SURROGATE DESIRES | His Mother is a Theatre 1994 | 5th Passage | Singapore Art Museum CollectionHis Mother is a Theatre 1994 was created as a visual quotation of the compulsory requirement to submit fixed scripts to the police for licensing of all public performances in the aftermath of the media-incited 5th Passage controversy - an event that has settled into the timeline as synonymous with the most significant rupture in Singapore’s art history which saw the government’s swift hand in imposing a de facto ban upon performance art that same year, bringing about a form of disembodiment that produced a distinctly Singaporean cultural artefact - the absent body.  This enforcement of symbolic language in the form of fixed scripts for police vetting in order to regulate and control the bodies of artists who practise performance, an art form that is predominantly embodied and scriptless, became a test of the  psychology of intellectual and creative survival but also the will to re-imagine the incapacitating effects of disembodiment that so painfully belongs to Singapore since. In this crisis of selfhood. creativity, agency and expression, three questions confronted me:

- Can the body be present by the very fact of its absence?            

- Is any performance possible under the exacting gaze and scrutiny of the state, even that of an absent body? 

- How is performance to be a fixed script? 

This triumvirate of seemingly impossible quests became the counter-intuitive cornerstone of my response to the Singapore state, compelling me to invent my own visual grammar for a new disembodied aesthetic, which was hinged upon a fourth question: 

If I am not allowed to use the body in whole, perhaps I can decant and distil its presence into its most potent form so the artwork reeks of the body, not in spite of its absence but because of that very absence? 

His Mother is a Theatre 1994 thus came to be conceptualised as an intentional mis-take of this new law by literally submitting the censured body as the required fixed script, not to the police but to the Singaporean public in public space. Through a subversion of appearances, I re-introduced the expelled body of performance back into the public sphere by creating a self-authoring body that uses its own corporeal materiality, in this case, hair and its inherent DNA, to assert itself. In some societies, hair is separated from the body as part of the sociological or religious ritual of purification, or as intended by Josef Ng in Brother Cane, as a sign of protest which this work references. Here, discarded hair is repurposed as a material of agency through an act of grooming, largely associated with female activity, but which also morphs into authorship (what used to be the domain of the privileged male) - the self-writing of the female body into being, part by part, in all her inner and outer nudity - a manuscript of words that a phallicized male order ‘rehabilitates’ in science (or obscures in euphemism) eg “mammary glands” (instead of “tits”), “vagina” (instead of “pussy”), “womb” and “uterus” (instead of “box” or “oven”), including the body's flows, seepages, expulsions or the psychoanalytic such as “menstruation,” “amniotic fluid,” “placenta” and “milk,” “castration,” and “oedipal," the purpose being not so much to normalise the tabooed body through public inscription, but to restore the body’s legitimate presence by using hair as a key component for its disembodied public performance. This presentation of the explicit female body in fragments and as fragments also created an implicit theatrical space for the spectator to watch as much as to be steeped in - an environment imbued with psychic defence in tension with sheer vulnerability, best captured by Hal Foster as a time when “all those pressured moments when one feels about to shatter.”* This mandatory and equally official hand-written script using human hair as ink was laid out in a vertigo of concentric rings on the floor below a pair of garments that seamlessly morph from one gender into the other as they rose in confrontation on opposite walls. Overhead, a baby rocker in the ceiling lifted and lowered the lids of small iron woks arranged on a centrally positioned table below to produce a cacophony of clanging sounds as four “disembowelled” bread loaves, each heated by light bulbs within, release the aroma of toast. This unbounded body, a body that has not only exceeded its own margins but having transcended its own skin - abject, splayed out, raw - an open interior, vulnerable and turned inside out, is spilt onto the floor of an empty shop lot in Pacific Plaza, 5th Passage’s second home after eviction from Parkway Parade. 

By offering a broken body performing a fragmented message to the Singapore state, His Mother is a Theatre 1994 interrogated the acts of seeing, gazing and beholding the other by offering  with an anatomical approach that also enacted a theatre of disclosure, invoking parts of the body in isolation from the whole not dissimilar to that of scientific study or pornography, but also Josef Ng’s back, widely disseminated press photo that sensationalised his performance. In considering the intense policing during its making and presentation, His Mother is a Theatre 1994 also obtained a counter-performance on the part of the audience who in making a literal and/or figurative reading of the manuscript also cannot help but conjure up the explicit images from the imagery of the text, thus re-assigning the reader/audience as creator of the sexual/ised content instead of the artist. 

His Mother is a Theatre 1994 uses the very same tool of censorship to deliver a faltering message performed by a disjointed body. The work seeks to question the way the State strives to make art objects become a ‘safe’ way to ‘capture’ the body so as to control its cultural expression and production. Encased behind glass windows of an empty shop lot in Pacific Plaza, the body performing its own absence in the installation recalls scenes as diverse as the entertaining distraction of commerce, the diorama of the anthropological museum, a film or stage set, but also, the site of originary crisis - the other shopping centre outside the city at Parkway Parade where 5th Passage hosted Josef Ng’s performance of Brother Cane that spoke so incisively to the homophobia of the media even as it led to the ten-year proscription of performance art from 1994 - 2004.


Hal Foster, Return of the Real, 210, 1996



     © Suzann Victor 2020