Completely With/Out Character

In a time of ignorance and fears about AIDS, Paddy Chew came out publicly as HIV-positive. He was the first person to do so in Singapore. Three months before he died, he worked with the local theater company The Necessary Stage to stage a monologue titled “Completely With/Out Character” about the coming-out experience. The docu-theater piece was performed in May 1999 at the Drama Center on Fort Canning Hill.

15 years on, performance artist Loo Zihan undertakes the re-enactment of Chew’s work by using archival remains. A commission of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival (January 14 – 25, 2015), the re-enactment “With/Out” tussles with questions of loss, memory, and authority. Loo has previously re-enacted Josef Ng’s performance piece “Brother Cane” in Chicago and Singapore. In the interview that he kindly gives to SP, he makes reference to that earlier work in explaining his approach to re-staging Chew’s seminal piece. The interview is followed by extracts from the playwright script and Loo’s transcription of the video documentation of the original performance of “Completely With/Out Character.”

 

SP: In your artist’s statement on the website of M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, you ask, “[W]ho has the authority to account for his [Paddy Chew’s] performance and why?” Since you did not watch his performance nor know him in person, as you indicate in your statement, what do you see is the source of the authority of your re-enactment?

LZH: I was posing a rhetorical question. The conventional belief is that there is authority and power vested in the original creator of the work, and this concurs with the fetishization of the ‘aura’ constructed around the original work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, as pointed out by Walter Benjamin in his seminal essay.

Due to this authority and power vested in the ‘creator’, only re-interpretations validated by the original creator are seen as equally authentic or valid. I encountered this repeatedly when I was working on ‘Brother Cane’. The question posed by reporters always includes the inevitable ‘does Josef approve of this? Have you been in contact with him?’

Honestly, when I was working on ‘Cane’, it wasn’t until after my 2011 Chicago performance that I got in touch with Josef. On hindsight, both the re-enactment in Chicago and in Singapore are equally valid interpretations – and more than one individual have commented that the Chicago performance was emotionally more ‘authentic’ because I did not have the baggage of information that I had amassed when I came back to re-stage it in Singapore. You can access both the video documentation online and assess for yourself.

Cane (2012), Singapore http://vimeo.com/37993908

Cane (2011), Chicago http://vimeo.com/21383755

When I finally met up with Josef back in Singapore, I got the sense that we both found it ridiculous that I was asking him for ‘permission’ to re-stage the piece. As if that made the work more legitimate in a way, ironic for a performance piece that transgresses against legitimacy and thrives in the potential of being ‘illegitimate’.

Perhaps this was why Josef responded to the invitation to be part of ‘Cane’ (2012) in Singapore by sending Thai performance artist Michael Shaowanasai in his stead – the message I interpret him as sending with that gesture is that anyone and anybody has the ‘authority’ to be ‘Brother Cane’, as long as one is willing to live with the consequences of doing so.

But I admit it is an ongoing tension – as a practitioner you wish to interpret a past work with respect, yet not be burdened by the weight of it. My interpretation of Paddy’s monologue reveals my struggle with this tension between the authentic and the reproduction. On one hand I would like to preserve the original ‘aura’ of Paddy’s performance respectfully, (i.e. nobody in this re-interpretation will be performing as Paddy; the image of him in video documents will perform in his stead) but at the same time, I am conscious that if we are too precious about his performance, and do not open it to interpretation, the re-interpretation of a work itself might not be permitted to take on a life of its own.

My belief as a practitioner, which is evident in my approach to research and investigation, is that in our current time, when the reproduction approaches the ‘authentic’ so closely that it can create a valid alternative to the original, we should respect the fact that the reproduction is different and never meant to ‘recreate’ the original.

The re-enactment is there as a gesture towards the original, but it should be respected as a valid independent interpretation of a preexisting ‘text’. It is like how versions of histories and memories exist, and there are always multiple accounts of the remains of a performance. Each re-interpretation or presentation is a permutation and combination of these remains to create a certain intended effect.

In ‘With/Out’ the remains I am working with are the visual remains, namely the video documentation and photos surrounding the performance, along with the textual remains, newspaper articles, script, etc. But I don’t see these remains as a ‘source of authority’ – they are no more authentic or authoritative than a fragment of a memory of someone who watched the performance, or even a mis-remembered anecdote of what happened during the production.

