Grief can often make us feel powerless, a sense of being robbed and left only with remnants, without choice. What I found in SeptFest 2022: uproot | rootless is not quite the case. When it comes to confronting remnants of that which has passed, there is a kernel of agency in which paths to take, how to walk them. A slight comfort in the wake of it all, sure, but to accept the role of a passive mourner is much too simplistic. We could discard whatever physical traces were left and fill the fresh hollow with other things, or build upon them as a mode of transmutation, re-creation. It has been over a year since The Substation was detached from the familiar space of 45 Armenian St, diffusing SeptFest over several locations and digital spaces. I was able to encounter two fragments of this diffusion, through Grace Kalaiselvi’s Declutter Me!, and Frequencies, curated by Bridget Tay. Much has been written about The Substation’s uprooting, and so this will place more attention on the two works I have witnessed instead.
Declutter Me! by Grace Kalaiselvi is an intimate piece shared over WhatsApp video call, twenty minutes long. After a few moments checking if we can hear each other well (the internet was a little choppy) and setting some ground rules (the first ten minutes I was to remain silent and listening), Grace held three boxes up, giving me the option of choosing one place on the chopping board of “decluttering”. I chose the middle box, and out came Meera, the first puppet Grace has ever made from scratch back in 2014. Meera’s curly hair cascades down a conical head, and she is decked in a colourful patchwork costume.
Over the next ten minutes, Grace held Meera up as she shared about the tight yarn of colourism, how differently she was received by children and adults, and her own experiences of how others (family included) respond to her darker skin colour. The words were well-rehearsed, scripted, delivered smoothly. A little too smoothly. For the first half of our video call, I couldn’t quite feel Grace’s presence through the mechanical monologue she delivered; it felt as though I was watching a video recording. Only when she stumbled through a line did she appeared to me: the Grace who had scoured through numerous YouTube videos learning how to make Meera. I learnt how Meera was enthusiastically loved among children eager to receive kisses, and who would crowd around Meera as she sprang to life. With adults, though, Meera was seen as “too dark” as an Indian, her hair “too unruly”, eyes “too big”. Meera was “too much” in the eyes of other adults to be “realistic”. Here, Grace confesses a kernel of hurt and poses me a question — Meera was made based on how she herself looks, so how can it be that she is “not realistic”? How is an Indian person “supposed” to look like? I have no answer, and it was within the ten minutes where I was supposed to stay silent, so I simply gazed back at her, listening.
She then took me through a brief history of how whitening creams were commonly used among Indian women, how her own mother told her to stay out of the sun so that she won’t jeopardise her chances of getting married, and how ridiculous it is that Indian cartoon characters are typically portrayed with purple skin. Through the ten minutes, no matter how slick and well-rehearsed the lines were that had initially created a sense of distance, Grace’s struggle was palpable. Meera, to her, despite holding so much hurt and memories of being seen as “too much”, is still precious as the very first puppet she has ever made. Still precious from all the time she has spent with her, almost a decade now.
In the last segment of our video call, Grace turned towards me, looking at me for the first time despite her eyes never really moving from the camera for the past ten minutes. She asked, exhaling after a ten-minute monologue, “So, what do you think? Should I declutter Meera?” Should she? What right do I have to tell Grace what to do? These are her memories, her experiences, her relationship with Meera and all that it encapsulates. It felt like what she was really asking is if she should discard the remnants of what Meera has brought into her life, both joy and grief, if she should let go and “move on” from the bits of her memories and cultural experience that has hurt her. I am not Grace, I’ve only known Meera for a mere twenty minutes, and I’ve never seen Meera outside of the little screen of my phone. I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable with the power handed over to me in that short time. It doesn’t feel like it’s my decision to make as a Chinese person with little lived experience as to how it feels to be badgered about my skin colour. So I didn’t. Instead, I asked questions in return, about Grace’s relationship with Meera now, almost a decade later, about her impulse to declutter in the first place. Questions about what it means for her to keep or discard the physical container that has held so much. Questions that are, in part, resonant with what it means to navigate the less palatable parts of our being.
Before we could delve deeper, my ten minutes was up, and we had to end the call. There was too little time, for me to really get to know Meera as an entity on her own, and how Grace relates to her. What remains, though, are questions about how one navigates the parts of our lives that cling onto sentiments, memories, histories. What is possible with our wounds, and why the impulse to either extract some kind of lesson from it or to do something, be it decluttering or making something from it. What is the line between necessary parsing and grappling with the complexities of objects, cultures, memories, and hoarding? When do we know something has overstayed its welcome and would benefit from an exit? Those are questions I have yet to figure out myself, elucidated through a short twenty minutes with Grace and Meera.
