Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia
Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er

Transgression, triggers, and the thousand cuts of “Blunt Knife”

Views: 1996

By Corrie Tan

(2,700 words, 13-minute read)

Content Warning: Mentions of a sexual relationship involving a teenager

This response contains major spoilers for Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er and A Doll’s House by Theatre of Europe.

Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er
Photo courtesy of Eng Kai Er.

 

Dear Kai,

You invited us to write to you after the performance. So here I am, writing. 

I’ve been thinking about transgression. A friend asked me a few years ago about the kind of performances that have stuck with me, and it sharpened my understanding of my personal tastes in performance. I am drawn to work where there is some kind of participation, an invitation to the audience – sometimes done well, usually done pretty badly – to move from the fringes of the stage and into the spotlight. I am curious about how other audience members respond to the possibilities of narcissistic spectatorship, taking in their delight and their reluctance, their pleasure and their mortification. The work I remember, I told my friend, tends to involve a kind of transgression. The audience is seduced and then betrayed, invited in and then outed. I am reeled in, I relish the performance, and I worry about the ethics of it after. There is a frisson of danger that is deeply pleasurable, a pleasure sticky with guilt. 

So many things come out, leak out, in your confessional solo show, Blunt Knife. I’ve witnessed Blunt Knife twice, and each iteration of your work cut me in different ways. I’ve been struggling with how to write this response to you because two contradictory responses exist within me. And I think part of this struggle is the coexistence of the part of me that is fiercely protective of you – as yourself, because this is a bald and revealing work about your own life, with just the barest of artifices, of interfaces – which is squarely at odds with the part of myself that desires to put myself at a distance in order to make it easier to tell you what I feel (and what I feel so deeply, so unbearably). Because to dissect this show is, by extension, to dissect your life – the decisions you’ve made, your emotional and psychological landscapes – and I’m trying my best to do this in a way that’s fair to you.

When I first encountered Blunt Knife last year, in the Make It Share It studio space, it was a by-invite-only event. Your invitation to every individual in the studio had been personal, private, specific. As we shook off our shoes and stepped through the door you gave each of us one of your twenty medals from your ice-skating teenage years from competitions across Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There was a collective hum of excitement in the room as we turned the medals over in our palms, compared dates and competition titles. It felt like you were inviting us into your home; it felt safe, cocooned, like we were figuring something out together in your living room. 

I never knew you’d been an ice skater. I know you primarily as a performance and movement artist and dancer, and I’ve always been drawn to the way your work asks difficult questions around the politics of the body, touch and tactility, sex and consent – where you’re both a provocateur and facilitator, inviting us to wander into the mist along that border between public and private, of what we’ve come to take for granted, or the socio-political contexts and norms we’ve become habituated to, to relish the discomfort of that strange in-between. 

 

Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

But this marked the first time I saw you taking on a specific incident in your own life. And not in a symbolic way, but in great narrative detail. And not just any incident, not the way you’ve described your work as a life model in posing questions (2019), or shared short anecdotes from your life as a scientist-artist in Xavier le Roy’s Retrospective (2014). Blunt Knife hinges on a revelation most people would find absolutely taboo. It’s an enormous one, the crux of the show, and it’s the reason why the marketing material is deliberately vague, hinting at a controversy without being explicit about it. The show’s content warning is similarly ambiguous – it’s written on a whiteboard at the entrance to the studio space and acknowledges that if one is feeling particularly “vulnerable”, there may be points in the show where one might feel wounded and want to leave the room, and that one is free to do so. I have to say, it’s hard to leave once you’ve begun.

The two versions of Blunt Knife are almost entirely the same – save for the conclusion, which I’ll come to in a bit. But this year, this second time, I am not sitting with a group of your friends and fellow practitioners and holding a space for you, with you. This year, I’m paying attention to other things: the strangers in the room, the people I don’t recognise. I’m wondering how they’ll respond to you. How heavy the burden of already-knowing, how the medal feels around my neck, and the cold tang of metal coming through my shirt and against my skin. 