In other words, the larger question I am posing with that initial rhetorical question is ‘Who has the power to remember, and how do we remember?’

SP: You re-enacted Josef Ng’s performance piece “Brother Cane” in Chicago and Singapore. What draws you to re-enactment as an artistic practice? Who or what are your major influences in this practice?

LZH: Part of this question is obliquely answered in my response to the first question. I see re-enactments of previous works as a means of giving yourself up to something that someone else has created, caring for it and permitting your practice to be included as part of a larger historical trajectory.

It is putting your ego and the myth of the ‘genius’ artist aside, and recognising that there have been others that come before you, and many individuals who will come after you. It is recognizing that you are a mere part of a conversation and your work serves to develop and sustain this dialogue.

Of course, re-enactments is one of many ways to allow yourself to participate. Others have done so without the need for a literal reproduction or interpretation of what has come before – this might come as developing your work in response to a movement or someone else’s work.

I chose to take on re-enactments as the focus of my practice at this point in time because I see this as the most pertinent method of investigating, challenging and developing the conversation on performance in Singapore. This is particularly in relation to the state and the self regulation that permeates our arts community. How can ‘live-ness’ and spontaneity survive in a state that vets every performance work that is shown to a public? Why do artists feign this notion of ‘live-ness’ and disguise the restrictions imposed on our work? When there is a crisis of ‘authenticity’, my strategy for exposing and countering this is by performing the ‘un-original’ and ‘inauthentic’.

This concurs, despite being somewhat dated internationally, with the post-modern preoccupation with whether anything is truly original in our present time. Instead of the unproductive fetish of the novel and new, I would like to recognize appropriation and deconstruction as an equally valid artistic process.

The often cited rationale for the validity of appropriation is also that ‘originality’ or the ‘genius artist’ is not only a relatively recent but also an Eurocentric construct. Eastern and Southeast Asian art history has always been predicated on the master-apprentice model, where the apprentice re-creates or interprets the same work of a predecessor repeatedly until it is distilled into an essence.

In light of this I would like to highlight several recent influences. They include Xavier Le Roy, the French choreographer whom I had the privilege of working with when he was in Singapore presenting his ‘Retrospective’, German conceptual artist Wolfgang Laib, and his practice of reworking his ‘Milkstone’ piece in various permutations over the past decades, and finally Hiroshi Sugimoto, a Japanese photographer based in New York who works with the representation of varying units of times in a single photographic image. I admire all three artists not only for their work, but for the philosophical approach to their respective mediums.

In terms of art theory, the writings of Rebecca Schneider on performance and the potential of what ‘remains’ has been a seminal influence on my practice. Recent influences include Andy Horwitz from Culturebot.org and his lectures on performance in an expanded realm and on the relation between critic, writer and performer.

SP: Recently the Singapore arts community was abuzz with the news of the “banning” of Tan Pin Pin’s documentary about political exiles “To Singapore with Love.” Yet performance art, once banned and denied funding by the authorities, seems to be given increasing latitude, as shown by the inclusion of your event in the Fringe Festival. As an artist working in both moving image and performance, why do you think that the former is eliciting greater official hostility than the latter? Does the “live” dimension of performance, so powerful to watch, restrict radically its reach, and so is considered less dangerous?

LZH: What I see in both the clampdown on performance art and forum theatre in the 1990s, along with the restriction on Pin Pin’s film recently, is its calibrated arbitrary nature. It is a matter of being in the right place at the right time (or wrong place at the wrong time depending on which side of the coin you are looking at).

In line with the first question, the State thinks, in both instances, that their version of history is the only version that should survive, and that only they have the power to remember, and to dictate how people remember.

The argument about one medium of art being ‘more dangerous’ than another is merely a means of justifying their actions, and insidiously replicating their strategy of control – which was so successful in the persecution of Josef Ng and Iris Tan in the 1990s, causing the arts community to be divisive and protective of their medium of choice and as a result fragmenting us further.

