Spectrum of Nature in SIFA 2022

ArtsEquator interviews four artists whose works depict nature in different spectrums, at the upcoming Singapore International Festival of Arts 2022.

Singapore International Festival of Arts 2022 is just days away, with a diverse array of programmes, including at the intersections of art and nature. ArtsEquator speaks with four participating artists, each of whose works depict nature in various forms. Their responses have been slightly paraphrased for brevity and clarity.

Natural History: Marcus Ng, The Last Island

In his essay The Last Island, on Ubin by Drama Box, writer, researcher and curator Marcus Ng discusses Singapore as an archipelago of islands, what we have lost of this natural history, and what persists.

1. You juxtapose “what passes for island life in the city, where everything is a given” with “what it meant to live, literally, on an island that enjoys no quarter from the elements”. What are the ways in which both abundance and lack, or absence, are part of our natural history

These lines arose from a gulf between modern, urban Singapore (where nearly every aspect of life, including the ‘natural’ spaces, is laid out before you, as part of a place that is planned to ensure that people have all the amenities they need) and a place such as Ubin, one of our small islands, where one cannot help but face the forces of nature untempered by urban interventions: tides that regularly claw at Ubin’s unreclaimed shoreline and coastal houses; simple ‘lacks’ such as unlit country roads and unpaved tracks, to the simple inability to access ‘basic’ aspects of city life such as convenience stores, clinics, mobile services, etc.

2. How does the act of making the journey from the mainland to an offshore island make concrete, our longing for “a sense of islandness”?

The sheer act of taking a boat to Ubin reminds us that Singapore is also an island, hemmed by water and subject to its whims, despite all our efforts to push the sea back through land reclamation and in our mental spaces – how often do we feel that we live on an “island”?

This “sense of islandness” could refer to the “glorious” isolation that being on an island entails, the feeling that one has escaped the confines and demands of the “mainland”, and the freedom that awaits this release. But it could also work the other way, if one sees an island as a ‘prison’, limited by its sheer lack of size and constrained by the sea around it, which also governs the means to reach and flee such a place.

3. What do you think is the future of “islandness” for and around Singapore, and for people in (on) Singapore?

I hope it means a growing ability to look outward, towards Singapore’s own shores, islands and waters, to see how these ‘marginal’ (in both senses of the word) places matter in the making of modern Singapore and still hold meaning for a population seeking spaces – open, unreclaimed and untamed – that are still subject to nature and the elements.

A further step would be also that people recognise (and rediscover) the surrounding archipelago as a historically maritime ‘hinterland’ for people in the strait, and a network of isles to which Singapore is intimately connected.

Natural Beauty: Harry Frederick, MEPAAN

Sarawak-based indigenous filmmaker Harry Frederick Diglin is part of the large-scale multimedia performance MEPAAN. He shares how this work combines music, fashion and lens-based mediums to evoke the natural beauty of Southeast Asia’s rainforests, and the rituals of the region’s native peoples.

1. How would you describe your role in this process of drawing out the rituals of Southeast Asia, and our connections with nature, in MEPAAN?

I use film to showcase the beauty of one of our many indigenous communities’ cultural traditions that have been passed down generations – and how that links to our way of life, and our natural environment.

2. What are some aspects of the spiritual and cultural nuance embedded in Southeast Asian native cultures that you were particularly interested in sharing, or wanted to incorporate in the piece?

I wanted to share how much time we have left to receive passed-down knowledge from our elders, who still hold the key to our cultural identity, who we are. We need to take the time we have to learn and do something about it. So, I’m happy I get to highlight the story of an elder and her grandson, who is going to be a future elder.

3. How does the stark, industrial, cavernous Pasir Panjang Power Station complement and contrast the work’s celebration of the natural?

With all the intricate, differing elements coming together for this show, the audience’s imagination will be transported to our rainforest in the region, particularly Sarawak and Borneo. The mammoth space has an effect like when you are in a rainforest, surrounded by giant, ancient trees, making you feel tiny. This will make for an interesting contrast.

4. Does modernisation offer any potential for the future of indigenous practices in relation to nature, in Southeast Asia?

Globally, people are starting to understand that the so-called modern way of life is not sustainable for us and for this earth we inhabit. For generations, we have always been taught to respect our environment, take only what we need, never let anything go to waste, and to be there for our wider community. These are some of the universal values that are now more important than ever. Who says our original way of life isn’t relevant today and for the future?

Rugged Nature: Kaylene Tan & Paul Rae, Devil’s Cherry

Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae, formerly of Singapore performance company spell#7 return with Devil’s Cherry, a fantastical tale of desire and escape. They discuss how the rugged Australian Outback, the setting for this new work, reflects the emotional terrain of their protagonists.

1. The Australian Bush has long been mythologised as wild and rugged terrain. How does it reflect and oppose the protagonists’ personal demons and relationship in Devil’s Cherry?

In Devil’s Cherry, Debbie and Mo (Neo Swee Lin and Lim Kay Siu) are two Singaporeans drawn to the Australian landscape’s beauty, vastness, the abundance of nature. For them, it’s about freedom and escape from Singapore and their mundane existence. But when they are removed from what’s familiar to them, from routine and ritual, their personal demons surface.

The physical condition of the land in all its beauty, harshness and cruelty brings out their demons, but also what lies beneath. Modern Australia was built on the dispossession of Indigenous people: it is a haunted place, though even how this is marked and acknowledged is contested.

2. The protagonists have been described as “two Singaporeans who have snapped, in a way”. How do you think urban Singaporeans relate to — or not — to such rugged nature as the Outback?

