Like a radio signal rebounding across time to make another broadcast twenty-one years later, Still Waters 1998 was honoured as the theme of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2019 under the boundary-defying artistic direction of Sean Tobin, attracting international and local theatre practitioners who interpret the original performance-installation through their own genre for a present-day Singaporean public - an audience including current generations who may not necessarily have been cognizant of the draconian circumstances surrounding the visual art scene during its making. 

Still Waters 1998 was an act of social practice steeped in professional and creative risk, using water and the very architecture of the Singapore Art Museum to critique itself, with particular reference to its role as a state-invested interface between her claim as a regional authority on contemporary art in tension with the state of the arts in Singapore at the time. As a newly-minted cultural institution , it has had to carefully choreograph the incompatible pressures of observing and exerting Singapore’s exclusionary stance on performance art locally while (inconsistently) accessioning artworks encoded with the dissenting voices of regional artists into its possession, widely claimed to be “the largest international collection of 20th century Southeast Asian art.”

Inaugurated in 1997, three years after Singapore became the first democracy in the art world to safeguard itself against the actual or perceived “corrosive” influence of performance art by imposing a defacto ban on the entire art form - a genre that for all intents and purposes remains valid and pervasive in cultural production in the art world since the 20th century - the Singapore Art Museum thus found itself as part of this troubling backdrop, with the long shadow of the proscription stretching into perpetuity, so much so that it became critical for a first witness like myself to keep this injustice in view and in dialogue. In my response, Still Waters (between estrangement & reconciliation) 1998 sought to contest the government’s unreasonable attempts to contain and constrain artistic and cultural production by presenting a performance in the second-floor drain of the Singapore Art Museum whilst the ban was still in effect, and hence, illegal.

Of the many cavernous and intimate spaces within the retrofitted colonial architecture of the Singapore Art Museum, my body, deployed as a prospecting and investigative tool, was drawn to the decades-old drain that stood out in humble constrast to the hallowed and sanctified halls on offer to the ARX5 project. For the eye looking for an incidental, non-designated “exhibition” space, this drain overflowed with aesthetic and political richness. For below the everyday display of economic prowess above street level in Singapore lies a complex undergrowth of drains etched into the city surface island-wide. As receptacles, they keep at bay the decay and filth as much as the excess volumes of rain and flood water that cannot be allowed to overflow into the pristine city environment. These shallow, revealing longkangs (drains) feed into deeper ones that, in turn, rush into the gaping canals to divert all forms of abject waste away. With no obvious starting point, they proliferate, bifurcate, interlink and operate from multiple centres, stating its presence everywhere. As a child, I witnessed waste and death drift past in the canals - half-decaying remains, toys to carcasses, flotsam to furniture and uprooted tress, embraced helplessly and lifelessly by the speed of torrential rains. Drains operate as a visible sign of the abject, discouraging any form of proximity by the stench they produce. As metaphorical repositories for society’s overflowing “unconscious,” these longkangs collect, siphon and redirect the polluting, the expired or the “useless” into the watery depths of the  sea around the island. But the abject, like the unconscious, has a persistent way of imposing itself upon us. The very ubiquity of drains is a reminder of the impossibility of disappearance, the futility of evasion. There is no escape, only return. 

Neither truly part of the Museum nor really distinct from it, the second-floor drain is a relic of the tropically-adapted colonial architecture, now bereft of purpose, having been excluded by a continuous barricade of glass around the Museum that controls its internal climate from the vagaries of the external one. The drain, however, is also a leftover from the ambitious cultural enterprise of the recodification of colonial buildings into powerhouses for art and other purposes in Singapore. As part of the legacy of post-independence, these architectural symbols of empire, destined for demolition, or if gutted, would have to be reconfigured as signifiers to brandish a new nation’s longing for the legitimacy of history. In this attempt to register new roles for a select few that have been saved from becoming rubble, the government has had to conflictingly recuperate its past as an instrument for recoding colonialism whilst repackaging past Western hegemony as a period of nostalgia. Relatedly, the consergation of the Singapore Art Museum and its recasting from St Joseph’s Institution, a school for housing the teaching of western religious ideals as part of educating young boys to its current incarnation as a retrofitted venue that holds captive the artistic ideals and objects of the day today signals that even the colonial past could be salvaged  by the colonial elite to meet its newly acquired tast for a “sense of history.”

