‘Nations are invisible lines that people assign meaning to.’
Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher, Season 3
This little nugget of truth dropped in the latest season of The Witcher. Geralt is nobody’s citizen. He waltzes across borders and kingdoms, holding fast to his creed and clan. His people. And where he allies in common cause, he will shed blood and sweat to defend or obtain what he deems as justice. Or what viewers deem as swashbuckling muscled heroics. It says something too that these seemingly reductive tropes of good and evil continue to persist, or even determine the shape of lives. And the geography of our politics does go a long way in encompassing how we think about our relationships with each other and with earth.
During the pandemic, there was a lot more decisive engagement with nature. With everyone on lockdown, going out for a walk was both necessary and also a chance to engage in the relative solitude of nature. Some countries called the lockdown a ‘shelter-in-place.’ I really liked that, because it made me think about this idea of place and what it means to derive shelter from where we are. Shelter is so much more than having a roof over our heads. It is also safety and comfort. But this injunction, born out of necessity and fear, allowed grass to grow wild on sidewalks. Bushes went unpruned. Rewilding became the province of nature, not man. Hardly any cars were on the roads. The air grew fresher. The malls loomed empty like scenes of apocalyptic abandon. And then, a year on, when vaccines had kicked in, we inched our way back to the full-blown consumption that marked our lives before 2020.
But the pandemic had also, for a while, erased those lines that separated us from our neighbours. We were truly vulnerable together as a species. It’s tragic that it took a virus to bind us together. But collectively, we did, for a while, live a little more in sync with the earth, feeling its rhythms over and under the buzz of a silenced city.
The Earth in Our Bones is not a book about being an eco-warrior or a climate change activist. It is a book that sees our essential selves as complicit with the ground beneath our feet, considering skin and sand and glass and concrete as part of the body. It is a book that sees the self, laid bare and offended, but also redeems the self under the aegis of the natural world. Not a call to arms, but a call to link arms, to observe, remind and acknowledge us, and the land we inhabit.
Book launch: 29 July 2023, 5.30pm, Seng Poh Garden, Tiong Bahru. RSVP
Sometimes it’s necessary to change the way you look at things. Just because. It’s why people shoot in black and white, stripping the colour out of their viewfinder. There’s a simplicity to a monochromatic image. The focus is on composition, on contrast and the interplay between light and shadow.
These images were shot on the GFX50R in the 65:24 aspect ratio. It replicates a wide panoramic 65x24mm negative, which is similar to two standard 35mm frames side by side. I used the 50mm f3.5 lens for a 40mm full-frame equivalent field-of-view. The photos were surprisingly wide, nevertheless, but kept a street-style aesthetic because of the focal length.
My new exhibition/installation, Three Rooms, has opened at Projector X: Riverside. The entire space is a durational (18 month) pop-up concept by the folks from the Projector. It’s been a fruitful few months conceptualising the exhibition, which was made possible by the largesse of Karen Tan, founder of the Projector and enabled by the rest of the Projector’s capable, cheerful and inventive team.
What is Three Rooms?
First, another question. What was before Projector X? Two years ago, the X Entertainment Club, a night club that was heavy on Carlsberg, Chivas and dancing girls closed abruptly, literally overnight. Clothes were strewn everywhere. Work permits were left in unlocked drawers. Posters for a grand re-opening were rolled up on the floor. A ledger with a list of big-boy spenders lay open on the table.
Everything was locked up and left, as is, for almost two years. I was asked by artist Yen Phang and Karen to drop by when the team had just taken over the space to see if I had any ideas for it. Immediately, I offered to document the space as it was and as it would change over the coming months. The bar area would be painted over and the bars stools and high tables would be piled up to make room for regular tables and chairs. In another large, contained space that was formerly the dance floor, leather couches surrounded a high stage, dusty with memories and leftover streamers. Under the stage, a life-sized Santa slept on his side, forgotten from a long-ago Christmas. This space would become Neon, the new theatre for the Projector. The entire club was Pompeii-like in its abandoned glory and stasis, down to the huat kueh offering sitting innocuously on the bar counter.