You ease us into the world of the show – your teenage world. We get to touch various pieces of your skating apparel, the physical residue of a shapeshifting memory: tights so well-worn they’ve lost their elasticity, a tiny dress dripping with sequins, and finally a pair of ice skates, their blades gleaming. You sit in front of us and begin to run the metal blades over your body and I can imagine the blunt edges skimming my skin. Is this what it’s like to feel an echo of a wound from the past, a kind of phantom hurt within the body? Then, projected on the wall behind you, and against the dizzying violin soundtrack of Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill Sonata, we see shaky-cam footage of what must be you as a girl, gliding through the ice rink. The video is so old and so fuzzy we can’t even make out your facial features as you move fluidly through jumps and spins and turns, landing perfectly (to my layman eyes) each time. 

Then we begin to read your text projected on the wall. You write about what ice skating has taught you about the possibilities of your body and about yourself: to take risks with your whole body, to lean into edges, to believe the impossible, to trust like a child. At the same time, you begin to move through the room, first on rollerblades, then on foot, trying to execute the same jumps and turns – but this time on a sprung floor instead of on ice. You can’t spin on a floor, of course, and you fall. Repeatedly. Presumably painfully. Your body slams into the ground and I can feel the vibrations beneath my feet. You’re panting and sweating and shuddering.

 

Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

Then comes the reveal: you were having a sexual relationship with your ice skating coach. You were almost 16 (the age of sexual consent in Singapore), but not quite. He was in his 30s. You say you desired him, and that you loved him, and that the relationship was reciprocal. And I believe you, I do. As the show unfolds, we piece together the highs and lows of your relationship. I’ve never been in the kind of relationship you were in, but I remember my teenage first loves in lurid high definition – I remember my unbridled, inexhaustible love. I had a limitless kind of love, I could give everything, I could be soft and expansive and all-embracing in a way that, as an adult, I no longer can. I could also be obsessive, melodramatic, and absolutely monstrous in my love. I recognised this in your story, how we can be two extremes at once in the same body, and I could understand how a single relationship could be both trauma and transformation, both generous and selfish, both consensual and manipulative. 

But where I had no doubts about last year’s performance, this year I was paralysed by them. There are two moments of participation in this year’s iteration that made me stiffen in my seat. The first is when you ask if anyone in the room had, as a child or teenager, a relationship with a much older authority or leadership figure; or, as a leadership or authority figure, had a relationship with a child or teenager. I’m still grappling with the fact that there were audience members who divulged this information about themselves, with your prompting – and not in a small group of friends, but in front of complete strangers. The second moment, and new to this version, is when you acknowledge that under Singapore’s legal framework, your relationship was illegal and your coach was committing a crime – a plethora of crimes, really, including statutory rape. Then you ask us to mark out on a line across the room, with the ice skating medals you’ve given us, whether we feel that, on one end, the relationship was transcendent and taught you about generosity and your infinite capacity for love, and that if you could love the way you did the world would be a better place; OR, on the other end, that this relationship was, in fact, the sexual abuse of a minor and horrifically traumatic for you, that your coach had taken advantage of you in every possible way. Kai, I wanted to place my medal right at the apex of generosity. I wanted to scream: YES, I BELIEVE IN LOVE. But I don’t know if it was peer pressure, or self censorship, or some other kind of fear, and I placed my medal closer to the centre of the room and slunk back to my seat, feeling that I had betrayed you, had left you to be judged harshly by a public I felt an inordinate desire to shield you from. You regarded our spectrum of medals, skewed that night to the “abuse” side of the room, and blurted out: “Oh no, where did I go wrong?”

I’m going to hide behind theory for a bit. The scholar Jeanie Forte, in writing about women’s performance art, talks about the potential power of confessional and self-revelatory performance, where “performers have used the condition of their own lives to deconstruct the system they find oppressive”. You placed yourself – not a constructed character, not a performative facade – right in that unstable, vulnerable space at the limit of what everyone believes to be true. It’s a deeply moving, enormously courageous stance to take. But it seemed that you didn’t want to be there alone, that you wanted us to agree with you too, and were disappointed when you realised you hadn’t entirely convinced us of the legitimacy of your stance. I wonder if your reaction to the medal spectrum inadvertently revealed that you were trying to present a certain kind of narrative, and that for this show (June 9) in particular it hadn’t worked out the way you’d planned. It made me think about who wields power in a performance space, and if perhaps you were trying to reclaim the power and agency that the law denied you (and continues to deny you), and yet this participatory exercise revealed the limit of that power…