Outside the control of the Museum, the drain also marks the physical edges of the institution, re-framing the extensive glass walls that separate the inner world of precious art and patrons from the outer world of noise and the threat of humidity from the tropical rains. Through negotiations with ARX5 curator, Joanna Lee, I inverted the drain as a channel into a receptacle for water by blocking its drainage holes as well as installing customised glass dams to do so. Hence, Still Waters 1998 came to be situated literally at the margins of the Singapore Art Museum, a neglected space that meanders around the entire perimeter of the building whilst also representing the physical and symbolic limits of the museum (its architectural footprint). As the Museum architecture strives to keep moisture and water at bay, so too the State seeks to keep performance art out of public discourse by holding the bodies of artists in exile. As the institution maintains its conservation standards with by using sophisticated monitoring equipment to control humidity levels,  Still Waters re-introduces it into the precious environment as risk by reversing the drain’s evacuation function.  The Museum drain was thus repurposed into its very antithesis - a vessel that accumulates water within which a banned art form occurs - and so doing, the artwork, a performance-installation, became a dissenting counter-site hosted by the Museum itself. 

Liminal, and yet a powerful transitional zone, the drain is also a conduit for the most transformative of materials - water. Attempts to control the flow of water, symbolic in its transitory physical states, its precipitation cycles from invisible gas, mist, steam, moisture and humidity to the visibility of clouds, rain, hail and  sun showers that in turn pour into streams, rivers and estuaries that cannot help but collectively flow into the expansive ocean, only to return to the sky, this is but one system amongst vast interlocking systems of energies that is mirrors the way the State seeks to control the flow of concept, critique and intentionality in the art of performance. To freeze performance art out of the public eye and cultural production is like trying to produce seasons of snow and ice in Singapore. Still Waters infiltrated the very portal for art, the Singapore Art Museum, to contest the State’s attempt to outlaw performance by using the very banned art form to do so. As it carries the twin-testimonies of the personal and the professional, it also seeks to reinforce the validity of artistic and cultural production as a means to respond to public crisis and turbulent times with a view of the provisional nature of boundaries (individual, communal or national), and in traversing them, to bring to a head and into public view the threates to individual sovereignty- disembodiment, elision, hidden or obscured histories, the exiled and the fugitive. In this performance, I stepped into the narrow drain of approximately thirty-three centimetres to distribute photographs that have been folded into sampans (boats) and submerged myself lengthwise in the water. Totally isolated, yet completely transparent to the viewers on the other side of the glass walls, every action and expression, overt or nuanced, was visible to them as was theirs to me. Each person reflected in the glass walls allowed for another inversion to show up - here, the Museum that was retrofitted to raise the visibility and prestige of hosting and displaying art became the background for a performance that in turn, drew a counter-performance by the audience as they turned themselves away from the Museum interior, reorienting their gaze from the familiarity of sanctioned art within to face the drain, the artist and the streets below. 

Sensorially, my body was divided into two experiential halves: one ear under the water picked up muffled silence and distorted sounds while the input of sounds into the other ear above water became strangely altered,  morphed with the noise of the traffic and the street. Half the length of my body under the water felt cold whilst the other half above the water felt the warmth of the tropical heat - a confusing blend of half-states that were equally transparent to the audience. During the performance, the water displaced by my body mass as I lowered myself into the drain overflowed  into the internal humidity-free corridor space within the Museum. Like the water secreting through the cracks in the floor as well, and hence its “illegality,” the artwork invites the socio-political and the personal-political to seep in and fill the critical gaps wherever “innocence” is proclaimed.  

Still Waters 1998 was therefore a collection of moisture held for so long in obeisance to the marked and sealed glass borders of the Museum. Made visible by blue pigment, it was located in a brief passageway of sunlight. Where boys once ran to and from classrooms, this archaelogical remnant of the Museum’s colonial past now hosts the consumer of legitimate art who strolls to and from each gallery. I chose this space for its sense of journey, the passing of time and the remaking of histories [vis-a-vis Performance Art]. The shallow pool of blue water provided a site for the re-enactment of a loss of innocence embodied by a performance that operated simultaneously inside and outside the musuem - in-between, nowhere yet mirroring the “fugitive” status of the body and its performance everywhere in Singapore. 

In recognizing the historical significance of Still Waters 1998 and its relevance to new and current generations over two decades through the lens of theatre, the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival of 2019 observed in its event statement that “[w]hile the cultural conditions [in Singapore] may seem different on the surface, more than twenty years after the de facto ban, the questions and tensions - important ones acknowledged in Still Waters 1998 - not only remain, but have become ever more pertinent,” and concluded by posing the following question to its audience, artists and the general public alike:


                       What happens to art when it is carefully regulated and only lives in designated spaces in prescribed and pre-determined ways?

Go Back to Still Waters


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     © Suzann Victor 2020