And then there were the three rooms. The staff lounge, the office and the dressing room. These were gloriously abandoned, chock full of detail and a veritable trove of memories. Of course, it was also foolhardy to want to keep them intact, but… that’s what we did. So, in addition to photographing the interiors, I decided to write a short piece of fiction for each room, using details I found to offer a glimpse of interlocking narratives in the months before the club shut down.
Besides the stories, there’s also a plan to create more work, maybe even a book, from the rest of the photographs, so this won’t be the end of the project!
For a more detailed read on the ethos and thinking behind the entire space, check out Home Ground Asia’s article here.
You can head to The Projector’s website to buy tickets for a movie, or visit the space at Riverside Point for a drink or two and check out the rooms.
For a year in which I made just one trip overseas, there has, surprisingly, been no shortage of projects and collaborative opportunities. My fellow artists proved to be anything but horizontal and together, we devised an unending stream of ideas that was realised through a range of platforms and forms. Video was pretty foregrounded this year, but I also had the incredible privilege to put together and perform two live shows.
Together with Demond Kon, Kevin Martens Wong and Nuraliah Norasid, I was commissioned to write a long sonnet that functioned as one of several anchor pieces for the 2020 Light To Night Festival. A line from my poem was on an artwork that sprawled invitingly across the Padang. It felt like a good omen to a year that was already hearing ominous whispers of a wildfire virus straight outta Wuhan.
Note for Note: Stop, Look and Listen
This year’s edition of Note for Note further iterated on previous versions. Usually, the poets would perform their work but for this round, I curated a selection of poems based on the broad palette of the city and divided the performance into three segments, ‘Stop, Look and Listen,’ playing with the ideas of movement, changing spaces and listening to the city in all its varied postures of listening. The performance was superbly directed by Cherilyn Woo and introduced me to the graceful movements and voices of Victoria Chen, Tia Guttensohn, Krish Natarajan and Vignesh Singh. The accompanying soundscape was crafted by the incomparable Bani Haykal.
I was a participating artist in The Singapore Festival 2020, held in Lim Chin Tsong Palace in Yangon, Myanmar. As part of a larger collaborative exhibition called ‘A Matter of Time’, curated by my gallerist, Marie Pierre-Mol, I paired up with Maung Day, a cutting-edge poet and multidisciplinary artist and activist. We created a series of photograph-poem pairs that were accompanied by a series of metronomes ticking away at different tempos. It was also a lovely opportunity to reconnect with friends and collaborators like San Lin Tun and Nicola Anthony. The larger festival was a marketing attempt by STB to bring Singapore food, fashion and culture to Myanmar. It was a hit-and-run exhibition: setup, showcase, tear down and zip back to Singapore. If only I had known, I would have extended my stay for a few more days…
Part of the Buy SingLit Campaign, Uncanny Yishun was a unique walking tour around Khatib and Yishun. Each checkpoint was a site of uncanny news, often illustrated by a poem and performed by either one of our two able guides, Sharda Harrison and Lian Sutton. As the shadow of Covid-19 loomed ever larger, Crispin Rodrigues and I were given a choice: go ahead with the tour or postpone it to September. We pressed on and were rewarded with four fantastic rounds of the tour in early March.
Handbook of Daily Movement
This was certainly a show that I would have been heartbroken to have cancelled. It was probably one of my most collaborative shows. I worked with music, dance, costumes and we even had a fashion label sponsor the dancers.
Fortunately, The Arts House decided that the show must go on. It would be the last live show that I would do until December.
April to June was a period of reconfiguring, experimenting with the online space. I teamed up with music producer James Lye and a whole crew of talented singers and musicians to make Livin’ Covida Loca, a parody song that reflected the world in lockdown.
