By Daniel Teo
(1,018 words, 4-minute read)
When the tour party assembles for Brian Gothong Tan’s The Swimming Pool Library exhibition, I realise I am likely the oldest person in the group. Our tour leader, Elijah Tay (pronouns “they”/“them”), introduces themselves and announces they had just turned 20.
Just great, my mid-30s self thought.
When I had arrived at 72-13 earlier for the exhibition, the last thing I’d expected to feel was – old. But here I was, surrounded by young people who didn’t know the cultural references of my recently departed youth.
“This exhibit is inspired by Beautiful Boxer,” Tay says in front of a pink boxing ring taking centre stage in 72-13’s Black Box. “I don’t know Beautiful Boxer. Do any of you?” Judging by the lack of response from the group, no one else had seen Ekachai Uekrongtham’s 2003 biopic of a transitioning Thai boxer.
There were several more instances like this during the tour: “How do you pronounce Leslie Cheung’s name?” at a projection of Cheung’s and Tony Leung’s characters from the iconic 1997 Hong Kong film Happy Together. “Has anyone played with paper dolls before?” at an army of cardboard characters.
As I skulked around the fringes of this youthful group, I pondered the depths of the generation gap. I wondered, “Will they get any of this?”
The Swimming Pool Library is Tan’s first outing as the director of a three-year Artistic Atelier with T>:Works. Given carte blanche, the multimedia artist created an exhibition that was a personal statement on masculinity and queerness, and a showcase of his fine arts and film background.
The first set of chaptered exhibits, laid out in the foyer, feels like a museum. Here, I encounter elements of Tan’s youth, or his age of “queer awakening” as Tay puts it. The exhibit titled Chapter 2: Ephemera is particularly candid, with journal entries, love letters and photographs from Tan’s youth sealed in a glass display cabinet.
Other exhibits here are presented in a variety of media, such as comic book panels, analogue photography and View-Master reels, which would stoke the nostalgia of any child of the ‘80s and ‘90s.
The second half of the exhibition, in 72-13’s Black Box, should be familiar to anyone who’s seen last October’s live performance also titled The Swimming Pool Library. The set from the performance is re-purposed here, white-tiled architectural pieces of the eponymous public swimming pool complex, dimly lit in garish pinks, purples and blues. Tan’s more recent artistic explorations are in evidence here, with exhibits featuring 3D-printed sculptures and video design.
I get this queerness presented in The Swimming Pool Library. This queerness discovers searing desire in the cold and wet. This queerness finds clandestine love in semi-public spaces. This is queerness pre-social media, pre-Pink Dot, pre-pandemic.
What I don’t entirely get is my Gen-Z tour guide and their counterparts, and I don’t mean that in a dismissive way.
I admire how Tay is able to rattle off content and trigger warnings with ease. I marvel at their courage for protesting against transphobia early last year. At the exhibition, they sport a T-shirt declaring “Not a public assembly. Just an individual in a t-shirt.”
“Nice fingernails,” Tay quips at a male-presenting visitor with painted nails. This generation’s modes of sartorial self-expression are a wonder.
At an exhibit featuring six figurines in a bright blue pool, Tay reports that Tan illustrated equality by having three masculine figurines and three feminine ones. They promptly retort, “But I believe equality is not bound by the gender binary.” This is met by a chorus of nodding heads.
I especially like it when Tay shares their personal stories of queerness, which possess a raw, rambling quality. In one instance, Tay speaks at length about an incident in school when they had been censured for sitting in a non-ladylike fashion. They conclude that they had been “gaslighted”, a word that was never part of my vocabulary at their age.
Next to Tay’s ungainly, unvarnished stories, Tan’s work almost seems clinical. Artefacts locked in glass cases. Photographs carefully arranged in see-through drawers. A line of open photo albums begging to be flipped through but guarded by a sign declaiming “Please do not touch the artwork”.
The only time I am invited to touch the artwork is to advance the photo reel of a View-Master for a series of images featuring Irfan Kasban, one of the actors from the live performance, and a male companion, in intimate poses. But even here, I am part of the machinery, not the art. A pot of sanitising wipes next to this exhibit reminds me to clear all traces of myself.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much from an exhibition. But, in a hopeless bid of self-validation, I find myself willing the art to do the impossible—to reach across the intergenerational chasm. Confronted by two distinct generations of queerness, I wondered what is the conversation between them? Need there even be one?
“I have nothing to value-add,” Tay chirps during their introduction of an exhibit. They make the remark three times throughout the entire tour.
I envy the way queer youths like Tay identify and express themselves—they have a capacity for complexity, fluidity and authenticity that boggles my mind. They seem less bound by the cages of the past. While their forebearers learnt to make queer art within state-sanctioned boundaries, and worked with and within structures to further queer rights, I am hopeful that this generation, if left unsullied and unburdened by the past, will have new ideas, new fights, and new ways of propelling all of us forwards.
During the tour of Tans’ exhibition, there are living sculptures, performers who wordlessly pose next to or within each exhibit. Tay instructs us not to speak to them, but it’s okay to take pictures for our own social media.
Perhaps that’s how queer history should be viewed—to be looked at and admired—but one should exercise discretion as to whether to take on old fights and burdens. Perhaps it’s not so much about passing on the torch, but letting it die out, so we can help our youths build a damn bonfire.
The Swimming Pool Library (Exhibition) by Brian Gothong Tan and T:>Works takes place from 6 to 20 January 2022 at 72-13. 1 to 8pm (Tuesdays to Saturdays), noon to 6pm (Sundays). Admission is free with registration.
Daniel Teo is a freelance writer who writes about art, design, lifestyle and personal development. He writes about property and interiors on @stayingonthehill.
Daniel is also interested in theatre dramaturgy. He was the dramaturg of Being: 息在 by 微 Wei Collective presented at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2022. He was also co-editor of the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network e-publication ADN Re/View.
Previously, Daniel worked at Centre 42, a theatre development centre, as a researcher, archivist and documenter.