I would like to correct, once and for all, the fallacy that the inclusion of my performance piece ‘Cane’ in the Fringe Festival is an indication of the increase in latitude given to performance art. On the surface, yes, permitting the work to be staged is a sign of maturity on the part of the regulation body. However, unlike Josef’s performance, mine is a re-performance, and I take pains to make this point as transparent as possible in ‘Cane’. The only reason why the re-enactment is ‘permitted’ is because there is a precedent. I am following a script, which is vetted by the Media Development Authority. The main gripe they had with Josef’s ‘Brother Cane’ was exactly that they had no control over his content, and it was not validated by a regulation body.

And this brings us to the conundrum that they have created for themselves, and also the reason why they had to give Pin Pin’s film a ‘Not Approved for All Ratings’ rating and the uproar that ensued. It boils down to a failure of the system. They have set themselves up to regulate every single work of art that is exhibited to the public in Singapore. As a result when a spanner like Pin Pin’s film, or Josef’s performance is thrown into the works – the system is unable to cope with it in a logical way. It is a lose-lose situation for them. If they approve the film they are insidiously validating its presence, and as a result the claims of the film. The only strategy to cope with it is for the system to reject it, which ironically is the best thing that can happen to a film in our present social media climate. I have spoken about the film in various contexts to various groups of people, and everyone concurred that they had not heard about the film until it was restricted.

The government and its regulatory body really have to review their strategy of engagement with the arts community, in light of both Pin Pin’s case, and also the recent uproar and rejection of the self-regulation model that was proposed for arts licensing. These two incidents reveal a fundamental lack of understanding of how the arts operate.

The policies that affect the arts community stem from a “bureaucratic imagination” that the government possesses towards the arts. As we progress, this “bureaucratic imagination” needs to be expanded, beyond pragmatic functionality into a philosophical realm of necessity. Only through this expansion can there be an alignment of arts regulation with the maturing arts community in Singapore.

 

End of interview

 

With the kind permission of The Necessary Stage, below is Part 1 of of the twelve-part dramatic monologue “Completely With/Out Character” that Paddy Chew devised with Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma of The Necessary Stage. It is followed by Loo Zihan’s transcription of the video documentation of the original performances. The playwright script and the transcription make for fascinating comparison, underlining Loo’s point about how “there are always multiple accounts of the remains of a performance.”

 

Completely With/Out Character
Devised by Alvin Tan, Haresh Sharma and Paddy Chew
Performed by Paddy Chew

Copyright (C) The Necessary Stage, 1999.
All rights reserved.

 

ONE – I’M MAD

THE PHONE RINGS. AFTER A WHILE, PADDY ENTERS AND ANSWERS IT.

Hello? I’m in the bathroom lah. Everytime I’m in the bathroom you call. When I’m waiting for your call, you never call. Anyway, you meet me at the usual place in one hour. The usual place…Sidewalk Cafe. Not Delifrance ah. Sidewalk Cafe. No, no, no, no, you don’t ask me where we’re going. You just meet me there, all of you. And then I’ll tell you all where we’re going later. Yah, surprise, surprise for all of you. Ok, ok, bye.

HE HANGS UP. PAUSE. HE LOOKS AT THE AUDIENCE

We met at Sidewalk Cafe, we sat down, we had a drink. Then I said, ok, let’s go. We got into a taxi. And when we got off the taxi, it was outside Singapore Casket. So my friends said, why are we stopping here? I said this is where we’re going to shop. They said, hello!! This is Singapore Casket Company you know! I said yah, we’re going to go in and take a coffin for me. My friends said, Paddy, can we stay outside 5 minutes? Light a cigarette. Light a cigarrette first. I’ll go insane! OK, we all have a cigarette.

I said, look, I don’t want to be buried in some stupid plank or some makeshift coffin that you all buy for me last minute when I die. Ok? I want to choose my own coffin. So they said ok. But why do you need us? I said because I need your opinion, like when we buy a shirt or outfit, whether this colour is better, that colour is no good. And also because you all have to take the coffin when I die. And they look at me…we have to take the coffin. I said yes. Ok lah, ok lah, everybody going mad. It’s ok, we all also go mad. Mad like you. You die, we all also die lah. So we had the cigarette. Then I said, shall we go in? I haven’t got all day. In fact, I haven’t got very much time.