A poem that was originally written for The Straits Times found its way into an anthology of pandemic poems published by Penguin India. For the first time, I find myself featured alongside two other Nairs.
Originally scheduled to be held earlier in the year, the Alliance Francaise generously kept the exhibition space available for Tsen Waye and I and when they reopened, Sightlines was the first exhibition in the door. We were grateful to have a long run of two months in the space as well as the chance to reimagine some of our work in terms of size and text layout.
A soft start to my new residency with the Exactly Foundation. The topic is Offence and my stomping ground is the Bugis Precinct. The mode is street photography and I have been drawn to the liminal points of infraction between private and public space. These are often tacit, fleeting and contextual, but they do exist, even in such a manicured city.
Crossroads Vol. 3 was another music collaboration with James Lye. This time, James produced the show while I performed poetry to the emotive sounds of PandaMachine and the improvisational genius of Michael Spicer.
I had a very different role in the 2020 Singapore Writers Festival. Normally, I’m used to being on a panel or two, be on a reading or even moderate a conversation. But this time, I pitched Poetry Bites, a video series where I interviewed ten poets over video. I filmed them (mostly) in their homes reading a poem and then had a short conversation with them about the poem and their work in general. The festival theme being intimacy, I thought that this would be a closer glimpse into process through the screen. Plot twist: I even interviewed myself!
Another fun collaboration, writing and voicing a spoken word piece to a dance piece conceptualised and choreographed by Victoria Chen and Valerie Lim.
Joshua Wong Weng Yew’s Pandemic Time project was a fantastic idea in a year where time seems to shift and warp and become elastic and interminable. 24 poets responded to the 24 hours in a day. I was given 8am.
My last official poems for the year were a pair written in response to Sing Lit Station’s Digital Travel Bubble, cheekily offered up in lieu of the cancelled travel bubble between Singapore and Hong Kong. Poets from each country were paired together and each had to write a poem about their favourite place and one that responded to the other poet’s favourite place. I was with David McKirdy, who wrote a poem about Fei Ngo Shan, or Kowloon Peak, while I wrote about Bugis. If anything, it just made me even more wistful and sad about the impossibility of leisure travel for a long time to come.
The mrbrown show Live!
Commissioned by SIFA for their version 2.020 festival, The mrbrown show live! was written, rehearsed and performed in the span of two months. It was a little rushed and we wished that we had more time to build the show, but 2020 being what it is, we were grateful for the opportunity to play four shows to sold-out crowds and even have a multi-cam livestream. It was a humbling, enriching and exhausting experience. I will do it all over again.
You could say this show has been 15 years in the making. Or that we’ve waited 15 years to make this show. Either way, a stage show is never a light undertaking. When I first started writing the comedy podcasts with mrbrown, I was still a trainee teacher in NIE, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. Over the years, we had a string of fellow collaborators, including my brother, Ivan. One by one, everyone left as their paths diverged. But I stuck on.
It was kind of addictive, showing up week after week at the studio to take apart the news and ‘find the funny’ as we liked to call it. It was always about getting at the premise of the story and looking for a way to subvert it, whether through a committee meeting, a movie trailer, a parody song and so on.
Nobody sponsored us, nobody paid us, but people listened. And that was enough. Of course, we also did it for free, so paying for content was never a barrier. But we did it too because we believed in the show. We started in the days before YouTube took off, which is why the show existed as an audio podcast for many years, but from 2013, the transition to video slowly, but inevitably happened. It was accelerated by the accidental creation of Kim Huat as a character, but we also realised that audio didn’t play well with social media platforms.
So eventually, the sketches changed to become more visual. Video was another animal, though, so there are a multitude of considerations to think about when it comes to production. 2020, for us, has been the year of the green screen. It’s been challenging to learn the ropes and execute, but like everyone else around the world, working from home has taken on a new and critical meaning.
