The Unreachability of Past Bodies

Slowness – A Response to Loo Zihan’s With/Out
by Binghao Wong

SP Note: In January 2015, performance artist Loo Zihan re-enacted the 1999 performance of Paddy Chew, the first person in Singapore to come out publicly as HIV+. Loo gave SP an interview about his re-enactment here.



Photo by Roger Winder


Contrary to popular belief, time does not run its course naturally. Daily, the forces of neoliberalism nudge us in the direction of newness and shine. They seem to ask the perennially elusive question: What’s next? Yet, answers might not be what they/we seek. Rather, the emphasis on novelty acts like an anodyne drug, dulling wistful cries from years past. Like waves crashing on the shore, generations are performed when the young and salubrious replace the old and decrepit.

In the names of progression and recuperation, we slap plasters on the gaping wounds of time and expect things to be alright, better. Immediacy is deft and desirable. But some things we simply cannot come back from. Figures unaccounted for, the traumatized, and the dead – these are the specters that linger in the unpopularity of slowness.

Loo Zihan’s With/Out (2015) continues his research and practice in re-enactments. In contrast to the perfunctory nature of repetition, which stresses factual replication, authenticity and sameness, re-enactments are theorized as new originals, fresh iterations of past events. Rather than passively reproduce, re-enactments actively produce. Irredeemable pasts are conjured as specters of impossible presence. With/Out takes place 15 years after its original, 3 years after Loo’s last re-enactment, and spans almost 2 hours. The exhaustion, dilation and viscosity of time are performed by the work’s very existence within a spatio-temporal continuum.



Photo by Roger Winder


Photo by Roger Winder

There were three synced projections in the space that screened video documentation of Paddy Chew’s 1999 performance, along with other periphery visual materials used in the performance.


While With/Out might appear to align itself with progressivist tendencies, Loo’s methodology suggests otherwise. With/Out takes its cue from Completely With/Out Character (1999), a monologue by Paddy Chew, the first Singaporean to publicly share his HIV-positive status. Queer legacies are necessarily pained, punctured by degrees of absence. Chew himself appears a forgotten figure within an equally forgotten history, doubling historical amnesia. Every foray into the archive only further confirms its unaccountability, for with every figure written into history, another must be excluded.

The desperate desire to compensate for these mnemonic breaches might explain the excess of archival material included as part of the performance-installation. Selected performers, most of who were involved in the original production, read Chew’s original transcript in tandem with the original video recordings, as if to solidify his presence. But their stabs at synchronicity often result in slippages, which render Loo’s technologies of remembering all the more emotional and personal. Touches across time are poignant precisely because of the unreachability of past bodies.



Photo by Yusri Sapari
Selected props, including a hospital bed, that were used in the 1999 performance were placed in the space.


One can gather from the recordings that Chew was an entertaining character. He tested the boundaries of acceptability by using humour as device to discuss social taboos like death and HIV/AIDS, even donning jester-like face paint during his performance. But sometimes, battered histories remain just that. Negative affect was an indelibly haunting component of both Chew’s and Loo’s performances. While the ludic interactivity of Loo’s re-enactment complemented Chew’s cavalier humour, his use of Chew’s original props, including an empty hospital bed, was a sobering reminder of a life lost. Perhaps, we have trouble admitting to ourselves that we want to remember not a patched-up, exultant conquering of melancholia, but melancholia itself, plain and simple.



Photo by Samantha Tio

There was no fixed seating for the audience and they were encouraged to move around and actively shape their experience of the performance.



Photo by Yusri Sapari
Zihan holding up props that Paddy Chew used during selected moments in the performance.


Photo by Yusri Sapari
Zihan monitoring the ‘live’ webcast of the performance



Binghao Wong is an independent curator and writer. Through his projects, he aims to critically pluralize queer life and its representations, shaping subcultural (counter)publics and their accompanying discourses. His debut curatorial project, WE ARE LOSING INERTIA (2014), comprised a performance and publication that have been presented in various iterations at, 89plus, and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, London.

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: Completely With: Remembering Paddy Chew, Reflecting on Loo Zihan

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