We all expected 2015 to be one crazy ride for the arts-loving public — and it certainly was. Being the year of SG50, there were exhibitions and productions galore that were linked, indirectly or otherwise, to the country’s Jubilee Year celebrations — there were good ones, bad ones, new ones and old ones. But not everything had the SG50 stamp on it — many companies and institutions were also celebrating their respective anniversaries. And there were also a few things taking place that were already set on the arts calendar. But in the end, what all these meant was that there was a lot in store for everyone. Here then are our notable — although by no means definitive — picks in the arts for 2015.
MAYO MARTIN’S ART PICKS
1. NATIONAL GALLERY SINGAPORE. Its logo became the target of some good-natured memes and it initially couldn’t make up its mind about what it should be called (anyone else remember the acronym NAGA?). There were also comments about the presumptuousness of the whole project, being a museum housing South-east Asian art. But short of any major fiasco, this magnificent museum was always going to be the main highlight of the year — and its treasure trove of art works from Singapore and the region does not disappoint.
2. HOTEL by Wild Rice. SG50? More like SG100. Set in a hotel, the theatre company’s sweeping epic spread over two shows that spanned a century of Singapore was truly a five-star experience. Like a kind of Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel played out as a television or radio serial drama, it was brought to life by playwrights Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten, directors Glen Goei and Ivan Heng, and a powerhouse ensemble. Hotel saw history clashing with fiction as the audience got swept up in a rollercoaster of emotions, from the hilarious to the hysterical, the melodramatic to the heartbreaking.
3. THE ART OF CHARLIE CHAN HOCK CHYE by Sonny Liew. Without a doubt, the controversy regarding the National Arts Council’s funding pull-out for “undermining government authority” had contributed to the buzz surrounding its release. But step back and Liew’s meta-story of a fictional Singaporean comic-book artist during the country’s coming-of-age years is an impressive feat in itself. Its wildly inventive, post-modern take is crammed with everything from excerpts of historical documents and photographs to archive sketches, and even song sheets and campaign posters. And his dizzying array of styles is a delight for comic-book enthusiasts. Characters and scenarios straight out of various genres mingle with real-life events and people in Singapore’s history, such as Lee Kuan Yew and Lim Chin Siong.
4. SCENES FORUM THEATRE FESTIVAL by Drama Box. In a year bursting with festivals, the theatre company’s inaugural forum theatre festival was the most important — and not only because we finally got to see its cute white-and-green inflatable GoLi tents fully utilised. Given the past stigma attached to the theatre form, holding a festival such as this on such a big scale and out in the open — at the vast field beside NEX and Serangoon MRT station — was, symbolically, a weight lifted off the shoulders of the longtime forum theatre proponent, which was also celebrating its 25th anniversary.
5. IT WON’T BE TOO LONG (THE LESSON AND THE CEMETERY) by Drama Box. Setting up an entire festival wasn’t the only thing that kept the theatre company busy — it also presented a three-in-one production at the Singapore International Festival of Arts that examined the choices society makes. The Lesson had audiences weighing the pros and cons of what site to give up in the face of development — and putting it to a vote (uncannily timed to coincide with the General Election). One of the sites in question was a fictional columbarium that resonated with the second piece, The Cemetery, which examined the saga of Bukit Brown Cemetery. First it took audiences to the cemetery itself and later on, burrowed into the stories of protagonists. Individually, the performances were interesting, but taken as a whole, it all clicked to form a massive vision that resonated hard and deep with the issues of the times.
6. THE INCREDIBLE ADVENTURES OF BORDER CROSSERS by Ong Keng Sen. The third SIFA production on our list (after Hotel and It Won’t Be Too Long), Ong’s expansive installation-performance opus takes the intercultural theatre aesthetics of his previous Shakespeare trilogy to a whole new different level — 20 primarily non-Singaporean residents of Singapore collectively presenting the “other” side of Singapore via a multilingual, multicultural karaoke session, fashion show, cultural presentation and a sounds-and-light extravaganza that built up as the night progressed into a simmering soup of stories and movement.
7. WITH/OUT by Loo Zihan. The multidisciplinary artist’s busy year — which included being a Young Artist Awardee and a President’s Young Talents finalist — began at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in January with a work that revisited The Necessary Stage’s 1999 one-man show by the late Paddy Chew, the first Singaporean to publicly come out as HIV-positive. A deeply moving but equally highly conceptual work, Loo cobbled together his interpretation of that momentous production from many disparate elements such as video snippets and still-existing props, while at the same time acknowledging the absence of its late protagonist. One is deeply moved by the sight of the late Chew on video and also intellectually compelled by the detachedness of the presentation strategy Loo used.
8. 5 STARS by Singapore Art Museum. There were a lot of SG50 shows this year and SAM’s group show comprised five works and sections that took on the ideals represented by the stars on the Republic’s flag: Peace, Justice, Equality, Democracy and Progress. It had works by artists Ho Tzu Nyen, Suzann Victor, Matthew Ngui and Zulkifle Mahmod, as well as a section devoted to critic TK Sabapathy. And whether it’s a video installation of ghostly voices giving you goosebumps or the cacophony of the national anthem as rhythmic layers, the show is one delightfully noisy, expansive, messy process of deconstructing and questioning these pillars of society — a perfect, thoughtful counterpoint to all the back-patting that had been taking place throughout the year.
