30 Dec 00


Taking Stock

The irony of no art


What a way to cap 2000. Rather than No Art, More Arts was the real buzzword this year. However, quantity did not always mean better works


By Clarissa Oon


A LOOSE grouping of Singaporean artistes decided to observe a No Art Day (NAD) yesterday, but at least one dance choreographer was left in the dark about the point of the event.


The Southern Arts Society Dance Troupe's Tay Hee Ngerng moaned that the lighting designer of her concert, held last night, quit because of NAD. She had to hire a new one at the last minute.


Nor could she cancel the show because some tickets had been sold even before the idea of NAD was announced last month.


The concept of not producing art in order to reflect on its value was lost on her as well as others like a cappella group Es'Choir and Action Theatre.


Both went ahead with their concert and rehearsal, respectively, last night.


As a collective action by mostly theatre and visual artistes against what they saw as a history of censored art works and art forms here, No Art Day was a milestone in Singapore's arts scene, especially given that the authorities did not censure, but in fact condoned, it.


But its too-clever, ironic nature - akin to saying no when you really mean yes - also made it very exclusive, understood only by a select group of artistes and individuals.




AS AN event rounding off 2000, No Art Day was ironical in another, unintended respect - this year was really one of unprecedented activity in the Singapore arts world.




First came the windfall in arts funding - a $50 million increase over five years, according to the Renaissance City Report.


Announced in March, it was the first systematic plan by the Ministry of Information and the Arts to turn Singapore into an arts city.


With the money, the National Arts Council (NAC) was able to beef up arts scholarships and create a new fund for Cultural Medallion winners.


Its biggest pay-off this year was the $3.8 million given to 17 theatre, dance, music and visual arts organisations to cover up to 30 per cent of their expected annual budget.


Observers note that this marks no less than a paradigm shift in arts funding: investing in the long-term growth of arts groups and not just individual productions.


In addition, the Singapore International Foundation also launched a new grant scheme in July to promote Singapore's image overseas.


It was the arts which reaped the most from this scheme. TheatreWorks' inter-cultural production Desdemona and the Singapore Literature Society were among the recipients of more than $60,000 disbursed in total to travelling arts projects.




There was also the sheer volume and range of arts activities going on here.


Throughout this year, there were 10 different arts festivals including the major Singapore Arts Festival. Singaporeans had a total of 3,900 performances and 500 exhibitions to choose from. This was an increase from a total of 4,171 performances and exhibitions in 1999.


This year's magic date was Oct 18 - a Wednesday.


That day, three productions - Under The Last Dust, a wordless physical theatre piece by The Necessary Stage; a stage version of homegrown film Mee Pok Man; and A Theory Of Everything, an Asian-American play by the Singapore Repertory Theatre - opened at three different venues.


At the same time, for the indie-hearted, there was the second annual Worms Festival - a freewheeling medley of short film screenings, poetry readings and installation art exhibitions - over at the artist-run Plastique Kinetic Worms gallery. Arts lovers were spoilt for choice.




Just as the authorities were prepared to loosen the purse strings for the arts, they also exercised a lighter touch in managing it.


In January 1994, when artist Josef Ng caused a stir by snipping off his pubic hair in a performance, funding for an entire art form - performance art - was cut by the NAC and Ng was - and is still - barred from practising his art here.


There was also a similar de facto ban on forum theatre - a form in which audiences could act out changes to the plot - on the grounds that both were scriptless public performances.


It was a time of fear and uncertainty for artists.


Just six years later, however, in the year 2000, R(A)-rated plays were performed in the Housing Board heartland without too much fuss, and sex- and gay-themed productions were produced by theatre groups everywhere.


But out-of-bound markers still exist. The authorities made it clear that the one no-go area, in Singapore's multi-racial society, were works that could offend racial and religious sensibilities.


The case in point was Talaq, a play about an Indian Muslim woman in an abusive marriage. It was denied a licence to perform in English and Malay in October so as not to offend Tamil Muslim sensibilities. It was first performed in Tamil two years ago.


Despite the authorities' stand on the play, however, no action has been taken against its theatre group, Agni Koothu, so far.


Nor were attempts made to stop a group of artists from setting up a proposed website to document censored works for research and discussion, including the English script of Talaq.


The Talaq case also sparked off a government review of whether the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (Pelu), which licenses all events ticketed or held in a public space, is the best body to make judgement calls on something more specialised like the arts.


Artistes hope that, instead of Pelu, licensing calls can be made by a citizen body, including representation from the arts community, next year.




'MORE' was, in essence, the buzzword of 2000.


But there is a third irony here because more does not equal better art.


Certainly, that was the case with large-scale productions. Mainstream musicals like the Mandarin Mr Beng and Sampek Engtay - an Indonesian-Singapore collaboration - were let down by a lack of craft and poor singing.


More experimental works like Desdemona, devised in inter-cultural workshops, were an awkward half-way house between didacticism and freewheeling process.


This year, too, saw more newspapers covering the arts than ever before, with news reports and reviews.


Yet, the gap between artistes and the media remained as great as ever.


When news of No Art Day first broke, for example, participating artistes accused the media of sensationalising a day of individual reflection on the arts by calling it a 'protest'.


But with a slippery concept that both takes a public stand and tries to play itself down as a private activity, NAD was not framed clearly to journalists from the start.


Sure, there has been a hive of activity in the arts scene: better arts housing, more full-time performers.


But amid the rat-race for funds and grants, Singapore is still streaks away from a mature, developed arts scene.


Writing, whether for the stage or books or even arts criticism, has generally languished in terms of funding and attention.


Hopefully, 2001 can be more than a year of Art Days - with better communication across artistic cliques and art forms, and more honesty about the works produced.