By Loo Zihan
(1430 words, six-minute read)
“What will we forget? What do we hold on to? What will we remember? What do we let go of?” These were the questions posed by a volunteer in Mandarin to my 67-year-old mother at a void deck in Chong Pang. She was showing my mom how to make a paper windmill, a souvenir that she will get to keep. Each of these four questions was printed on a different blade of the windmill in the four official languages of Singapore – Tamil, Mandarin, Malay and English. To my right my 86-year-old maternal grandmother was attempting to make her windmill with the assistance of her Indonesian caregiver Anna. Anna wrote her response in Bahasa, and she assisted my grandmother before making her own. My mother, grandmother, Anna and I were contemplating these four questions as part of a concluding exercise after being led on an hour-long tour around the area.
This tour is for a socially-engaged art installation collectively titled Closer. Closer is part of an ongoing collaboration titled Both Sides, Now between theatre company Drama Box and arts-based community development organisation ArtsWok Collaborative with support from the Lien Foundation and Ang Chin Moh Foundation. As their website succinctly phrases it, Both, Sides Now is a community outreach project to initiate discussions on how to “live well and leave well” that has been running since 2013. Previous editions of Both Sides, Now included a series of forum theatre productions, puppet shows, and installations in neighbourhoods that include Khatib, Telok Blangah and Toa Payoh. In this iteration from 12 September to 7 October 2018, they presented a participatory performance, Last Dance in both Mandarin and English, alongside the multi-sited artworks, collectively titled Closer. Closer involved four Singaporean artists in dialogue with twenty-three Chong Pang residents over a series of forty workshops held since November 2017.
We started the tour of Closer with a screening of three short videos made by filmmaker Jasmine Ng in collaboration with residents. These videos were responses to and reflections on end-of-life issues. They were projected on a screen at the void deck and a crowd gathered on small stools to experience them. One of these was a split screen video documenting Choon Hui and her grandson Ah Ken having a candid conversation about the burning of paper offerings for her deceased husband. As the short video proceeds, the conversation shifts in tone from a light banter about offerings of smart phones and cars, to a heart wrenching exchange of Ah Ken coming-to-terms with the inevitable passing of Choon Hui. The message is simple and direct, and the medium effective in encouraging us to reflect on our immediate relationships.
The volunteer-guide then led us to a pavilion that had been transformed with bamboo poles into an art installation titled The Gift. There were wooden boxes laid out in a semicircle with a set of headphones attached to each box. Inside each box was a different object selected or made by participants in response to artist-facilitator Han Xuemei’s question “If this was the last gift you were to leave behind, what will it be and who is it for?” These objects included a hand sewn pouch for a sister, a recipe book for grandsons, etc. The headphones played recordings that contextualised the gift it is tethered to. My grandmother was particularly enthralled by a voice singing an old Mandarin ditty in one of these accompanying recordings.
The third installation titled Kindling by artist-photographer Alecia Neo consists of large vinyl photographs that were adhered to various public structures. These larger-than-life portraits shot against a black background highlight each sitter’s personality while they perform what they cherish and value in their lives. Some of them were positioned as a series on pillars that line a void deck, creating moments of unexpected encounter as they appear and disappear from view as one meanders through these shared common spaces. My grandmother’s caregiver Anna smiled as she saw herself reflected in an image attached to a covered walkway that depicts Set Tai and her caregiver Magi. The latent potential of these unassuming installations to connect with a public lies in these moments of recognition – the witnessing an aspect of oneself reflected back in unexpected ways like a song or a photograph.
The fourth group of works were by artist Shirley Soh in collaboration with the residents titled To Cherish and to Hold. These were a group of quilted blankets, and an accompanying bamboo enclosure where one is able to reflect on one’s response to Shirley’s question “What if you had only one year left to live?” Formally, these blankets were the most ingenious of these installations as they imitated blankets strung up around funeral wakes that take place in these void decks. These blankets at wakes are conventionally embroidered with condolence messages and served the dual function of creating an enclosure, while declaring the status and affiliations of the deceased. In the reparative versions of these blankets created by Soh and her collaborators, each panel serves as a personal contemplation of what one cherishes in the face of impending death. Depicted on these patchwork quilts are pet companions, short phrases in various languages, objects of care, and images of self. Like the photographs in Kindling, one encounters these blankets in various locations in the Chong Pang estate. A group of these in particular, were positioned at intersections where one would expect to find vinyl banners announcing activities at community centres or residential visits from Members of Parliament – subtly reconfiguring the relationship we share with our built environment.
The main difference of Closer to previous iterations of Both Sides, Now lies in the dialogue sustained over several months between the workshop participants and these artists. The extended temporal duration was also translated beyond the process of making into the length of display. For the first time, these works were installed and interfacing with the life of Chong Pang residents in situ over a three-week period. During the tour, the participants were at hand to share their experience of transposing a private conversation onto their immediate neighborhood environment. From observing the participants’ interaction with the artists, it was clear that a warm rapport has been established between them and they were proud of sharing Closer with a public. Several enthusiastic participants even worked with multiple artists on different projects, and through clever juxtaposition (a embroidered blanket mentored by Soh placed alongside vinyl photos selected by Neo), different facets of these participants’ personalities were highlighted to resist a flattening of their complex identities.
Some artists have been involved in Both Sides, Now over multiple iterations since 2013. Jasmine Ng, for example, directed a memorable and evocative film for the 2014 edition of this event. It is significant that as this project continues to evolve, artists and the producers for the event have shifted away from mere representation of their constituency into conversations sustained over a longer duration. As ArtsWok Collaborative phrases it in their case study of Both Sides, Now, this 2018 edition is an attempt to “[expand] further and [delve] deeper into [these] geographical communities.” They have realised that beyond quantitative ways of measurement (for example, attendance and footfall to these final public presentations), what is equally important is the qualitative impact these projects have on individuals who participate and invest. The strategy for approaching difficult end-of-life conversations lies in prioritising the need for establishing mutual trust.
“What will we forget? What do we hold on to? What will we remember? What do we let go of?” We return to the void deck where we started after the tour of Closer. My mother was stumped by these four questions posed to her on the paper windmill. I observed as she dismissed them, perhaps unwilling to confront the prospect of death like many of her generation. She refused to pen them down, placing her hand on her heart and proclaimed that the answers are stowed away in there. The volunteer, clearly having had this dialogue before, responded in Mandarin: “If you do not write them down, how would you let yourself and your loved ones know?” After much cajoling, the volunteer got my mother to do so. Through this exercise in verbalising and inscribing, they launched into a larger conversation about my mother’s answers. This record of a fleeting moment is indicative of the micro successes of Both Sides, Now. The efficacy for this endeavour to initiate individuals to end-of-life conversations should be recorded in these elusive moments of personal engagement that demonstrate the rendering of care and a desire for sincere communication.
 For detailed information on the ethos of the project, please refer to ‘On Death and Dying: Vital Signs for a Healthy Civic Dialogue’, a case study by ArtsWok Collaborative (29 June 2018).
Closer is a multidisciplinary art programme as part of Both Sides, Now, a community engagement project by Drama Box. Closer comprised of a participatory performance, Last Dance, and a public art installation which took place from 19 September – 6 October 2018 at various locations between Blk 108 to Blk 115, Yishun Ring Rd. More information here.
Guest Contributor Loo Zihan received a MA in Performance Studies at New York University on a National Arts Council of Singapore (NAC) Arts Scholarship and a MFA in Studio Practice from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. His performances have been presented at various events, including the Singapore International Festival of Arts in 2016 and the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2015. Zihan was awarded the Young Artist Award by NAC in 2015.