9. SOFT MACHINE by Choy Kafai. The things you do for your art. In the interdisciplinary artist’s two-part lecture performance for da:ns festival, he gets whacked, slapped and punched by Japanese movement group Contact Gonzo as part of his investigation of what Asian dance is. Looking at and collaborating with dance artists from Indonesia, India, China and Japan, Choy presented a range of possibilities regarding dance from this part of the world and in the process, breaking down stereotypes. In parts inquisitive reporter, invisible academic research, slapstick clown and heckling ringmaster, Choy put himself out there for an amazing project that insisted that we look closer at the rich complexity of dance in this part of the world right now.
10. CHEERLEADER OF EUROPE by Daniel K. Refugees, terrorism, economic blues, war — Europe is a continent in crisis, and the independent dance artist steps in to simultaneously cheer it on and critique the messed-up situation, pompoms and all. This outrageous work, which recently made its premiere in Singapore at the M1 Contact dance festival, saw him playing the titular persona as he referenced the issues that plague the beleaguered imagined community that’s in danger of imploding — mixing in hilarious, over-the-top cheerleading routines and anecdotes about his National Service experiences. At the same time, he walked that thin line between mockery and sincerity as his antics became more absurd, leaving the audience questioning what they are cheering for?
(Honourable mentions: Kuik Swee Boon / Sylvia Yong / Jeffrey Tan / Albert Tiong’s Above 40; The Finger Players’ Seed; Toy Factory’s Upstage — Contemplating 50 Years Of Singapore Mandarin Theatre; Eng Kai Er’s Indulgence; Margaret Leng Tan’s Cabinet Of Curiosities; Oliver Chong’s Off Centre; Jeff Chen’s The Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral; Teater Ekamatra’s GRC; Pangdemonium’s Tribes; Checkpoint Theatre’s The Good, The Bad And The Sholay)
BRUCE QUEK’S VISUAL ART PICKS
1. ARACHNID ORCHESTRA. JAM SESSIONS by Tomas Saraceno at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art. More than just an opportunity to gawk and rubber-neck at spiders and their webs, Saraceno’s exhibition provided ample context with which to try and step outside a human-centric point of view — what would arachnid aesthetics be like?
2. LOST CITY 3 at Chan Hampe Galleries. As part of a series of exhibitions spanning just over a decade, Lost City 3 continued a much-needed conversation about how our urban environment is changing around us.
3. WHAT IT IS ABOUT WHEN IT IS ABOUT NOTHING, curated by Michael Lee at Mizuma Gallery. An exhibition of Singapore without tripping all over trite imagery of shophouses, void decks, durians and hawker centres, Lee’s was the perfect foil to the over-abundance of nostalgic nationalism.
4. MACHINE at Galerie Steph. Six young Chinese artists investigated the intersection between art and technology, with some remarkably humourous results.
5. DEAR PAINTER, curated by June Yap at Sundaram Tagore Gallery. Despite being repeatedly declared dead over the past two hundred years, painting continues to exhibit remarkable sprightliness, adapting and evolving down some curious paths in this quixotic and challenging exhibition.
6. IN A COWBOY TOWN...人在江湖..... by Cheo Chai Hiang at Michael Janssen Gallery. With his latest solo exhibition, Singapore’s conceptual pioneer turned his scatological, bilingual wit loose, skewering — amongst other things — the fevered nostalgia that gripped the nation in 2015.
7. THE WAITING ROOM by Luke Heng at FOST Gallery. A materially-focused exhibition that saw the painter experimenting with the novel material of paraffin wax, bringing together a painting’s underlying structure and surface appearance.
8. HUGGING THE SHORE by Simryn Gill at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art. Over a thousand photographs spanning some 15 years is a lot to take in, but Gill’s show didn’t overwhelm — instead, it prompted reflection on home, photography, and the growth of cities.
9. HOW TO DO THINGS WITH RULES by Jack Tan at the Institute of Contemporary Art Singapore. Though it did seem to try to do everything at once, it’s hard to argue with a glittery extravaganza of arbitration by karaoke — a crowd-pleasing spectacle that nevertheless prompted us to ask after the nature of justice itself.
10. THE TREE THAT FELL by Robert Zhao. In a nod to the encroachments faced by The Substation, a little metaphorical alchemy by Zhao transformed the much-rhapsodised trees of The Substation into oddly beautiful, raw material.
NAEEM KAPADIA’S THEATRE PICKS
1. HOTEL by Wild Rice. One of the finest and most important works of theatre to emerge this year, Hotel was an epic love letter to this complex little island we call home. Alfian Sa’at and Marcia Vanderstraaten’s five-hour long play, divided into eleven segments and set in the same hotel room at ten-year intervals, was an intoxicating swirl of languages, cultures and ideologies that have shaped this nation over the course of an entire century and brilliantly performed by one of the finest ensemble casts Wild Rice has assembled in years. This was a true Singapore theatre classic: a play that demanded to be seen, read and discussed by both young and old for years to come. A revival is in the works: Don’t miss it.
