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Live at Sing City

Avant-garde is Singapore’s new business model. An arts fest vouched for that, writes Paramita Ghosh.

india Updated: Jun 19, 2010 21:26 IST
Paramita Ghosh

The push to turn Singapore into an art destination meant that, at times, the Singapore Art Festival, which concluded last week seemed like a collection of art forms itself. The upside of sourcing so much foreign material — ballets and puppetry from France, theatre from China, Japan, Thailand and Taiwan, drummers from Germany, ‘sounds’ from India — is that it has fuelled an ambition for its own art.

In early June, composer Joyce Beetuah Koh went around plucking a string instrument in front of a ticketed audience. In attendance was the pipa, a type of local violin along with various sounds coming from the strum of strings made of steel, titanium and copper. “I wanted to present a sonic world, to look at grains of sound,” said Joyce.

The fest’s new artistic director, Low Kee Hong, who has nudged the average Singaporean to venture beyond western ballet and traditional Chinese song and dance, said his two big strategies were “to make a creations fest and change the expectation on what will be put on the table from this part of the world.”

Heroine was one such surprise. Taiwanese dancer Wen-chi Su’s challenging performance of hand twirls, stomach crunches and side bends, all while being rooted to one spot, was an example of what happens when dance takes the help of physical exercise and stillness is used as movement.

Cinema also made a lateral entry with films as installations. At the Singapore Art Museum, artist Ming Wong's recreation of the Golden Age of Singapore cinema in the 50s and 60s, pointed to the national 'condition': its hybridity and the politics of becoming Singaporean. This exhibition was first presented at the Venice Biennale 2009. Lee Yanor's docu-feature 'Coffee with Pina Bausch,' a homage to the iconic German dancer, was another example of the talk that the festival hopes to start among artistes across various media of expression to build a 'history' of Singaporean art.

But a startler at the fest was the depiction of the bittersweet life of the Tamil under-class (60 per cent of Singapore's Indian population are Tamil) seen through a transparent air-conditioned vehicle jazzed up with 'live' conversations about curry and work permits by Tamil truck drivers, built up as a 3-D 'road-movie' experience. So, mate, is sorrow not private anymore? "White collar people like all this, na?" said one of the truckers. "They also now know real problems, na?" Quite.

Paramita Ghosh travelled courtesy the National Arts Council of Singapore