By Akanksha Raja
(1,155 words, 5-minute read)
It’s a series of plastic white flower-fans lining the fence of 74 Jalan Kelabu Asap that lets me know that I’ve arrived at the site of Drama Box’s first work of 2019, Flowers, an experiential installation set in a quaint two-storey landed house in Chip Bee Gardens. I’m 15 minutes early for the journey, so the team offers me tea and a seat on the porch before the house opens. As I wait, I can’t help feeling that I’ve been invited into someone’s personal residence – the home, the life, of a family I’ve never met and whose members’ names I don’t even know. Yet I’ve been told I will soon be allowed to wander everywhere around this house, free to browse cabinets, shelves, personal belongings, to be privy to its secrets. I wonder whose house this is – whose stories – and on what grounds I’ve been given the right to kaypoh. I feel like an investigative spy on an unknown mission.
Displayed alongside the rows of ‘flowers’ on the fencing around the porch is a timeline in placards, highlighting key moments in the history of women’s rights in Singapore, with a particular focus on the legal history of cases of abuse against women. Despite my better judgment, surveying the documentation inadvertently primes me with expectations about the journey I’m about to take – I anticipate a kind of recreated composite case study drawn from these true accounts. As I’m handed a cassette player with a single earpiece at the doorway, I ready my wits to look for explicit evidence of family violence.
But I fumble with a false start: I hit play on my cassette seconds after entering the house, while also attempting to take in its spatial details – I soon realise I can’t process both at the same time, at least for now. I press pause and observe the hall in silence. It’s clean, quiet, a typical Chinese Singaporean household. I persist in my search for tell-tale anythings, looking through letters and behind furniture. Flowers, unsurprisingly, make an abundant visual motif as part of curtains, ornaments, dishes — an image that certainly holds gendered connotations (as an archetypal symbol of womanhood, or as a reproductive organ), but I can’t fathom the stories behind them yet. At the dining table sits an old man whom I know isn’t part of the audience, and I wonder if the Chinese headlines in the newspapers he’s reading are thematically significant. The size of the garments on the clothesline and the shoes on the shoe-rack suggest that he lives here alone.
I press play again and soon find the narration guiding me around the house, through the kitchen and the backyard, then up the stairs and into each room, imbuing every nondescript corner with the first-person memories of a daughter who had grown frustrated with her domineering father, his violence, and the stronghold of his beliefs on the rest of the family: her brother, shamed for crying and for his interest in art and comics, and her mother, who inadvertently perpetuated patriarchal expectations and values. The daughter shares bittersweet memories about her close bonds with her brother, the chasm between them as they each eventually moved out into separate lives; and with her mother, and their last days together before cancer took her away.
I note the spectral, faraway quality of the father character in these stories and in the house. Some fellow visitors commented later, in Drama Box’s post-experience “Decompression Space”, that the old man in the house had a “loneliness” about him. But largely, I felt a sense of vacancy in his presence, as if he was not really just a man or a father but more an embodiment of the haunting of patriarchy in the domestic realm.
The namelessness and formlessness of the family members do not necessarily suggest a universal quality to their stories, but they allow for my subjectivity to colour my experience of the installation. I feel the weight and the wear of even the sparsest rooms through the memories they hold for the narrator. I find myself mapping my own living space onto this much bigger one, recalling joys and conflicts at my own family dinner-table, how certain rooms feel alternately freeing or stifling, and I process this house as an extension of the invisible bodies and emotional selves that have lived in it. The stories are weaved through with the imagery of flowers, a symbol of tenderness persisting against the severity of patriarchy, but it isn’t the metaphor that makes an impact on me so much as the subtlety with which the seemingly ordinary house begins to vibrate to me through these stories and the quiet lingering of trauma.
Conceptualised by Han Xuemei, Resident Artist at Drama Box, Flowers grew out of an exploration of the roots of sexual violence and assault: the entrenchment of patriarchy as a system in our everyday lives. Han’s exploration finds form through Jean Tay’s writing, sound design by Darren Ng and lighting design by Lim Woan Wen, with narration by Ann Lek channeled through individual cassette players provided for the audience. The post-experience “Decompression Space” constructed by the production team on the porch is as much a part of the work as the installation itself, creating a communal space for the sharing of experiences between visitors and the creators, a form of audience and community engagement characteristic of Drama Box’s practice. The space makes for a fitting point of closure to a work that invites a multitude of readings, questions, concerns and perspectives.
The conversation that took place during my visit included a discussion on the installation’s cultural specificity – the household in Flowers is distinctly Chinese Singaporean. Another visitor asked me if my non-Chinese ethnicity led me to approach the work and its themes differently. While patriarchy plays out differently across cultures, there are several commonalities, so I didn’t find myself alienated on the basis of cultural difference, and much of the narrator’s frustrations with traditional gender roles were relatable. However, I did wonder what Flowers might look like if it were adapted to represent different sets of concerns and issues faced by different cultural communities. It might be an avenue to add a new layer of intersectionality to the work’s feminism. While Drama Box presents work primarily in English and Mandarin, they have made notable efforts towards an intercultural reach, such as Malay- and Tamil-language editions in their Both Sides, Now project, and the foregrounding of an Indian protagonist in Chinatown Crossings (created with dramaturgical input from Nanda Yadav), so I wouldn’t put it past the company’s capabilities.
Drama Box has been known to present work outside of conventional theatre spaces and in the heart of neighbourhoods and community spaces. Flowers has the potential to be developed for presentation to a wider audience across different neighbourhoods and cultural communities. I look forward to further iterations of this simple and unique installation.
Flowers by Drama Box ran from 1 –5 May 2019 at 74 Jalan Kelabu Asap.
Guest contributor Akanksha Raja is an arts writer and formerly ArtsEquator’s Assistant Editor.