2. OFF CENTRE by Oliver Chong. Haresh Sharma’s acclaimed play about mental patients remains as poignant today as when it was first written over 20 years ago and this revival proved one of the highlights of The Esplanade’s mammoth Singapore theatre retrospective, Fifty. Director Chong pared the play down to its basics and allowed it to slowly hurl itself at us as it unfolded, aided by the evocative use of masks and music. The production also boasted raw, emotionally honest performances by lead actors Ebi Shankara and Siti Khalijah that lacerated the soul, leaving us awed and humbled.
3. TRIBES by Pandemonium Productions. This searing play by Nina Raine about a boy coping with deafness in a dysfunctional family is one of Pangdemonium’s greatest hits of the past few years. Director Tracie Pang and her team handled the theme with great fidelity: Learning sign language with experts, reaching out to the deaf community in the play’s publicity drive, and even having sign language interpreters for selected performances to allow the hearing impaired to enjoy the play. Thomas Pang made a stunning professional stage debut as lead actor Billy and was aided by a solid cast and excellent production team. A delightful and thoroughly affecting piece of theatre about the limitations of language and the sound of silence.
4. THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE SHOLAY by Checkpoint Theatre. The passing of four years have only made Shiv Tandan’s raucous coming-of-age story — winner of Best Original Script at the 2011 Life! Theatre Awards — all the richer. This glorious revival, deftly co-directed by the playwright and Huzir Sulaiman, and performed by a superb ensemble cast, was a delight from the very get-go. It excelled in its use of physical theatre and was a stunning homage to the world of Bollywood. A wild, infectious and heartwarming gaze into the world of heroes and villains and about finding one’s own story in this messy game we call life.
5. YUSOF by Zizi Azah. There’s been a glut of glitzy plays about the nation’s history in this SG50 year. Here was a fresh take on the Singapore Story, one which doesn’t feature the same cast of characters and hackneyed tropes from our social studies textbooks. Playwright Zizi Azah’s engaging non-linear script delved into the life of our country’s founding Prime Minister with quiet fervour and reminded us of the rich contributions of the Malay community. There were also rich, nuanced performances from Sani Hussin and Siti Khalijah, and a charming musical backdrop that conjured the sounds of yesteryear. A compelling and elegant historical drama that’s a very worthy addition to our Singapore Malay theatre canon
(Naeem Kapadia also reviews in his blog Crystalwords at http://crystalwords.blogspot.sg)
KARIN LAI’S TOP THEATRE SHOWS
1. HOTEL by Wild Rice. There have been many offerings spinning tales of Singapore’s history to commemorate the country’s Golden Jubilee. But Wild Rice’s Hotel far surpassed the competition with its scope (told over 100 years of Singapore’s history from 1915 to 2015) and sheer variety. Hotel was the state-of-the-nation play that this country so desperately needed and deserved as we looked back on more than 50 years of national history and took stock of where we have come from and, more importantly, where we are headed.
2. OFF CENTRE by Oliver Chong. Chong’s revival of Haresh Sharma’s once-controversial and now classic play about two young people suffering from mental illness was one of the biggest highlights of the Esplanade’s special The Studios series, which celebrated 50 years of Singapore English Theatre with stagings and dramatic readings of 50 local plays. In particular, Ebi Shankara’s charismatic and moving portrayal of the lead character Vinodh was a real revelation and I can’t wait to see him in action again some time soon.
3. IT WON’T BE TOO LONG — THE CEMETERY by Drama Box. Site-specific works and verbatim theatre are still relatively rare in Singapore, but Drama Box successfully united the two in one of the most meaningful theatrical gestures of this year’s SIFA. In two connected but separate works (title Dawn and Dusk), director Kok Heng Leun used physical performance to take the story of the “Battle for Bukit Brown” and efforts to save the site back “home” to the place where it all began — Bukit Brown cemetery itself. The 5.30am start for Dawn was rough-going on theatregoers but well worth the effort in the end.
4. KAFKA ON THE SHORE by Ninagawa Company. Quite possibly the most beautifully-produced show to hit Singapore’s stages this year. Yukio Ninagawa captured the whimsical dreamlike quality of Haruki Murakami’s book with the use of rolling dioramas and subtle but innovative lighting effects. This is probably the only show I have seen where the stage hands (responsible for moving the many parts of the set around the stage) received an applause equal to — if not greater than — the cast themselves.
5. DEMENTIA by Proton Theatre. It was a tough choice between this and Six Characters In Search Of An Author but the Hungarian company Proton Theatre (as part of SIFA) ultimately won out for its daring black humour, artful use of mixed media (streaming hand-filmed footage of live action on stage) and beautiful two-storey doll’s house of a stage set. A heady mix of the demented, bizarre and surreal — but ultimately very moving in its deep empathy for those who are condemned by mental illness to live on the margins of society.
(Karin Lai also reviews in her blog The Seven Pillars at http://thesevenpillars.blogspot.sg/)