Sunday, March 6, 2016

FOI 10: Day 1: Lina Adam, Ma Ei, and AOr NOpawan

Lina Adam (SG) – Culinary History of Singapore Performance Art Re-Presented
Ma Ei (MM) – Searching Of Nothing
AOr NOpawan (TH)– I Will Follow You Into The Dark

FOI 10 is unique this year due to the fact that Jason Lim, the organizer, deliberately invited only women to perform.  While Lim has not dubbed this iteration of FOI as a “feminist” performance event, the presence and participation of so many international women artists cannot help but recall the history of feminist performance art and the importance of women’s voices for this experimental medium which is based in the corporeality and temporality of the body.  In the 1970s, women artists working in the west turned to performance art because of its immediacy and existence in everyday life. Artists such as Linda M. Montano, Carolee Schneemann, Barbara T.Smith, Marybeth Edelson, Lorraine O’Grady, Howardina Pindell, and Suzanne Lacy wanted to say something about the treatment and representation of women in contemporary culture. They wanted to challenge the social and cultural inequities that were accepted as given by performing and iterating feminine identities that challenged sexist assumptions and patriarchal language. Often this challenge was mounted against the art world, which, in spite of its leftist sympathies and working class/hippie allegiance, remained divided along gender lines. Feminist performance artists introduced topics that were considered inappropriate for the art world, such as women’s spirituality, rape, sexuality, menstruation, childbirth, childcare, and lesbian identity.

Forty years later, the concerns of women performance artists have shifted.  Misogyny, sexism, and abuse are now understood as occurring on a global scale, with many women continuing to suffer untold indignities and atrocities. With the advent of social media platforms and communication technologies, feminism has morphed into global feminisms. Currently there exists a vibrant community of women artists working outside the west. These artists often combine feminist tactics and techniques with an exploration of the cultural, economic and social specificities of the area of the world in which they are working. Thus Lim’s decision to focus on the work of women for an international festival is significant, particularly since the formerly authoritarian Singapore has not had a great record of supporting women artists.
Lina Adam. The Culinary History of Performance Art Re-presented. ICA Singapore. November 7, 2014

The opening night performances by Lina Adam, Ma Ei, and Norpawan Sirivejkul did not disappoint. Adam, a native of Singapore, performed a Culinary History of Singapore Performance Art Re-Presented, a meditation/presentation of canonical performances done in Singapore that referenced food. Adam didn’t have much history to work with, as conceptual/performance art was banned for about 10 years in Singapore after Joseph Ng’s notorious Brother Caneperformance in the early 90s. Nevertheless, she found ten performances that referenced food and re-performed these earlier works by presenting the audience with a feast based on the food used in the performances. Fortunately for the audience, who took turns sitting down to the performance feast and often shared the dishes, Adam translated some of the more abject elements of the earlier performances such as Ng’s pubic hair and the urine in Vincent Leow’s 1993 performance Coffee Talk into edible offerings.

Lina Adam. A Culinary History of Singapore. 2015 Photography by Jemima Yong

Adam also translated a history of performance that was primarily masculine into one that was generated by a woman. Her ten examples included the work of only one woman: Amanda Heng, who was literally a pioneer in feminist performance in Singapore. Heng’s piece, Let’s Chat (1996), was an invitation for people to sit down with the artist, clean bean sprouts, drink tea, and chat about various issues. Adam’s Culinary History also provided the audience members with the opportunity to chat—to engage in dialogue across time, space and history. The structure of her pieces thus resembled Heng’s earlier piece, which took place approximately 20 years prior.

Ma Ei Searching of Nothing. 2015. Photography by Jemima Yong.

Ma Ei, from Myanmar, allowed the final course of Adam’s Culinary History (Leow’s coffee cups) to remain on the table for her performance Searching of Nothing. Garbed in a lovely embroidered red satin robe and a red chemise, Ma Ei walked slowly to the table, peering into the half drunk cups of coffee before spitting into them. After walking silently around the table, which was illuminated by a harsh spotlight that looked a lot like a scene of interrogation, Ma Ei produced a flashlight, which she pointed at the ceiling while turning it off and on a few times. Ma Ei then turned to the audience, randomly selecting people to examine with the aid of the flashlight, which she shone on the their face and eyes while moving their clothing to examine the skin underneath. A humorous moment occurred with a light saber battle broke out between Ma Ei and a very young member of the audience, who was armed with a homemade cardboard shield and sword.
Light Saber Battle. Photo by Author

Like Adam, Ma Ei makes reference in her work to an earlier generation of feminist performance artists in Myanmar. Influenced by the activist work of Htein Lin and Chaw Ei Thein, Ma Ei has used her work to challenge the conditions of women in Myanmar who continue to be subservient to men. Dressed as a prostitute or courtesan, Ma Ei behaved as though she were the predator rather than the prey, forcefully examining male and female members of the audience. As Nathalie Johnston wrote in 2004, Ma Ei’s practice “has evolved into a direct confrontation with men in society.” ( Ma Ei’s piece was both beautiful and very disturbing, suggesting sex trafficking, kidnapping, and slavery, through a series of haunting actions.

AOr NOpawan. I Will Follow You Into the Dark. 2015. Photography by Jemima Yong

 AOr NOpawan from Thailand is a return artist to FOI, having participated in FOI 7 in 2011.  Her piece, I will Follow You Into the Dark, appropriately “followed” Ma Ei’s “dark” performance, with the artist disappearing into the dark at the conclusion of the piece. Garbed in a black dress and leggings, AOr NOpawan carefully stretched a spool of transparent nylon thread between two large columns in the back of the space. Once the thread was secured, AOr NOpawan collected a handful of red glitter, which she held up and allowed to spill out her hands and settle at her feet, creating a painting in the negative of her footprint. Having done the same thing with silver glitter, plastic confetti, and flour, AOr NOpawan placed four large yellow Chrysanthemums in her mouth and walked through the nylon thread, breaking it and trailing it behind her as she left the space.  In her work AOr NOpawan uses thread and flowers to tell an enigmatic story of the fragility of life, memory, and loss. Her performances, at least those reproduced on her web page, involve installations of thread and yarn, meant to symbolize the tenuous link between the past and the present. AOr NOpawan is the project manager of the long running performance festival ASIATOPIA. She is also heavily involved in social justice movements in Thailand, particularly for women. I will Follow You Into the Dark references the disasters of war, implying that we are all the victims of loss. Like Ma Ei’s piece, it hints as well at something darker—the disappearance of women in times of social instability. I will Follow You Into the Dark speaks as well to the bonds between women, particularly women who have few resources. 

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