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.
A twin cinema poem that responds to the current discussion surrounding the Substation, Singapore’s first independent arts centre and an incredibly nurturing and necessary space for generations of young artists practicing all genres of art.
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.
This poem was one of my first ever spoken word pieces, written years ago when I was in university and completely in love with the magic of the Milo Van, which was a staple fixture after enduring annual cross-country runs in secondary school and JC. The Milo Van also made occasional visits to my university campus and I would add extra time to my commute so that I could queue-up for multiple cups of ice cold goodness.
The Milo Van (for the addicts)
The Milo van comes to school whenever there’s a bazaar. Bright-eyed students peddle costume jewellery, yoghurt with fruit topping, secondhand CDs and tables of yellow, mildewed books.but all that, even the showroom cars they bring in, is merely the prelude for the Milo van, waiting in the wings, the belle of the ball, her cup runneth over and onto the lips of fawning Milo addicts.
And how can you tell they are addicts? By the Milo energy bars they eat to keep up their nervous smiles while waiting, by the Milo nougats they sneak onto buses and trains to tide them over until their next hit, by the flecks of Milo powder making a guilty moustache on their upper lip when they’ve crammed whole mouthfuls from the tin at home.
In the school holidays, Milo addicts are forced to pay for watered down, uneven, insipid, iced Milo in variant coffeeshops; the Milo dinosaur, the Milo godzilla, huge uncultured mountains of raw powder scooped without class or finesse, floating amid crude chunks of ice, poorer cousins to the Milo from the Milo van
Milo addicts have no Zurich park of free Milo, they have to shoot up on a low grade, even score something on their own, laying out their apparatus: a metal spoon, Milo powder, warmed up milk and hot water. But the difference between this and the Milo van is like stretching out to pray facing heaven and actually being in heaven.
The Milo van is the mecca of consumption, the ecstasy of nirvana, the afterlife of sweet nothingness.
Oh, to return as a Milo lover of the Milo van, nevermore to have to drink Milo out of a can!
The Milo man drives the Milo van everywhere around the campus. but wherever he goes, arts, science or engineering, its always the same group of junkies standing around in silent longing, quaffing 1,2,3,4…even 10 cups in succession, quiet with their thoughts of Milo mayhem as the viscous vicious malt chocolate ice cold ice head sugar spinning cocoa mind numbing high, higher, highest oh the rush….
Sightlines has opened at Alliance Francaise! It’s the ultimate dream for a photobook to find a larger home in a gallery, where more nuanced curatorial decisions can be made. I’m so grateful that Alliance Francaise kept to their promise to host the exhibition despite the dampening effects of the pandemic. Marie-Pierre Mol of Intersections Gallery is also co-sponsoring the exhibition, and she has been my faithful gallerist over the course of my last four exhibitions.
Waye and I were able to play with size, blowing up Monument to wall-sized and got Anita Zee, a designer, to work with us to rework the layout of some of the poems to resonate even more with the images. And AVS Printers is making really lovely fine-art archival quality prints of the work.
The short clip below is an introduction to the gallery and if anybody wants a personal tour, just holler at me!
Last night, we got drunk on Indiana Jones racing through the underbelly of temples, breaking gods and errant priests with his whip then hurtling home afterwards as a mist hung over the moon.
We fell asleep dreaming of adventure, holding each other against the fear of never being able to fly again.
In the morning, we are exhausted, soaked from the summer sun trapped overnight in tarmac. I am steeped in stillness, pretending to be nothing more than river. The blanket lifts the top of the current, foghorns out at sea are lonelier than ever.
The fan spins as fast as it can without tearing off and flying somewhere else. We have nowhere to go; it is too early to be full of frustration, so we become tongues of cool water, slip our skins through the window, past the last of the night clouds.
Where do bodies end? Do we return to god or become, valleys we’ve yet to see?
I hold you like a dam holds back the edge of an ocean, now we dance against the silhouette of songbirds, now we are dissolving into air.
Be my hummingbird, my long kiss, be my electric way home. Let me tell you the same story with a different ending every single time.