Which brings me to the show. Ironically, without the pandemic, it would never have happened. One of us, or all of us, would likely have been traveling and it would have been possible to block the three months needed to put a show like this together. Of course, the downside is that it’s just 100 audience members per show, although we are live streaming our final performance.
The show itself is difficult to define. It is theatre only in the broadest sense of the etymology of the word ‘theatre’; to behold, to gaze upon, to be presented with.
Behold, here we are, upon a stage of our own doing (and undoing), bringing to you a retrospective of songs, monologues, sketches, spoken word and even improvised comedy.
It is a microcosm of thousands of hours of podcasts and video clips. It weaves the personal with the social, the serious with the silly, Christmas with the kooky.
This is our gift to you in 2020, to say goodbye to this scarred year with a smile and look forward to a better world in 2021.
The mrbrownshow LIVE! is part of SIFA V2.020. There are four shows from 25-27 December 2020. The last show will also be live streamed.
At the beginning of February, a handful of artists from Singapore and Myanmar (along with honorary Singaporean collaborator Nicola Anthony) came together under the curation of Marie Pierre-Mol of Intersections Gallery to showcase work around the idea of time. This was part of a larger event organised by the Singapore Tourist Board (STB) as part of their efforts to raise an awareness of various aspects of Singapore, from food, culture, and art to retail as well as to partner with local restaurants and artists as a way of forging bonds between Singapore and Myanmar.
The event was held at the Chin Tsong Palace, a sprawling complex that was built by Lim Chin Tsong, said to have been Myanmar’s richest man at one point. The building was finished but never occupied and in the 1960s it was commandeered by drug smugglers. The Palace had a network of tunnels and secret rooms under it, and one of the tunnels was said to have led to the river. Much history, many feels.
Tempo(rary) is a collaboration with Burmese artist Maung Day. It consists of a dialogue in poems and photographs. Over the course of a month, I sent a poem to Maung Day and he responded with a poem or a photo. And then he sent a photo to me, and I responded in kind. We created ten pairs of work from this exchange, each one accompanied by a metronome set to a different tempo.
The photograph is from Maung Day, the poem is from me. All the poems were translated to Burmese as well. Text layout by Nicole Soh.
Ticking at a range of tempos, the metronomes are a sonic reflection of the varying speeds of two very different cities.
Time in the city is a function of progress and growth. It is invisible; fleeting and always in scarcity.
We are always running out of time. Time is never on our hands. We need more time, we say, this commodity that can never be bought or bartered.
We are made by time, its invisible, inevitable ticking, keeping tempo to the rhythms and reasons of our lives. Time soothes and serenades, summons and silences.
The crowds weren’t what we were led to expect, partly due to the prohibitive ticket prices. The food was also probably priced beyond the reach of the average local. But hey, at least the art was free!
Following the exhibition, I received the incredible news that Tempo(rary) has been selected to be part of the 12th Yangon Photo Festival. The work will be exhibited at the Rosewood Hotel from 19 Feb to 21 March. Do check it out if you happen to be in Yangon!
2019 is winding down after the usual mix of publications, performances and an extremely unique residency in Panama. We’ll be taking some time to be spectators at Wonderfruit, a music and art festival outside of Pattaya. Then it’s back to art-making next year with Note for Note on 10 January. This edition is rather different from the usual one poet + one musician pairing. This time, I selected 16 poems from various poets around the subject of the city and the theme of speed. The title of the show is ‘Stop, Look and Listen’ and will feature actors performing poems in three separate sets. The soundscape will be scored by Bani Haykal.
Light to Night Festival runs from 10-19 January 2020. Desmond Kon, Nuraliah Norasid and Kevin Martens Wong and I were commissioned to each pen a poem that would serve as the basis for the festival programming. Inspired by Ítalo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, my poem imagined the city as a canvas of stories both known and unknown
At the start of February, I’ll be headed to Yangon for a weekend as part of the Singapore Festival 2020. I’m doing an artistic dialogue with Burmese poet and artist Maung Day. The exhibition is called Tempo(rary) and uses a series of metronomes to map different speeds of our two cities (Singapore & Yangon) through a poems and images.
