By Akanksha Raja
(1,500 words, 6-minute read)
It’s a party … It’s unbridled and free and outrageous. It demands a full-body, full-mind engagement.
That’s how New York-based director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar describes Caught, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s latest production, a socially immersive experience at Miaja Gallery taking place from 10 September onwards. It’s an unusual and exciting work, starting with a personalised guide, before bringing you into an encounter with the enigmatic, fugitive artist Lin Bo, a Chinese dissident currently on tour after escaping imprisonment for his art in his home country China. The show’s mystery is part of its charm, one which has been experienced in art spaces – both theatres and galleries – across the United States and in London. The media has called it “a wildly inventive art installation/theater piece” (LA Times) and “intricately constructed, unrelentingly destabilizing” (The New York Times), and in 2017 it earned playwright Christopher Chen an OBIE award.
But who is Lin Bo really, and what was his crime? What is this party celebrating? It’s for you to piece together for yourself through Lin Bo’s performance and through your experience in the gallery, amid an exhibition specially curated by Miaja Gallery for Lin Bo’s presentation. During the performance of Caught by SRT you’re situated squarely in Lin Bo’s world, and it asks that you engage with it as deeply as you can. The translucent veil between fact and fiction, the complex layers of intercultural encounters, and the politics of art all come together in this unique experience, using text created by Chen, and under Ed’s direction.
Ed’s extensive portfolio includes having commissioned, developed and directed over 150 plays globally, with a specialisation in durational works that cultivate community. While Caught by SRT would mark Lin Bo’s first visit to Singapore, Ed has been here on several occasions. Apart from having directed SRT’s 2013 production of Venus in Fur, he has a personal connection to Singapore – both his aunt and his sister live here with their families. “I hope to be able to make Singapore my base for a little while,” he shares with me in a conversation at Miaja Gallery in River Valley.
We speak further about the process of creating the novel experience of Caught by SRT, and the cryptic artist at its centre.
AE: How would you describe Lin Bo?
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar: Lin Bo is an extraordinary individual. To be an activist-artist in a repressive regime that seeks to snuff out freedom of speech and penalises you for it, and find a way to create work that exists beyond the boundary of what can or can’t be censored, and to then find a way to let that flower beyond the boundaries of the country that seeks to restrain you, is a unique achievement.
The central conceit of Lin Bo’s art is that “the idea is the art.” He analogises life as a creative process, and he defines all of our experiences as people as ones within the creative process. The thoughts you have in response to something you see or encounter [in this work] are creative thoughts that allow you to chart a different path. That connectivity to the culture around you is, in a sense, an engine you lean into. It’s not simply that he has a message, but he wants you to feel the message and he wants you to experience what he’s trying to tell you – he doesn’t just want to tell it to you. He believes that only in your first-person connective experience of his work can you fully understand what he’s trying to do and that’s the way he’ll shape the evening.
AE: What is Lin Bo like to work with?
Ed: Working with Lin Bo is challenging because he demands a level of enigma in order for the work to be “purely” received. He talks a lot about “pure intention is pure reception.” The word “pure” comes up a lot in his work. For him it’s most important to be able to harness the energy that you yourself feel when you come into contact with a foreign idea or something you don’t know or a culture you’ve never experienced. We have had to be careful not to prejudice the dialogue in a way that would change how you’d [respond] to the storytelling in a virgin way. That’s been the subject of two months of talking with marketing, and – every aspect of the presenting partners’ collaboration is part of this work.
AE: He has an Instagram page.
Ed: He demands it! It’s his story and it’s about mining every step of the process we’re engaging as a larger canvas to the story itself. I no longer ask the question “What’s the story of Lin Bo?” It’s now “What’s the story of our experience of Lin Bo?” because ultimately it will inform every single audience member’s encounter and experience of the evening itself.
AE: What was your journey like finding a space for Caught by SRT? What is the relationship like with the venue, Miaja Gallery?
Ed: Finding the space became a journey that took us all around the island. What was very important to Lin Bo was that the space was relatively unknown, that it could be a new experience for the audience, and that you would be unmoored from your preconceptions of what the night has to be. We had to consider the space in context with its ability to accommodate not only his story, but also the social needs of the evening, while also retaining its own authentic identity: his presentation brings all those things in conflict with each other.
We were thrilled to discover Miaja Gallery. What has been amazing, creating art in Singapore, is all the relationships we’ve begun thus far – with Julia the curator, with Isabelle the gallery owner – they’re not transactional relationships. It becomes a creative collaboration, and that reinforces our goal in telling Lin Bo’s story, which is getting everyone in it into a journey wherein each and every decision we make is part of the unfolding creative process.
It’s also the most daring experimentation a company can do as well, as the product they’re selling is one of hospitality and inclusion. I’ve lived my life with that self-affirmation actually. That experimentation does not need to mean alienation. The best experiment is about including different points of view, not just one.
AE: Can you tell us about the specially curated exhibition accompanying Lin Bo’s performance?
Ed: The exhibition translates the themes of Lin Bo’s story in visual form. Lin Bo’s work is about the meeting of the East and West: he leads us to question if our understanding of what we experience is about the culture we’re experiencing or about our perception of the culture we’re experiencing.
AE: Do the artists have links to Lin Bo?
Ed: Lin Bo belongs to the Xiong collective – the dissident artists’ collective that doesn’t have a physical presence, because you can’t have a physical presence in China and be dissident. The gallery was so inspired by the story of an artist who found a way to be an individual in the face of all that. This is really an exhibition in solidarity with his ideas and his work. So you’re going to find artists who are his creative soulmates, essentially. All with deep relevance to Singaporean society. I’m really excited to see how those works are going to speak together, how they’re going to inform the story, how they’re going to change Lin Bo’s presentation. Everything about what he does is about a connection with the world around him, so it’s going to be specific. Everything you encounter is part of the experience.
AE: The performance, under your direction, previously took place at Think Tank Gallery in Los Angeles. Were there any considerations you had in bringing Caught to a Singapore audience and how that might differ from Western audiences?
Ed: Writer Chris Chen, because he writes for the American market, has created the text to a certain degree for the white gaze. Not intentionally. But if you put on a performance in America, that is who comes. If not the white gaze, then the Western gaze. I’ve always been able to successfully cultivate multicultural audiences, but they tend to be cultured the same in terms of their education and upbringing. This is an opportunity to flip that narrative and see how Caught by SRT works for the multicultural Singapore gaze. It puts the story in a context where the observer has experienced a great deal more than the audience it’s used to being presented to.
I felt that in an odd way this would be the ultimate test for the story’s universality. The performance proper has such a rich playground of interpretation. To know that an audience will come to this performance in Singapore and will have even more different ways of interpreting it and understanding it will be quite radical.
AE: Now it’s time for a quickfire word association round. I give you a word, in relation to this production, and you reply with a word or phrase that you associate with it.
Ed: Stranger than.
- Lin Bo.
Ed: [deliberate silence]
- Southeast Asia.
Caught by SRT runs from 10 September onwards at Miaja Gallery. The gallery and bar will open 15 minutes before the start time.
This article is sponsored by Singapore Repertory Theatre.
Akanksha Raja is an arts writer who was formerly Assistant Editor at ArtsEquator.