With the pandemic and the current re-opening, there has been a yearning for escape, and travel. What we are tapping into and what Singaporeans can relate to is that desire to escape.

As for the bush, it isn’t all rugged all the time. We have been fascinated by the bush at the city fringes, more than the vast desert outback of the tourist guides. Such environments get at more subtle vulnerabilities: losing your way on a forest path, or getting dehydrated because you didn’t bring enough water. Those are the vulnerabilities nearest to the surface, especially for city-dwellers: the merest scratch, and we bleed all kinds of needs, desires and anxieties.

3. This play interestingly subverts the stereotype of the Devil by suggesting his cherry is ripe for the picking. What do you want to say about human nature with such a take?

‘Devil’s Cherry’ is a folk name for the poisonous plant Belladonna, or Deadly Nightshade. It’s an invasive species, brought to Australia and other parts of the world by settlers and traders. The theme of poisoning and toxicity is present in the show.

While it’s convenient to make reference to the Devil, we’re less interested in the supernatural entity or tool of morality, and more interested in the word as the name we give to the effect of countless human actions, few of them unambiguously evil, which accumulate over time to create malign outcomes and cruel and brutal behaviours.

This speaks to a strand of Australia’s past, and perhaps of the history of all nation states, especially those marked by colonialism and its legacies. But it also speaks to the interventions we might make into such chains of negation. Just as there is darkness, we also want to believe that there is love, and with loss, there is also recovery.

4. What can audiences expect from the bare-bones staging of Devil’s Cherry in the atmospheric Pasir Panjang Power Station?

An immersive audio and visual headphone theatre experience that is both epic and intimate. We’re playing with scale – the industrial site’s vastness, the setting of the Australian landscape, and the characters’ innermost thoughts. The soundscape is atmospheric and inspired by nature, and we’re playing some gothic outback blues songs by Australian musician CW Stoneking. The play deals with quite dark themes, but audiences can expect playfulness, humour and magic in the treatment.

Altered Nature: Tai Shani, The Neon Hieroglyph

Turner Prize award-winning artist Tai Shani’s The Neon Hieroglyph is a fantastical filmic performance that takes on the unlikely subject of ergot (a fungus that grows on common grains, linked to mass hallucinations in Europe) poisoning. She shares how altered nature empowers us to imagine speculative, radical futures.

1. What drew you to the unlikely and obscure subject of ergot poisoning?

I’ve always been quite interested in countercultural histories, through which I also became more interested in forgotten or marginalised histories. In my previous projects, I became interested in a very speculative kind of queered idea of feminism and what such history could be.

I was seeking some kind of agent to allow me to discuss what I’m interested in, in a speculative, kind of fantastical way, but also something material — people that experienced ergot poisoning got otherworldly visions. All across the globe, we have psychoactive plants, animals. Many indigenous cultures have psychoactive agents at the nexus of their cosmologies. All this about ergot just drew me to it.

2. The Neon Hieroglyph suggests the power and potential of nature, “from the cellular to the planetary”. What can altered states reveal to us?

I’ll never advocate for drugs but I do advocate for thinking in an “altered states” way. A lot of people who experience psychedelics talk about feeling a kind of connection where we are more accountable to each other.

I think about this sense of unity or collectivism.

Why are we here? Where are we going? What happens? These [questions] are hardwired into human existence. In the last few years, there has been a shift to looking at what the potential of altered states to answer them could be.

3. In reality and in your speculative works, how do you envision the relationship between humans and nature? How does each alter the other?

I’m of the school of thought that doesn’t see a big difference between humans and nature. We are nature as well.

We can’t discuss treating nature better without thinking about how capitalism not only creates behaviours around consumerism but also how labour is alienated, how poverty is unacceptable… White supremacy, the climate crisis, are all connected to broader frameworks of oppression and injustice. I’m very against the idea of isolating [human-nature relationships] as a thing to be fixed. Obviously, we need to address this as a matter of critical urgency, but through an intersectional lens. If not, issue-based work is just lip service.

4. What kinds of adaptations did you make to this new iteration of The Neon Hieroglyph, created for SIFA 2022?

It has more to do with how it’s presented, than the content. We are working with Jo Kukathas and it’s a different staging to how I previously did it. The changes we made are really technical. We redesigned the sound and re-rendered a lot of CGI to make it better.

5. How do you hope viewers will feel after experiencing The Neon Hieroglyph?

I hope it gives us a sense of hopefulness, and gives fullness to the idea that at some point in the trajectory of civilisation, we will live with pleasure being more important than gain. We can imagine ourselves socially organised in a different way. 

The Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2022 runs from 20 May to 5 June. There is an early-bird promo for the shows, with 20% savings for tickets from now till 10 April (extended). For the SIFA 2022 programme line-up, please click here. Some programmes from Life Profusion can already be accessed here

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About the author(s)

Aditi Shivaramakrishnan (she/her/hers) works as an editor, writer, arts manager and speech-to-text-interpreter in Singapore.

She has been published in ArtsEquator, gal-dem, The New Paper, Portside Review and SINdie, and has conducted qualitative research, edited art books, comics and young adult fiction titles, developed educational programmes, managed marketing and communications, created content, done live note-taking, and moderated events for organisations including AWARE, Difference Engine, Epigram Books, Equal Dreams, Facebook, National Gallery Singapore, Objectifs Centre for Photography and Film, and the Singapore International Film Festival.

Find her at www.aditishiva.com.

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