As part of Buysinglit 2020, Crispin Rodrigues and I will be doing something completely different on 8th March. We’ll be running Uncanny Yishun: A Literary Tour, melding poems, creative non-fiction pieces and torrid tales from Singapore’s most notorious neighbourhood into an entertaining two-hour walk. More details to come!
The following weekend, Handbook of Daily Movement gets its hour of fame. I’m super pleased that this labour of love with Sudhee Liao has been commissioned to be part of the Textures Festival. So we are expanding it into a full-length live performance featuring original music by Rupak George and four dancers. There will be two shows and also a screening of our original film.
And then a quick trip at the end of March to Ho Chi Minh City to sit for my third Milestone in my PhD journey. Ahhhhhhhhhhh.
From 11 June to 11 July, Alliance Française have graciously offered to exhibit the poems and photographs from Sightlines, my collaboration with Tay Tsen-Waye. The AF gallery is a lovely space, with loads of possibilities when it comes to displaying the work.
And on 13 July, I begin an Exactly Foundation residency on the nebulous yet fascinating topic of ‘offence.’
That’s a pretty stacked start to the year! At some point I am also hoping to squeeze in an exhibition with Cheyenne Philips of the work we created from the La Wayaka Residency in Panama. Hopefully that will come together in the usual way that exhibitions happen; a blend of serendipity, timing and opportunity.
A photograph, perhaps more so than any poem, is something that continues to haunt me. One can describe place, deconstruct its technical aspects, but there is something haunting about the visual quality found in an image, its raw affect that straddles the space between memory and forgetting. It lodges in some limbic node and refuses to be described.
To describe carries the idea of sketching, to mark the form or figure of.
These monochrome images, taken over the years in various places, carry something of that indescribable moment to me, whether it is in gesture, the depth of a building or the way an image bisects itself; the frame drawing its own lines of meaning.
“In these all-seeing days, the traffic between memory and forgetting becomes untrackable. Photography is at the nerve center of our paradoxical memorial impulses: we need it there for how it helps us frame our losses, but we can also sense it crowding in on ongoing experience, imposing closure on what should still be open.” – Teju Cole, from “Known and Strange Things”
“The photograph isn’t what was photographed, it’s something else. It’s about transformation” – Garry Winogrand
“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” – Richard Avedon
Sightlines launches on 23 May at 3Arts, a pottery studio in Joo Chiat Place.
It’s been a book that has been on an incredible journey, starting from Waye reaching out to me to write poems from her collection of film photographs. At that time, I was just beginning to write about collaborative processes as part of my PhD at RMIT. Here was a chance to put theory into practice. Of course, ideas are far easier than the actual work of selecting images, arranging them into a kind of arc and then writing poems that allowed for a different sightline, another way to apprehend the image. The first title that emerged was Waypoints, but eventually, we realised that while it described each image/poem pairing as a node on a journey, what we were really after was a treatise on different ways of seeing.
Sightlines allows for a dialogue between text and image. The reader is not bound to one particular way of seeing or reading, and the work has to be ‘read’ not just as a pair, but as a grander arc. The narrative, so to speak, begins and ends in Singapore, where both of us are from. Whilst travel is the given, there are other elements that layer the experience of travel, such as the implied female persona that moves from one space to another. Then there is the medium of the image; film. The treatment of grain, how light falls and is held on the page and the emotional resonance of an analogue process seems to cohere with the personal nature of the poem; as a space that is made intimate through a different kind of viewfinder.
And to add yet another layer to the experience, we are showcasing selected poem/images with pottery works made by various artists at 3Arts, a pottery studio. The pieces and the prints (A2, framed and printed on acid-free archival paper) are available for sale.
Here’s a sample of one of the poems and images.
Come journey with us on an evening of looking, listening and learning.