And it is with these questions that I walked into Figment, a “co-working space” that houses Frequencies, an exhibition curated by Bridget Tay, featuring the works of Arron Teo, Joanne Lim & Smiha Kapoor, and Descent, a video work written and directed by Bryan Tan. I arrived wanting to encounter Descent in person rather than clicking a YouTube link in the isolation of my home. What greeted me the moment I entered the space was an entire stack of old television sets, twice my height. Framed by my time with Grace earlier, I found myself instinctively asking: Is that clutter? Not quite. Here, the television sets are part of the holding space for Arron Teo’s LORONG 2230. A brief conversation with someone sharing in the space tells me that the television sets were part of another artist’s work previously held by the space. Rather than clearing it out and have the exhibition be constructed on an empty slate, Bridget opted to work with its existing “clutter”, to transmute rather than discard. Descent, on the other hand, was facing a technical blip and was present as an empty screen.
Arron Teo’s LORONG 2230. Image courtesy of The Substation.
The question Frequencies surfaces for me, is how to navigate a space not completely yours, and how to play with the potential unease that comes with residing in someone else’s home. The sleek wood in the space jars against my memory of peeling paint in 45 Armenian Street. It resonates then, that Frequencies is concerned with that of the body, and its relationship to the environment in which it is situated. The association that arises from Arron’s decision to display his images as negatives is that of pre-development, a sense of the not-yet, of arriving. Splayed across the space’s aged surfaces, over windowpanes and empty screens, as blown up negatives, I feel its temporal tension keenly. It’s uncanny that the question of decluttering is starkly absent despite the imposing presence of the old television sets. LORONG 2230’s answer to being in someone else’s space is simply to co-exist with them, with slight irreverence and trust that one is welcome.
Smiha Kapoor’s images, on the other hand, bears the risk of a female body as she nestles, in a foetal position, in landscapes spanning a construction site and a park, among others. I say risk, but perhaps it is more about claiming the power to be perceived on her own terms. The ability to inhabit the space is not something these images take for granted — they are alert, aware that they are not “home”. A risk calculated and chosen, selective camouflage, as they plaster on the walls, stark against cool grey. Situated within a space that has held other spaces, Smiha’s works feels to be burrowing under the walls itself, desiring to reside in a subterranean space. An act of burial, ritual, as her body curls in a posture akin to prayer.
In the in-between space of Frequencies is Joanne Lim’s body of works, which materialises as two surveillance cameras functioning in a manner that is not of its usual mode. I wouldn’t have known to look if I didn’t already know there were three works present; Joanne’s work is almost hidden in plain sight. One camera propped near the stack of television sets reflected my image back to me in real time, while the other has a tiny screen replacing the lenses, revealing Joanne’s video work as I gaze right into the camera’s hood. I was assured me that the cameras are not in fact recording, that my image will not be kept, and I felt an initial tang of disappointment. I had mused to myself, entertaining the thought that my presence would, in fact, be imbibed as part of the artwork. Some vague desire to have proof of my having-been, to be part of something I encounter, rather than a mere transient visitor. I lingered in front of the camera revealing a miniature Joanne climbing up and down the metal ramp stairs, and watched as she made her way across the screen. I almost forgot that I’m staring right into a surveillance camera, and found myself leaning comfortably against the stairway railing that the camera was perched on. The act of surveillance is unnerving insofar it captures data beyond its immediate moment, allowing for its usage as evidence for other means nonconsensual. Without which, the cameras feel to be playful exercises in looking, fangless.
Joanne Lim for Frequencies. Image courtesy of The Substation.
In the context of being rootless or unrooted, in trying to discern what to do with the remnants of a thing passed, this sense of choosing to be unmoored offers an alternative to navigating these complex fragments. What might we do with past selves and the memories they hold, with the less joyous parts of our culture and identity? How might we wish to organise, discard or transmute these fragments? What happens if, like Joanne’s cameras, we simply hold it for the moment, and retain nothing for after? What remains? I ask these questions not knowing their answers. I ask these questions for the sake of continued grappling as spaces continue to shift in shape and form, as we continue to choose our methods of mourning and transformation, of our next rest of our lives.
And I leave you with yet another question, so delicately phrased by Sophie Strand, a self-proclaimed compost heap: What love do we recycle and embroider into the pattern of our new wings?
Declutter Me! a one-to-one performance session hosted on the Substation’s WhatsApp account, was performed from . Frequencies featuring works by Arron Teo, Joanne Lim & Smiha Kapoor, curated by Bridget Tay, was on from 16 – 26 Sept 2022 at , Geylang, Singapore. Both these works were presented as part of The Substation’s annual SeptFest, an annual celebration of art, culture and community now in its 32 year.
About the author(s)
txting teo (Teo Xiao Ting) plays with “words” and its related resonances, “art” and its transubstantiations. Their practice focuses on tending to life through writing alongside, sharing attention, and being with. They are currently working as a counsellor, and is in the midst of being trained in somatic therapy of various forms. (https://txting.space)