The guy at the Singapore Casket was very nice. He said, is this for a loved one? And I said, oh, a VERY loved one. The MOST loved one of all. And my friends said, yah, [sarcastic] the most loved one. I said, I want something that goes with my outfit. And the guy said, you mean, the deceased outfit. No, no, no, no, no, MY outfit. I’m the deceased. Do you have such a procedure where I can pick a coffin, put a deposit and then pay the balance later? He said yes, yes, yes, we have that. I said, oh, very good! So he said would you like to come in and see the selection? And about that moment, my friends were all standing in one corner…like, maybe I’ll change my mind, and we’ll all walk out. I said hello! We’re going to see the selection! So we all went in.

There was one particular coffin that I liked. Even my friends said the colour was very nice. And I didn’t like gold handles. I like silver handles. A bit more elegant ah? Gold a bit garish. And it was inexpensive. But my friend said, eh, quite expensive ah, for something you’re just going to burn. I said, hello! It’s for me! Then I thought, actually, why don’t I just try it for size. And one of my friends shouted at me. Why don’t you just wrap it up in a plastic bag and bring home. Put in the cupboard. I said don’t be a bitch. I’m dying, not you. So I climbed into the coffin and tested it out. Actually, it was very comfortable. It was a very warm and safe feeling. No wonder dracula lived in it for years.

For those of you who have the opportunity, I think you should go and try it out. It’s rather quite pleasing. So I paid the deposit, and the guy was very nice, photostat three copies of the receipt for my friends. I told them, when I go, you take the receipt, come here, pay the balance and collect the coffin. Each of you keep one copy and don’t lose it. Then my friends said, ok, so where now? I said now, we’re going to take picture. Oh, going for photoshoot? I said no, we’re going to take my obituary pictures. My friend said, why do we even ask?

So we went to this funny place, don’t know lah what it’s called, cover up or cover girl…where they make you look like a supermodel. So all my friends decided they also want to take pictures – but not obituary lah. So we took all these pictures and they said it’ll be ready in two hours. So we went off for tea and came back, all very excited. I was a bit tired, the medication was getting to me, so after that I took a taxi and went home.

While I was at home, having my cigarette and coffee, I took out the pictures and looked at them, trying to select the best for my obituary. There was some sitcom on tv which I was also watching. And my mind started to wander. It occured to me…what about those who are living? Like my sisters. I love them more than anything on this earth. And I don’t want them to suffer for what I’ve done.

 

*

 

Completely With/Out Character
Transcript of Performance Documentation of Three Shows, on May 10, 16, and one undated.
The Drama Centre, Fort Canning Hill

featuring Paddy Chew
directed by Alvin Tan and Haresh Sharma
produced by The Necessary Stage
transcribed by Loo Zihan (September, 2014)

 

Scene 1: I’m Mad

[The lights come on, we see a shallow proscenium stage with a hospital bed on stage right. On stage left, there is a small beside table with a plastic jug with water, an ashtray and a glass on it. There is a wheelchair beside the table. A video recording is projected on the backdrop – Paddy appears dressed as a clown with makeup, in scuba diving flippers and holding two balloons. He is wearing a loose off-white top with lace trimmings, and loose off-white linen pants. He is walking around a tree on a grass clearing, he waves to Paddy onstage, who is dressed in the same costume. They mirror each other’s gestures for a while. The song ‘Will I’ from the musical ‘Rent’ plays in the background.]

Lyrics:
Will I lose my dignity?
Will someone care?
Will I wake tomorrow,
from this nightmare?

[Paddy shuffles in his flippers to the hospital bed, places the balloons by the bed, takes a bedpan filled with condoms and empties it at the audience. A phone rings, the video cuts to black. Paddy answers the phone.]

“Hello? Ya, alamak, every time I am in the bathroom you all call me. Ya, the usual place. Sidewalk Cafe, Marriott Hotel. Ya, I see you there in one hour. I have water dripping all over my living room. I will see you in an hour, ah, ok bye!”