As a ‘critic’, I think I’ve decided to write this deeply conflicted letter to you to avoid making a judgment about your life. But ironically we’re cajoled into passing some kind of judgment in the show – that there is indeed a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’. Beyond that, you wanted – no, you demanded that we be visible about our stances, to reveal closed-off, secret things about ourselves, and it’s possible that some audience members simply weren’t ready to reveal what you were ready to reveal. I think about your insistence that various audience members make themselves known to the public, and I wondered: should we demand exposure? Or should we allow them to come to terms with these personal histories at their own pace? And why is it that you were making this demand in the first place? 

 

Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er
Photo courtesy of the artist

 

I remember watching an adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House in London several years ago that took place in the home of a married couple. We waited under a streetlamp on the corner of the apartment block, and then the twenty of us entered the small flat. The couple knew they’d be hosting a performance in their home. What they didn’t know was that they would be the star performers. Three facilitators deftly directed the couple’s performance as the characters Nora and Torvald whose marriage, as you may already know, doesn’t end well. I remember looking around their living room, then turning to see a row of greeting cards on the windowsill behind me; then realising this couple had gotten married just weeks ago. They were still unpacking their new life together into their new home. 

As Nora and Torvald’s marriage unravelled, you could see every couple in the audience wincing. There’s a scene that takes place in the bedroom, and on their bed were household items and utensils still in plastic, still unwrapped. Torvald has to yell at Nora in a scene; had this husband ever yelled at his wife, in real life? It was the most memorable Doll’s House I had ever seen, and also the most uncomfortable one. Would you go into a couple’s home and make them re-enact a dying marriage, no matter how fictional? Would you not tell them beforehand that’s what you were going to do, in front of twenty strangers? I still can’t make up my mind about that performance, because its power is tied to its transgression, the tension between the fictional marriage and its possible consequences on the real one, and its seeming lack of regard for the fallout.

When I think about A Doll’s House and Blunt Knife, I think about what we consider to be the ethics of participation in performance. Over the past two years there’s been a heightened discussion around what we consent and do not consent to do; in certain cases this has been a helpful methodology in thinking about how visceral performances may reopen deep wounds in certain audience members, and to think about how we can be careful and gentle with those who need it. I’m caught in a bind here – because if you’d been more explicit about the content of your work, would some of its incredible, transgressive power have been lost? Your coach is no longer active in the scene, he’s left the country, and you ask us not to seek some kind of retributive justice on your behalf. I remind myself that you’re not making a case for all relationships with children/teenagers, and that you conclude that these relationships should be examined on a case-by-case basis. But then I think about the other cases that are about a more powerful person exploiting or dominating a younger, more subordinate person through callous, selfish violence. What if some of them were in the room? Would they have split open a scar they may have tried their whole life to heal? I think my dilemma, and my unsettled heart, comes from the ambush after we reveal our stances to you, that you (perhaps inadvertently) invite our opinion only to invalidate it if we disagree with you (which, in my experience, makes those who disagree with you want to disagree even more).

I loved hearing you tell your story, how you confronted us with the possibilities of relationships and love that we’d never even begun to imagine. I wanted to be there for you if you were trying to make some kind of peace with this period of your personal history in the telling of it. I hope it was cathartic for you. I wanted to support you if you’d already come to your own conclusions and were trying to invite others to consider your interpretation of events – the generous, emancipatory, transformational journey you’ve taken, and the difficulties you went through to allow you to emerge triumphant, which I felt with my whole heart. And I wanted to have a conversation with everyone afterwards, in the room together with you, to piece together the decisions we’d made and how everyone felt, and maybe address some of the conflicting feelings thick in the air. But the studio was already emptying out. So I gave you a hug, and tried, within it, to give you everything that writing cannot give.

Yours,

Corrie


Blunt Knife by Eng Kai Er ran from June 5 to 9 at P7:1SMA’s studio space in Stamford Arts Centre.

Corrie Tan is resident critic and contributing editor with ArtsEquator.

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