presented as certain types of knowledge that form specific kinds of world view. The idea of circuses and carnivals, too, can arguably be considered mobile, living cabinets of curiosities.

In Curios, you did take this journey into “strange” worlds — the masks, the gamelan-sounding performance on bowls and bells, a more “Chinese-type” segment — but at other points, it was just plain wondrous mystery Tan evoked, as when she did a “duet” with a music box, which she repeated in reverse.

I’m still not sure how to take its hints of exotisation because it’s something that’s clearly embedded in the piece’s framework. But I am pretty sure I was lucky to see Tan in action in a proper show context (she did a teaser performance at SIFA’s The OPEN series last year).

“I’m getting too big for this,” she joked at one point as she crouched to sit down in front of a toy piano. Let’s hope she continues to perform for a long time — Margaret Leng Tan’s a Singaporean national treasure we don’t see as frequently as we probably should. For more information on SIFA, visit https://sifa.sg/sifa/