So I went to the Sidewalk Cafe and I met my friends. We had a drink, asked for the bill.
I said, “Okay come, let’s go.”
They said, “Where are we going Paddy?”
“We are going shopping.”
“What’s the big secret?”
“I will tell you later, you will know.”
So we got into a cab, we went off, reached the destination. We all got off and my friends look at me.
“Shopping what? Singapore Casket Company?”
I said, “Exactly! We are going to buy a coffin for me.”
They said, “What?”
I said “Yes, buy a coffin for me!”
They said, “Paddy, can we like go to a corner and have five minutes and have a cigarette?”
I said, “Okay, okay, okay”.
We went to the corner, all of us whipped out a cigarette, and we smoked.
And my friends said, “Coffin for you? Ai si [Hokkien: Want to die] ah?”
“Anyway can you hurry up? Time is of the essence to me, I don’t have very much left.”
So we killed our cigarettes, and I said “Come lah, let’s go let’s go”
So we walked into the casket company.
And I said “Look, do you remember or not? When we use to go shopping, I will ask you what colour? What style? Too expensive? Too cheap? Ah! Now it’s the same thing, I need your opinion, okay?”

So we walked. So we went and at the reception there was a very nice chap.
He looked at me and he said “Good afternoon, Sir.”
I said, “A very good afternoon to you. Could I see your selection of coffins?”
He said, “Of course you may. Is the deceased a loved member of the family?”
I looked at him and said, “The deceased is the most loved member of the family.”
And there was an echo from the back, “Ya, the most loved!”
I said, “The coffin is for me.” He was a bit stunned.
Then I said “So, may I ask you something else, do you have a procedure whereby I can choose a coffin, put a deposit, and perhaps when I go, someone would come and pay the balance?”
“Yes, we have such services”
I said, “Alright, very good, could I see your selection?”
He said, “Please, this way.”
So we walked in.

And let me tell all of you, it was a fantabulous selection of coffins. So we walked in, there was a lot of coffins, and then I turned around, and there it was.
I said, “Eh, come here lah.”
They said, “Why?”
“I think that one, the one with the X-factor.”
And my friends took a look, “Ah! Not bad ah!”
I said, “Come come, let’s go there.”
So we walked there.

I did a quick pose, and a lean back, with a hand on the neck.
I said, “Ma-ha-gony, isn’t it beautiful? And look at the gleam!”
My friend said “Ya, quite pretty Paddy, and you know, it looks very expensive.”
I said, “Ah, very important.”
I said, “I tell you what la, I give it a test run.”
My friends looked at me “You want to test run?”
I said, “Ya”
“Why don’t you just wrap it up in a plastic bag we take home.”
I said, “You don’t be irritating lah, indulge me, indulge me. I’m dying, not you okay!”
I went there, I press, you know? It was rather comfortable, very bouncy.
I said, “Eh, very nice you know”
“Okay lah!”
I said, “wait wait wait, don’t rush”
I said, “Sir, can I test? Yes? Ah, thank you very much.”
I turned backwards, I pounced in and I laid down. And let me tell you, it was very very comfortable. I laid there and thought, “Ay, should I put my hand here? On the side? Or on top of the chest?”
“I see you are Catholic right?”
I said “Ya, I am Catholic.”
“Then fine, you put on top then you can put one rosary.”
I said, “Ah, very good idea.”
So I adjusted. Ah, very nice feeling you know, you feel like you just want to die straightaway.
I said, “Sir, I think this is the one.”
“Wait wait wait wait wait, you know, I don’t like the handles.”
And he said, “Why?”
I said, “The handles are gold!”
So my friends all took a quick lean back and they looked and said, “Ya la, you know Paddy, I think gold a bit garish.”
I said, “Ya, very garish you know?”
I turned to the guy, I said “Sir, can I make an order, a special order for me?”
I said, “Actually I would like it silver, I think it is a bit more elegant, a little bit nicer.”
So the guy said, “It can be done.”
I said, “Please do. It is not like tomorrow I am going to drop dead and die.”
So I said, “Can I have it silver.”
He said, “Can.”
So my friend look at me. I said, “How?”
They said, “Ah, silver la, silver.”
I said, “Ok, can we proceed?”
He said, “Yes, we can.”

