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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Harrowing and sublime: Topography of Breath 2.0 by Pat Toh

By Chan Sze-Wei
(739 words, 4-minute read)

In grainy close up, we see segmented views of one woman, fighting to breathe with every fibre of her sinewy body. She grunts, writhes, sweats, hyperventilates. Her body multiplies by video effect but perhaps also by mass audience hallucination. 

Depending on which way you lean, Pat Toh’s Topography of Breath 2.0 is a superhuman spectacle of suffering; kinky in a terrifying way; a cry for survival in an onslaught of social pressure and anxiety. Or all of the above.

Toh performed a pre-lockdown live iteration of this piece early this year for the Asian Film Archive’s State of Motion 2020: Rushes of Time programme. In that edition Toh performed in a bright, spartan Depot Road Warehouse, in front of a grid of photographs of her own body. 

This new version of Topography of Breath, a one-off opening performance for OH! Open House “Days – and Counting” programme, was created instead as a live-for-livestream performance – one of a growing number of online works that emphasise that the action and camera angles seen by the online audience occur in real-time as they watch. (Other recent movement-based examples that come to mind are xhe (online) by Daniel Kok and Miho Shimizu, and Live Action Relay by Sue Healey.) This can revive some of the thrill of live theatre and performance, and for Toh, this sense of liveness is particularly acute – when she performs her extreme breath-pumping and muscle-tensing for live audiences, there are often concerns that she may push herself past her limits into physical collapse. That tension was retained in this livestream.

The screen format works in Toh’s favour as the earlier live performance had been quite devoid of theatrical devices or special effects. She chooses to situate the livestream performance in a cinematic, smoky black box, and starts out hanging in a suspension harness. Close-up camera angles deliver a discomfiting intimacy and disorientation. The strangeness is further magnified by live video effects that multiply and fracture the visuals of Toh’s pumping and fighting body. Echoes of Eadweard Muybridge’s early motion studies merge with the distortion of virtual reality effects, immersing the viewer in an experience that is at once viscerally corporeal and digitally splintered.

Still from Topography of Breath 2.0.

 

What is all the struggle about? An ominous male voice (Rizman Putra) documents the action in snippets but gives no clue of its motivation. “Hair, wet. Mouth, open.” He objectifies the action, while it seems that the female body cannot speak – she emits only guttural syllables and tortured breath. At just one point midway through the piece does Toh’s own voice explode out of her body. She delivers a hellish, garbled monologue of compulsive anxiety to an iPad. Its live camera relays an enormous rictus of lips, teeth and saliva, projected on the wall behind her. In the torrent of words, I hear a very personal account of terror, body insecurity, overproductivity, and isolation. 

After Toh flings herself repeatedly against a glass surface, then collapses in a fetal huddle on the floor, the male voice returns. “You devour yourself… Kiss, kiss, kiss.” The role of this voyeuristic male gaze remains unclear at the end of the piece, but a cacophony of female voices take over as Toh’s exhausted, self-soothing form fades from view. The female voices (Toh’s and others) reiterate slightly more coherent accounts of overproductivity, perhaps juxtaposing the invisibility of female labour against male pleasure and male repose.

When the intense corporeality and jagged breath offer ample readings, a surfeit of text, context and peripheral voices becomes a stumbling point. It is difficult to give myself permission to indulge in the banality of first-world uninfected-person problems at this time. But I can accept a sense of anguish and physical struggle as universal currency.

Toh was catapulted to the notice of theatre audiences in 2012 when her magically bizarre play Pretty Things was a three-nomination black swan at the Life Theatre awards. The series of works that came after – on the female fighter, muscularity, the breath as a pump, measurement of the body and its extreme limits –  didn’t quite seem to make a mark, but an important turning point was an encounter with Brussels-based choreographer Arco Renz, who encouraged Toh’s move away from dramatic premises towards a dramaturgy of the corporeal. That long research has matured in Topography of Breath 2.0, a breakthrough of harrowing and sublime proportions, at a moment in time where pandemic circumstances make all of these aspects painfully relevant.


Topography of Breath 2.0 was streamed on SISTIC Live on 28 Oct 2020, as part of OH! Open House’s “Days – and Counting” Season 1 programme.

Guest contributor Chan Sze-Wei is a dance maker, performance maker and sometime trouble maker. Her practice for the stage and screen is grounded a somatic approach focused on perception, sensation and the organic knowledge of the human body, coupled with an interest in the politics of the body.

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