Singapore's Lit Up festival restates art

Organisers of Singapore's Lit Up festival say blending different genres is the key to the future of art, writes Clara Chow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 July, 2013, 11:11pm

An independent arts festival in Singapore is pairing up artists from different genres this week, creating strange bedfellows and reaping new multidisciplinary works.

Lit Up, running from Friday to next Sunday, will see performances, workshops and talks by 50 artists at the new Aliwal Arts Centre, a former school building converted by the National Arts Council to house arts groups and individuals.

Among the offerings are "She Walks Like a Free Country", a series of solo, duet and group performances by Jennifer Champion, Nabilah Husna, Raksha Mahtani and Victoria Lim from Singapore; and Elaine Foster, Sheena Baharudin and Melizarani T. Selva from Malaysia. "Un-Ending Literature of Singapore " is a durational reading of Singapore writing by Lee Wen, best known for his Yellow Man performance art pieces, working with editor-author Ng Yi Sheng.

Initiating new writers into the joys of flash fiction is Samantha De Silva in a two-hour workshop that will put participants through the paces of character, plot, setting, pacing and dialogue.

And while "Basic Lettering Strokes for Beginners" may not seem very performative, workshop leader Vikas Kailankaje, 29, the architecture-trained principal designer of Studio VBK, says it is a deliberate skill involving basic things such as "not tightening your wrist".

Started by non-profit arts organisation Word Forward in 2009, Lit Up was initially a literary festival, with a focus on local writing. About 1,000 people turned up. In 2011, a small exhibition of works by local artists ran alongside the festival.

"That was when we realised that Lit Up could be for more than writers," says Marc Nair, festival artistic director. "That's when we decided to call it a multidisciplinary platform." Last year, 2,500 people attended the indie shindig.

"This year, we decided to take it further," adds Nair, 31, who is also an associate artist with Word Forward.

Hence, the collaborations, subtitled "Tête-à-tête", between the diverse artists - musicians, photographers, poets and actors among them. Invited by the organisers to work together, these duos were given a broad brief: look at all facets of the notion of "progression", from the positive to the subversive. "Singapore is a city that is continually striving, that does not cease to build and improve on itself," says Nair. "But inevitably, things get left behind. Even art may lose its voice, in order to fit into this idea of ceaseless economic progression.

"We want to question how art responds to the idea of progression in this city, looking at the integration of new migrants into the country, political changes, rising inflation and living costs. The acrimony of the space becoming more crowded, harder to breathe."

Indeed, works in the festival line-up reflect this theme and other uniquely Singaporean obsessions. Photographer Sufian Samsiyar's project involves taking photos of the area around Aliwal Arts Centre, in an area of the city rich in Arab and Muslim heritage, and then manipulating them to look as if they are disintegrating - a veiled comment, perhaps, on the price of rapid urban redevelopment there.

It's always a challenge to understand how artists from another genre work. It takes more than a few sessions to break the ice
Marc Nair, festival director

Nair has teamed up with teacher-dramatist Koh You for Moktar, a play that grew out of a published poem of Nair's, The Woodcutter, based on a Bangladeshi worker he met in a park. In the show, two drunks on the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) train are talking about Moktar, who is occupying the seat in the carriage reserved for elderly, handicapped or pregnant passengers. Moktar never speaks, however, except in poetry.

The play, Nair says, "talks a lot about the 'otherness' of these migrants, and also about the capacity of migrants to say something beautiful about the country".

The audience will get to read the poem before the show to see how the performance fleshes it out.

Sylvia, devised and performed by Deborah Emmanuel and Lee Jing Yan, tackles the issue of Singaporean families' reliance on foreign domestic helpers - in a sci-fi setting.

"We didn't want to play a character that we'd end up typecasting. We didn't want to have it being humorous when in fact it's a serious issue. So we came up with an idea of Sylvia as an android, as an allegory," says Emmanuel, 24.

Sylvia may seem similar to Ilo Ilo, a film about the relationship between a Singapore family and their maid, which won Singapore filmmaker Anthony Chen the Camera d'Or at Cannes in May. But Emmanuel and Lee say the timing is purely coincidental.

"I know Anthony Chen, and we've spoken about it [the film] before," says Lee, 22. "What we're trying to do is very different from what he's trying to do. It's different enough in that we can still do it and people won't think of Ilo Ilo.

"We wrote the play even before Ilo Ilo's win, so it's too late to change now," he adds with a grin.

Nair sees multidisciplinary works as the way to the future: "Different artists have different ways of working. So it's always a challenge to understand how artists from another genre work. It takes more than a few sessions to break the ice. It's about compromise and learning to accept different styles. Only then can you come up with a form in which everyone's voice can be heard, without privileging one form over another."