So we went back to the reception, and as I was going to the reception I turned to my friends, I said, “Look guys.” Actually, real fact, “Look GIRLS. When I die, it’s going to be an AIDS death, my body cannot travel to the coffin, the coffin will have to come to me, so in case they cannot find my documents, the three of you will have a separate document, in case one of you is out of town, two of you will still have the document.”
My friends looked at me and they said, “Ok. We understand.”
So I turned around and told the guy, he was very very kind, he photo-stated three copies for each of my friends and one for me.
So I said, “Sir, thank you so much for your time and effort”
He says, “no, thank you.”
I said, “Well, I should leave now, and I guess I will be seeing you sooner than you think, tata!”
And all my friends said, “Ah, tata!”

We all left. And you know la, the moment we reach a smoking zone, everybody whips a cigarette and smokes. They said, “Paddy, what are we doing now?”
I said, “Ah, now we are going to take pictures.”
“Eh, you got photo shoot you never tell us!”
I said “It is not photo shoot.”
“Then what is it?”
“I am going to take, my obituary picture.”
“Obituary pictures?”
I said, “Ya.”
They said, “Why not? You’re dying, we’re all going mad, so why not? You know?”

So we took cab, we left and went to Bugis Junction, and you know in the basement of Bugis Junction? There is this place, I don’t know la, cover up, cover girl, cover you all up. So we went there, and there was this girl.
I said, “Eh, can I take my picture?”
“Eh, can!”
So we went in. I wore a beautiful suit, fifty tonnes of makeup on my face so I look alive and we took a picture. When we finished, I asked the girl, “Eh, ready or not?”
“Aiyoh, Mr. Chew ah, where got ready so fast?”
I said, “Then how long?”
“Minimum lor, three hours.”
I said, “Three hours! Then what am I going to do?”
“Aiyah, you go jalan jalan lor, makan lor.” [Malay: to walk around and have something to eat]
I said, “Girl, you promise me ah, three hours.”
“I plor-mise, plor-mise I will be ready.”
I said, “Ya, you plo… you promise ah”
“Ya, you come back”
I said, “Okay okay okay, I go for tea.”

So we went next door, which was Intercontinental. And it was the most civilised part of the afternoon. We sat down, we had tea. There was a harpist playing a beautiful song and the spread was good. And after we finished, we went back to you know this cover girl, cover up, whatever it was.

And I said, “Eh, ready or not?”
“Aiyoh, ready lor. Ha, Mr. Chew ah, you quite handsome ah.”
I said, “Eeeee, did you all hear that? I am rather handsome!”
So I looked at it, and while I was paying the money, I felt very tired. So I held one of my friends.
I said, “Eh, I a bit tired la, cannot breathe.”
They said, “Okay.”
I said, “I think you all better send me home.”
They said, “We put you in a cab, you go home.”
I said, “If you are going out tonight, don’t call me lah ah. I am going to stay home, and I am going to relax, okay? You know it’s been a very tiring afternoon but thank you so much.”

[Paddy sits on the wheelchair and removes his flippers]

So I took a cab and I went home, and you know when I reach home, I do my usual thing. I have a cup of coffee. I take my ashtray. I have my cigarette, and I would turn on the television. I was sitting down having my cigarette, flipping through my picture, and wondering which picture would be the most beautiful for my obituary. I looked at the television and there was an American sitcom, and you know what they are like. Everybody is beautiful, everybody looks alive. I look at it and I was thinking. The living.

 

“With/Out” will be staged from January 14 – 18, 2015, at Centre 42, Singapore, as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.

 

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Photo of Loo Zihan by Olivier Henry. Make-up by Alex T.

About Jee Leong Koh

My book of poems Steep Tea (Carcanet) was named a Best Book of 2015 by UK's Financial Times, and a Finalist by Lambda Literary. I also wrote three other books of poems and a book of zuihitsu. My work has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize, and translated into Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Russian and Latvian. Originally from Singapore, I live in New York City, where I edit the arts blog Singapore Poetry, and run the Second Saturdays Reading Series and the Singapore Literature Festival in NYC.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Singapore Poetry: Loo Zihan on Completely With/Out Character (2015) | Arts Equator

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