As part of new restrictions imposed by the state to curb and safeguard against the actual or perceived “corrosive” influence of performance art in 1994, a decade-long ban was placed on the art form - a genre that for all intents and purposes remain valid and pervasive in the art world since the 20th century.
In this move to curtail the immediacy of the performing body presented to a live audience, and thereby limit the freedoms the medium enabled and had to offer, artists were required to either submit a script (an antithesis to the art form) or provide (an unaffordable) SGD10,000 deposit to secure the necessary licensing for intended performances. This seismic shift has since been recognised as one of the most important ruptures in Singapore’s art history, bringing about a form of disembodiment that produced a distinctly Singaporean cultural artefact - the absent body of performance. Placed in such an artistic conundrum, it posed the challenge if any performance is possible under the gaze of the State, even that of an absent body? How is performance art to be a fixed script?
Using the very tool of censorship, His Mother is a Theatre created an intentional mis-take of this new law to reinstate the censured body back into display by submitting the body as a fixed script written in black human hair, not to the police for licensing, but to the public in Singapore's de facto community space - the shopping centre (Pacific Plaza).
In this subversion of appearances, two seamlessly joined black garments rise in confrontation on opposing walls, draped over a table with an array of hollowed out bread loaves that were lit from within, causing them to both glow and release an aroma of toast; overhead, a baby rocker agitates the lids of small woks to create clanging sounds - cumulative tiers of the visual, auditory, and olfactory through which an/other is sensed. Using hair as a key component for its disembodied performance, a vertigo of words groomed out of human hair expand in ever-increasing circles on the floor to restore the body’s legitimate manifestation. These terms depict the inner theatre of the female body that a phallicised male order either obscures in euphemism or ‘rehabilitates’ in science: “clitoris,” “labia,” “mammary glands,” “uterus,” “ovary”, “cervix”, “ovaries,” including also bodily conditions and expulsions such as “menstruation” “amniotic fluid”, “placenta”, “orgasm”, “oedipal” or “castration.”
His Mother is a Theatre reeks of the body’s presence by the very fact of its absence. A self-authoring body without boundaries, it has transcended the very skin that contains it. An open interior whose insides have turned outside, an armour spilled and laid bare on the floor, not so much out of control but rather, beyond the control of the state’s attempt to contain it in its “proper” place. A broken body performing a fragmented message to the Singapore state.
As a “bodily event”, the multi-sensory installation interrogated the acts of seeing, gazing and beholding the other. In disjointed pieces, the work enacts a theatre of disclosure where by invoking parts of the body in isolation from the whole, it resembles the close-up anatomical approach of the pornographic, science or medicine, thus recalling Josef Ng’s similarly decontextualised back in the widely disseminated and weaponised press photo, calling into question the way the State strives to make art objects become a ‘safe’ way to ‘capture’ and own the body’ as well as its performance, and over which a kind of likeness is imposed so as to control its social and political “reproduction.” Against this backdrop of heightened moral policing during its making and presentation, His Mother is a Theatre induced a counter-performance by the viewer who in reading the hair script, becomes accountable for the conjuring of this explicit imagery.
Framed in an empty shop lot in Pacific Plaza, the installation presents the body’s interior as an exterior, in a space and as a space, that one enters, referencing not only 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 at Parkway Parade on the East Coast where Ng’s Brother Cane took place, and which led to the decade-long proscription of performance art from 1994 -2004.