M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019: Still Waters
Water. Elemental. Vital for all life forms. It makes up most of the human body.
In its purest form, water is colourless; yet despite looking transparent, water could well harbour contamination. It perpetually and unpredictably travels and transforms through its cycle. It rejuvenates, cleanses and refreshes, perhaps giving us a false sense of purity and security.
Water forms borders of protection, inviting invasion and defence. It saves us. And destroys us. We seek to conquer and control it, even though we know it can engulf us. We consume it. We try to conceal it in subterranean pipes and canals. Yet when it disappears down our drains, we forget about it. Even in its deepest tranquility, its potential to wreck chaos remains.
“BUT THE ABJECT, LIKE THE UNCONSICOUS, HAS A PERSISTENT WAY OF IMPOSING ITSELF UPON US.”
For Fringe 2019, we have selected Still Waters, a seminal work by ground-breaking Australia-based Singaporean artist Suzann Victor. Shown widely on the international stage, Suzann has been actively pushing the envelope in the Singapore contemporary arts scene since the late 1980s. Her desire to make art accessible—even transcendental, whilst critiquing assumed structures of power and states of being, is evident in her work, which are always elegant, incisive, and thought-provoking.
Suzann Victor’s site-responsive performance of Still Waters in 1998 was presented by the artist at the façade of the Singapore Art Museum. She had utilised the liminal space of a drain on the second storey of the Museum—a relic of its original colonial architecture, now bereft of its purpose, having been excluded by way of a retrofitted glass wall around the Museum to control its internal climate, sealing the works and people within its halls from the vagaries of external elements. Using customised glass dams, Suzann filled this in-between space with water that reached above the ankles, and her resolute presence within it sought to remind us of what the Museum perceived as a threat of danger outside its carefully protected space. Her movement in this drain surfaced questions about the place of art and performance. The audience, positioned along the corridors within the Museum, found themselves with their backs to the hallowed galleries housing officially sanctioned art. Instead, they focused on Suzann’s body interacting with the water within the glass encased drain; the audience became riveted witnesses of a proscribed art form trapped in a zone that is not state-endorsed.
Still Waters had particular resonance at the time, since Performance Art had suffered a de facto ban in Singapore since 1994, when 5th Passage, the art initiative Suzann directed, found itself along with other artists embroiled in a media-incited controversy due to a performance that was regarded by some—including the state—as contentious. The performance then led to Singapore’s ban on the burgeoning art form. Government funding was proscribed for Performance Art until 2004. As such, Suzann’s Still Waters was one of the first public pieces of Performance Art that grappled with the issues surrounding this interdict prior to the ban being officially lifted.
“STILL WATERS POSES AN URGENT QUESTION TO US: WHAT HAPPENS TO ARTS WHEN IT IS CAREFULLY REGULATED AND ONLY LIVES IN DESIGNATED SPACES?”
In relation to her work Still Waters (Between estrangement and reconciliation), Suzann says,
I chose this space for its sense of journey, the passing of time and the remaking of histories [vis-à-vis Performance Art]. The shallow pool of blue water provided a site for the re-enactment of a loss of innocence embodied by a performance that operated simultaneously inside and outside the institution, mirroring the ‘fugitive’ status of the performing body in Singapore.”1
During the performance, submerged lengthwise in the water, Suzann distributed photographs, folded into sampans (small boats). She elongated her body sideways along the drain, dividing her body in two experiential states: one ear under the silence of water and the other taking in noise from outside the building; one half of her body in the cold waters, the other half exposed to the warm atmosphere. Her unusual presence provoked inquiry, not only in terms of her performance, of the space it is trapped within but also how this control could entrap creativity.
Discussing her work, Suzann continues,
Drains operate as a visible sign of the abject, discouraging any form of proximity by the stench they produce. As metaphorical repositories for society’s overflowing ‘unconscious’, these longkangs2 collect, siphon and direct the abject, the polluting, expired, decaying or the ‘useless’, into watery depths—the sea around the island. But the abject, like the unconscious, has a persistent way of imposing itself upon us. The very ubiquity of drains are a reminder of the impossibility of disappearance, the futility of evasion. There is no escape, only return.”3
Still Waters poses an urgent question to us: what happens to art when it is carefully regulated and only lives in designated spaces? While the cultural conditions may seem different on the surface, more than 20 years after the ban on Performance Art, the questions and tensions—important ones acknowledged in Still Waters—not only remain, but have become ever more pertinent. In the physical and cultural context of Singapore at the time, Suzann’s work was highly charged with very specific questions about the politics of art, the body and public space in Singapore. But it is such a rich work that might invite a diversity of other investigations and responses about the fugitive, the abject; about estrangement and reconciliation in society, and about “the remaking of histories”.
We invite you to consider Suzann Victor’s work and its many ideas, layers and symbols, and we are excited by the response from both local and international artists to our call for proposals for Fringe 2019: Still Waters. We believe that you will be inspired by Still Waters, and we look forward to sharing the artists’ responses to our call.
1Victor, Suzann, 2008. “Abjection: Weapon of the Weak.” PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney.
2Longkang: Malay word for ‘drain’.